Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shane: Can a Reformed Gunfighter with a Mysterious Past Find a Role in the "New West"?

Ladd in perhaps his most famous role.
Although Alan Ladd made several Westerns prior to Shane, I initially thought he’d be ill-suited for the role of a reformed gunslinger. Short in stature and with an urban demeanor, Ladd had his biggest success playing contemporary tough guys (e.g., This Gun for Hire). But Ladd proved me wrong, channeling his quiet coolness and low-key charm to create a classic Western hero.

Shane dances with Marion.
That works well since there’s more character study than story in Shane. Van Heflin plays Joe Starrett, a hard-working man trying to make a home for his wife Marion (Jean Arthur) and son Joey (Brandon de Wilde) on the frontier. Starrett and his fellow farmers are embroiled in a dispute over land rights with cattle baron Riker (Emile Meyer). Shane, a stranger passing through, decides to hang around when the Starretts welcome him into their home with generosity.

Joe and Shane cement their friendship.
Shane fills a void in the life of each family member. For Joe, Shane is a “man’s man” willing to work or fight beside him—whether it’s a barroom brawl or the war against Riker. For Marion, Shane is the attentive suitor, who notices the little things that her reliable, but bland husband never does. And for little Joey, Shane is a substitute father who takes time to bond with him—something his busy father has had little time to do.

Shane’s gunfighting past is never in question. When Joey cocks his little rifle, the ever-ready gunslinger spins around to draw his pistol. In a later scene, the two have this brief, but memorable, exchange:

JOEY:  Bet you can shoot.
SHANE: A little bit.

Brandon de Wilde as Joey.
There’s never a doubt as to how Shane will end, but director George Stevens slowly and effectively builds to the climax. His best scenes offer visuals to complement the dialogue. My favorite is Shane’s first dinner at the Starrett farm, a scene in which the dialogue hardly matters. What does matter is what we see: Joe thrilled to have a man to talk with; Marion laying out the good china and an extra fork; and Joey admiring Shane’s guns.

Ironically, Shane shares more in common with Riker than with the Starrett family. Indeed, they may have been friends, or partners perhaps, in the earlier days of the West. However, Shane recognizes that the tough men who tamed the West are no longer in demand. Instead, the frontier now needs men like Starrett that will raise families, build communities, and shape commerce. It's not an uncommon Western theme (and one explored more symbolically in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West). However, director Stevens conveys it subtly and never strays from the film's strength: its characters and the actors who play them.

Jack Palance as the ruthless Wilson.
Most of the cast is in top form, especially Ladd, Heflin, and Jack Palance as a rival gunfighter so mean that dogs move out of his way. Jean Arthur, not one of my favorite actresses, never convinces me that Marion is the kind of woman who could reform Shane. On the other hand, I found Brandon de Wilde to be exceptionally believable as Joey. But, to offer a counterpoint, little Brandon is one of the reasons that a good friend of mine has never cared for Shane.

Personally, I rank it as one of the great Westerns. It may be too stately at times and, surprisingly, the production values are variable (ranging from scenic snow-covered mountains in the background to hokey stagy sets--though Loyal Griggs won an Oscar for cinematography). But it’s a well-done, entertaining film that has inspired its share of imitators. Some of those semi-remakes are enjoyable in their own right, especially Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider and Soldier with Kurt Russell.

7 comments:

  1. "Shane" is the movie that made me love movies. It pleases me to read your praise for the believability of Brandon De Wilde's performance as Joey. Already a stage veteran at such a young age, I think he is one of the most true representations of a child in the movies.

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  2. One of my favorite movies. Agree with CW that Brandon De Wilde is exceptional, and very real. Jean Arthur, by the way, was said to have adored the little boy and bonded with him on set more than the other actors.

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  3. You forgot Will Penny with Charleston Heston and Joan Hackett (I think), which has a similar feel and outlook as Shane.

    I too love Brandon De Wilde and bemoan his death when just a very young man. He would have gone on to have a spectacular career.

    Jack Palance never got over playing this guy and played him regularly for the rest of his life. His boney, steely, hard-jawed face was made for the movies.

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  4. First, I agree with all the comments here about young Brandon's performance (though I still know others who think he's the weak link in the film). Secondly--SPOILER ALERT--a family member once postured that Shane died at the end of the film. This never occurred to me, but, watching the closing shots with that in mind, the wounded Shane does indeed slump over in the saddle as he rides away. An interesting, plausible interpretation.

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  5. I love this film, the final duel in the saloon is gorgeous.

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  6. Ladd does seem like an odd choice for this film, but he is SO GOOD in this role. And Jack Palance - he was terrific. Time to see this movie again!

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  7. A favorite of mine, Rick, and I never get tired of seeing Alan Ladd as a quiet, reserved ex-gunfighter who gives us surprising flashes now and then of his past life. These little flashes make me jump, and remind me of what he really used to be. I never saw Jean Arthur as a woman who could tame him, but as one who was uncomfortable with her feelings of love for him, and who had to suppress them because of her real love for her husband. Speaking just as a woman, not a bad choice there -- Van Heflin or Alan Ladd. I loved Shane's developing feelings for her, and his own gallantry in not allowing them to become too evident. As far as Brandon De Wilde, I thought he was very good as that little boy who adored this exciting stranger. I had to laugh at your description of Jack Palance's character: "...so mean that dogs move out of his way." Perfect!

    I've heard that about Shane's possible death at the end, but what a horrible idea! He wasn't that far from the farm when he slumped over, and I shudder to think of Joey going out to play and finding his dead body! Egads!

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