Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Review: Shane (1953)

* * * *

Director: George Stevens
Starring: Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Brandon DeWilde

Shane is undoubtedly one of the best and most beloved westerns ever made. The story is relatively simply - good guys, bad guys, and a morally ambiguous hero - but what director George Stevens and his cast do with it makes the film truly special. Not all classic films hold up over time, but Shane does.

Alan Ladd stars as Shane, a mysterious drifter whose path crosses with that of the Starretts' - Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur), and young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) - at exactly the right time. The Starretts' livelihood is under constant threat from Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), a cattle baron who wants to push them, and all the other homesteaders in the valley, off their land so that he can take it over for his own use. Shane decides to stay on with the Staretts as their hired man, though really he's just waiting for the inevitable showdown with Ryker and his crew, who don't think twice about using violence and intimidation to get what they want.

When Joe convinces the other homesteaders to band together to find a way to fight back, Ryker sends for Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), a gun for hire, to add some extra muscle to his force. Shane is familiar with Wilson's reputation and when Ryker sends an invitation to Joe for a peace meeting that's actually an ambush, Shane knocks his friend out in order to take his place and settle things once and for all. When all is said and done, Shane will either be dead or forced to ride alone into the sunset because, as he warns Joey, "There's no living with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand."

On the surface Shane is a fairly conventional film, assembled with the stock parts of the classic hollywood western. You've got the mysterious gunslinger, the woman he ultimately cannot have, the all powerful villain, the gunfight, the bad guy in the black hat, the good guy in the white. Shane takes these elements and goes deeper, becoming a study of character and society. The most striking thing about it is its exploration of ideas about masculinity, how it defines "real men" and pretenders. Shane, certainly, is a real man, as is Joe and even Wilson. They are men willing to get their hands dirty and fight their battles. On the flip side there's Ryker, a villain who talks a good game but is ultimately impotent when it comes to enforcing his threats. Late in the film he remarks that he'll kill Joe if he has to, to which Wilson sharply replies, "You mean I'll kill him if you have to." Wilson is undoubtedly a villain in this piece, but he's still seen as more honourable than Ryker, who delegates the tough part. In the final showdown Shane is Joe's agent, just as Wilson is Ryker's, but Joe hasn't willingly stepped aside to let Shane enter the standoff and so he's allowed to retain his honour.

The story is seen through Joey's eyes, which is important thematically because he's at an age where he's beginning the define for himself what it means to be a man. The film gives him plenty of examples of types of manhood - Joe's, in which violence is the last resort and reason the first weapon; Shane's, in which violence yields the best results when used with a cool head; that of the neighbor Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.), who is quick to fight but doesn't use his head - and the ending is somewhat ambiguous as to which path he'll follow. By the end of the film he sees that his father is a good, honourable man, but he also sees the glamour that surrounds Shane, even if his actions do force him into exile.

The performances in the film are uniformly good, playing to the tropes of the western genre without feeling stale. The biggest surprise for me is DeWilde, if only because so often in films kids end up being precocious to a fault, but Stevens guides him to a strong performance that balances innocence with a budding knowledge of the ways of the world. So much of the film's success depends on this character and performance and it's pitch perfect. The film itself is pretty close to perfection, too, and it's staying power definitely can't be denied.


The Floating Red Couch said...

Awww, I'm planning on reviewing this movie very soon (It arrives today), so I shall hold off on reading your review, but we shall compare notes afterwards:

Norma Desmond said...

I look forward to it. Hope you like it as much as I did.

R. D. Finch said...

Norma, I just watched "Shane" last week myself. I'd seen it once before years ago and hadn't come to a final decision about it, but after watching it again (and having caught up on the Western genre in the meantime), I concur with your assessment. I found your analysis of the characters and their motivations most insightful, as usual. De Wilde was surprisingly good, wasn't he? I also like him very much in Zinneman's "Member of the Wedding" (it was released the year before, but "Shane" was actually shot in 1951, and you can tell he's older in the Zinneman film). He's also quite good as the at-first adoring little brother of heels Warren Beatty in "All Fall Down" and Paul Newman in "Hud." I never felt he got the credit he deserved in the latter. There's a scene in it where he wolfs down a hamburger as Melvyn Douglas looks on that's a real marvel. It's a real shame he died so young.

I once read an essay that used "Shane" as one of the main examples of the archetypal American theme of the loner who lives outside society but acts to preserve order in the society of which he's not really a part. You find that in many detective movies too--Humphrey Bogart was good at that kind of role. (Even "Casablanca" fits that mold.) But Alan Ladd did a great job of it in "Shane," the best performance I've ever seen him give.