#601) Shane (1953)

#601) Shane (1953)

OR “Sorrowful Ladd”

Directed by George Stevens

Written by A.B. Guthrie Jr. and Jack Sher. Based on the novel by Jack Schaefer.

Class of 1993

The Plot: In the Wyoming Territory of the 1880s, a mysterious gunfighter known only as Shane (Alan Ladd) arrives at the homestead of ranchers Joe & Marian Starrett (Van Heflin & Jean Arthur). Shane takes work as their farmhand, easily impressing the Starrett’s eight-year-old son Joey (Brandon deWilde) with his gunmanship. Soon Shane learns of an ongoing turf war between settlers like the Starretts and the cattle rustler Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who hires gunfighters to scare settlers off their land. When Ryker hires the notorious Jack Wilson (Jack Palance), Shane agrees to help the Starretts win this fight, even if it means using his moralistic present to justify his criminal past. It’s a meditative take on a west that was becoming a little less wild, in a movie that meditates on the evolving status of the western film genre.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film’s impressive scale, cinematography, and performances by Ladd and Palance. It also points out that “Shane” features “some of the longest dissolves in American cinema”. What an odd thing to find noteworthy about one of the most famous films ever made. It’s like if a film made the NFR for having the longest credits or the best on-set catering.

But Does It Really?:  I think this is another case of a film’s reputation (and preordained “classic” status) overhyping my viewing experience. Don’t get me wrong, “Shane” is a step up from most of the westerns on this list, and like the NFR write-up I appreciated the performances and cinematography, but overall “Shane” never fires on all cylinders like its reputation would suggest. “Shane” is by no means undeserving of its NFR status, but like our hero’s inability to stay put in an ever-changing landscape, I wouldn’t be surprised if “Shane” moves on from its status as an untouchable film classic.

Everybody Gets One: A.B. Guthrie Jr. was a novelist, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1950 for his book “The Way West”. While Howard Hawks was producing the film adaptation of Guthrie’s “The Big Sky”, he recommended Guthrie to George Stevens to adapt “Shane” for the screen, even though Guthrie had never written a screenplay before. “Shane” is one of only two movies for which Guthrie is credited as a screenwriter (the other is 1955’s “The Kentuckian”). Co-writer Jack Sher was also new to moviemaking when he helped pen “Shane”. His subsequent writing career included 14 more movies, and three episodes of “Bewitched”!

Wow, That’s Dated: As with many a movie from this era, there are plenty of day-for-night shots that always look weird. If the sky ever turns that shade of blue in real life, we’re doomed.

Seriously, Oscars?: One of the biggest hits of 1953 (and one of the most successful westerns of the decade), “Shane” received six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. “Shane” lost five of its six nods to “From Here to Eternity“, but still managed a win for Loyal Griggs’ color cinematography (thank god “Eternity” was in black & white).

