[Note: this is the fourth film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
It was hardly a surprise to discover that masculinity’s a central thread of this revered film by George Stevens, but in Shane it’s a subject that’s handled as intriguingly as any other western I’ve seen, from the way that young Joey Starrett (Brandon DeWilde) cloyingly looks up to archetypal mysterious stranger Shane (Alan Ladd in a career-defining role) to the way that the mere presence of Ladd’s gunslinger seems to boost the testosterone levels of Joey’s father Joe (Van Heflin). One of a number of Wyoming settlers being bullied off his land by an unscrupulous rancher, Joe is never happier than when he’s by Shane’s side – the film has a homoerotic subtext – and both men only ever seem to smile when they’re carrying out some joint task or other, whether that’s fighting Rufus Ryker’s henchmen in the local saloon or chopping down a giant tree stump (which, symbolically, they later fall against at the end of their own manly set-to). Then there’s the way in which the screenplay – adapted from Jack Schaefer’s novel – addresses the togetherness of the sodbusters who are under threat from Ryker and his gang. Some of them do not wish to stay and fight, some understandably bolt when death becomes a very real possibility, and throughout Stevens asks us to consider whether their actions are the result of cowardice or whether they’re merely being sensible as old-fashioned heads of their respective families. There’s nobility in sticking with the group, for sure, and glory to be won through acts of heroism, but those who do stay – such as Elisha Cook Jr’s ‘Stonewall’ Torrey – must face the intimidating likes of Ben Johnson’s bully and Jack Palance’s superbly menacing quick-draw; a poor reward for being a ‘real man’, you might argue. Somewhat predictably Shane adheres to the western rule that the way of the gun is the only way for most men, although some are more adept at surviving than others. (It’s ironic that Ladd wasn’t actually a competent marksman, despite his character’s skill: the scene in which Shane teaches little Joey to shoot had to go through 116 takes before Ladd finally hit the bottle on the floor with his bullet.)
Perhaps the most striking element of the picture is Loyal Griggs’ Oscar-winning cinematography, which fills the top third of many frames with the mountains surrounding Jackson Hole (when it’s not warmly emphasising the heroic nature of the title character, or his laconic cool). Shane arrives from somewhere among those peaks, stays to right a few wrongs, and neatly disappears back into them at the end of the film, while they form the stunning background to nearly all of the exterior scenes in-between. Some fine, frenetic editing from William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo adds lots of punch to the fight scenes (yep…sorry). There’s such a tightly-controlled and satisfying story, too, even if the underdog-fighting-against-evil motif was hardly new in the early 1950s. And amongst all these scenes of men squaring up to one another there’s a well-written romantic subplot, albeit one which also touches on the theme of masculinity; in Joey’s eyes Shane is more of a man than his father – which explains his incessant line of questioning and his desire to learn how to shoot – and it seems as if that’s the exact same reason Joe’s wife Marian (Jean Arthur) is slowly drawn to the Starrett’s house guest, though as a married woman who still loves her husband she’s less forthcoming with her admiration. The promise of romance bubbles away throughout, increasing the already-palpable tension.
Ladd, Heflin and Arthur are excellent, while the icy Palance steals every one of his short scenes. Many of the cast members went on to live into their 80s and 90s, but the fate of Shane‘s star – whose career fizzled out before an accidental death at 50 due to a combination of alcohol, barbituates and tranquilizers – is a sad foonote, as is that of DeWilde, who died following a car crash at 30, having recently re-married. Ladd in particular gives one of the great western performances here, and it’s a shame that his studio contract expired shortly after this film was released, with his popularity dwindling despite Shane drawing big crowds to the box office. It has been suggested since that Paramount didn’t quite understand what they had at the time; given the movie’s success in 1953 and its reputation today, it’s a surprise to read that the studio sat on Shane for two years after it was completed, and that it let Ladd drift away.
Directed by: George Stevens.
Written by: A.B. Guthrie, Jr, Jack Sher. Based on Shane by Jack Schaefer.
Starring: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon DeWilde, Emile Meyer, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan.
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs.
Editing: William Hornbeck, Tom McAdoo.
Music: Victor Young.
Running Time: 118 minutes.