Monday, October 25, 2010

Shane (1953) - George Stevens

Alan Ladd as Shane.
Settling the old West was hard. Among the hazards were competing interests for land. Shane captures the conflict as well as any film, an authentic look at a period and place in American history that lasted but a few years, where ranchers and sod busters knocked heads as civilization and order continued their inevitable march west. You can understand why ranchers who fought Indians and settled the area resented farmers later pouring into the open range. Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is the largest cattleman in the area. He hates men like Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), whose little hardscrabble farm threatens his way of life. Ryker offers to buy out the farmers, but when that doesn't work, he's not above a little vandalism, cutting fences, sending his cows to trample wheat, even burning a barn. Starrett is the most stubborn holdout. A proud man determined to make a good home for his family.
Shane (Alan Ladd), a mysterious stranger happens into the smoldering battle when he stops at Starrett's homestead on his way north. He's a weary man, a former gunfighter looking for a more quiet way of life. Lured by Starrett's hospitality, Shane decides to hire on. On a trip to town he is confronted by Chris (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men. Shane refuses to fight and is humiliated. An epic fistfight ensues on his next visit, leaving Shane and Starrett bloody but victorious. Ryker now hires a notorious gunslinger, Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), as menacing a figure as ever appeared in a Western. When Wilson first enters Grafton's saloon, a dog instinctively senses danger and slinks out of the room. Later, Wilson and Shane silently take the measure of one another. Wilson mounts his horse very slowly, then backs it up while maintaining constant eye contact. It is a simple shot that more effectively conveys the tension of the encounter than words could.  When the inevitable confrontation between the two takes place later, it is sudden and deadly.

Shane: So you're Jack Wilson.
Wilson: What's that mean to you, Shane?
Shane: I've heard about you.
Wilson: What have you heard, Shane?
Shane: I've heard that you're a low-down Yankee liar.
Wilson: Prove it.
Stonewall goes up against the gunfighter Wilson.
But the most memorable scene involves another farmer. Stonewall (Elisha Cook Jr.) is a little man, too confident for his own good and still fighting the Civil War. Wilson goads him into a fight. The farmer is no match for the gunfighter. Director Stevens placed Stonewall in the muddy street, Wilson above on the wooden walkway. When Wilson insults the Confederacy, Stonewall takes the bait. He barely touches his gun as Wilson's is already out. A brief look of shock clouds Stonewall's face as he realizes he is about to die. Wilson hesitates a moment, smirks, then shoots with a tremendous roar as Stonewall is thrown violently back into the mud. A distant storm thunders in the background. It is a wonderfully directed scene, full of menace and fear.
That slight pause by Wilson is just one of several little touches Stevens drops in the film to add to its style: Stonewall's dog rests a paw on the coffin before his master is lowered into the grave; the farm women look in wonder at a catalog; Wilson's spurs jingle every time he walks; and Joe watches from a swinging gate how Shane dances with his wife, Marian (Jean Arthur). Shane is simply one of the great Westerns, one that helped create the West as myth in American culture.             
The technicolor film's outdoor sequences were shot in the Grand Teton range in Wyoming. The snow-capped mountains rise high above the Starrett farm and valley, signifying better than anything the hazardous frontier and what drew pioneers to the land. One particularly beautiful shot depicts the grand scale of things by framing the cemetery in the foreground, the town down below in the valley, and the majestic mountains in the far distance. Loyal Griggs was the cameraman.    

What Makes Shane Special:

The art direction and location shooting give the film an authenticity rarely seen in Westerns. It is muddy and the homesteaders are generally dirty. The dogs are mangy. The little town consists of just five or six buildings and Grafton's contains all sorts of tools and supplies you'd expect to find in such an outpost. 

Besides the conflict between the farmers and ranchers, there is an important subtext in the film that essentially deals with redemption: the unspoken affection developing between Marian and Shane. At one point Joe even hints to Marian that he understands something may exist between the two. Shane, a good man with a bad past, does too. It must be a tempting enticement. He faces a choice at the end which signifies whether his life will go on honorably.  

This is Alan Ladd's greatest role and the one he is most remembered for. Contrary to the man's real stature, his performance here is anything but slight. It is also Jean Arthur's last film role. Palance and young Brandon DeWilde as little Joey Starrett were nominated for Oscars.   

The score is minimal but the haunting theme stays with you long after the film is over.

The Inside Story:

Ben Johnson was a real cowboy who got his break in films when John Ford made him part of his stock company. He appeared in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagon Master, and Rio Grande for Ford. Later he would be one of The Wild Bunch and earn a Supporting Actor Oscar as Sam the Lion in 1971's The Last Picture Show.

Emile Meyer plays a memorable corrupt cop in 1957's Sweet Smell of Success.
Major Awards:
Won Oscar for Best B&W Cinematography, and nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Palance and De Wilde).

Other films of interest by Stevens:
  • I Remember Mama (1948)
  • A Place in the Sun (1953)
  • Giant (1956)
Other films of interest by Loyal Griggs:
  • The  Ten Commandments (1958)
  • In Harms' Way (1965) 

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