Other notes

  • The novel of “Shane” was published in 1949, and Paramount purchased the film rights immediately. It’s unclear when George Stevens became involved, but apparently his son George Jr. read “Shane” while in college and suggested to his father that it would make a good film. “Shane” was filmed on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the summer and fall of 1951, though the film would not be released until the spring of 1953 due to George Stevens’ extensive editing process. 
  • I’m about thirty seconds into this movie and I already love the cinematography. One of the last films shot in the original Technicolor process, “Shane” has the lush, vibrant colors we associate with classic movies: the natural beauty of the Wyoming mountain range (including Grand Teton) juxtaposed with the drab earth tones of the land and the cabins. In addition, there are plenty of lovely visual compositions during the dialogue scenes that help tell the story and develop character.
  • This was my introduction to Alan Ladd, who doesn’t have a lot of classics on his resume (his only other NFR appearance is a brief appearance as a reporter in “Citizen Kane“). He’s stoic, I give him that, but maybe his Shane is a little too passive? I guess I don’t have any other Ladd performances to base this one off of. There’s also a Robert Mitchum quality about Ladd’s voice, so that’s not helping.
  • After being genuinely delighted by her work in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”, I was a bit let down by Jean Arthur in “Shane”. She’s a little too old for the part (Ms. Arthur was 50 during production), and it doesn’t help that Marian is sidelined for most of the movie, given no plot responsibility whatsoever, other than to say “Joey, stop it” every few minutes. There’s also a lot of glancing going on between Marian and Shane. Was there a “forbidden romance” subplot cut from the novel?
  • Also showing up in this is Ben Johnson, still 18 years away from his Oscar-winning turn in “The Last Picture Show“. I didn’t realize he was so young.
  • Yes, there is a moment with the familiar-sounding exchange “You speaking to me?”  “I don’t see nobody else standing there.” Whether or not “Taxi Driver” is referencing this directly is anyone’s guess.
  • Wow, that is one hell of a punch. Ben flew across the room like a cartoon character. I guess Shane remembered to eat his spinach that day.
  • “Shane” is not without its faults, but you can’t entirely hate a movie with a good ol’ fashioned barroom brawl. 
  • Hey, that’s Elisha Cook Jr. from “Maltese Falcon“! I recognized him immediately this time!
  • What did George Stevens see in Brandon deWilde? Apparently the eight-year-old deWilde was cast based on his breakout performance in the play “The Member of the Wedding” with Julie Harris and Ethel Waters. Maybe he was dynamite on stage, but in this film he seems like any other run-of-the-mill child actor. And an Oscar nomination to boot? Were there only five eligible performances that year? Hopefully he’s better in “Hud”.
  • Ah, Jack Palance. I’m used to seeing Jack in his later, “I crap bigger than you” days, so it’s refreshing seeing him as the young heavy he used to play all the time. With his slow gait and impossibly angular features, Palance makes a memorable screen villain. I’ll also argue that in another universe, Jack would have made a great Joker (and not just Carl Grissom).
  • While we’re on the subject, Jack pronounced his last name PAL-ance, not pa-LANCE. It was an anglicization of his Ukrainian last name Palahniuk, and Jack hated when people emphasized the second syllable.
  • “A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” I mean, he’s not wrong, but it’s so much more complicated than that. 
  • I appreciate that in a film about land claimers, they at least acknowledge the Indigenous people that lived on the land first. Granted, it’s only one line and we don’t actually see any Indigenous people on screen (nor do they mention the specific tribes), but still, it’s better than having them run around like John Ford savages.
  • The only funny exchange in the movie: Fred Lewis (watching his cabin burn): “I built it with my own hands.” Mrs. Lewis: “Not the girls’ room.” Fred: “I was gettin’ ’round to it!” George Stevens could never truly escape his beginnings in film comedy.
  • The finale is…fine. I wasn’t necessarily engaged with “Shane” at this point, but ultimately I was curious to see how they wrapped things up. The final shootout has some good tension (aided by the sound design that helps condone the minimal violence we see), and of course, if you know one line from this movie, it’s Joey’s saddened cry: “Shane! Shane! Come back!”
  • Man, I really wanted to like this movie, and I still can’t exactly figure out why I didn’t. I’ve never been a big western fan to begin with, so maybe it’s just genre bias? Ah well, maybe next time.

Legacy

  • “Shane” was the end of an era for most of its creatives. George Stevens made a handful of movies (including 1956’s “Giant“) before retiring. Jean Arthur would also retire from the movies shortly thereafter, and “Shane” was her last film. Sadly, within 18 years of this film’s release, we lost Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, and Brandon de Wilde in three separate tragic occurrences.
  • A TV adaptation of “Shane” starring David Carradine came and went in the fall of 1966. Hmmm….a TV show where David Carradine plays a man with a mysterious past, traveling the Old West and fighting for justice. It could work…
  • While there have been no direct remakes of “Shane”, Clint Eastwood’s 1985 film “Pale Rider” borrows several elements from the film, as does 2017’s “Logan”.
  • There are still occasional references made to “Shane” in pop culture (almost always the final lines), but hands-down the most random is Cliff Robertson as Shame, the Conniving Cowboy of Crime, on the ’60s “Batman” TV series. Hey, that’s two Batman references in one post!
  • Perhaps the film’s longest legacy: among the many who saw “Shane” when it was first released was a young Billy Crystal (with his babysitter Billie Holiday – but that’s another story). Almost 40 years later, when it came time to cast the trail boss Curly in “City Slickers”, Crystal’s first and only choice was Jack Palance, based on his performance in “Shane”. Palance took the part and won an Oscar (as well as my vote for Best Oscar Speech).

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