Shane (1953)

16 07 2009

Well, this has the unfortunate disadvantage of having to live up to a pretty great reputation. As I expected, it doesn’t really, but it is a pretty decent picture anyway, not to mention a very curious western from the genre’s golden period. It’s very obviously directed by someone who isn’t exactly a western specialist. George Stevens never made another western and it kind of shows as nearly every idea he wants to express about the genre is front and center. This, of course, is the antithesis of my favorite westerns from the 50s, the work of Mann and Boetticher and so on. That said, this is a very interesting picture and no western fan should ignore it.

Like a great deal of “arty” westerns from this period, Shane concerns the loneliness, the isolation of its otherwise heroic and ideal character. In this case, the titular character is seen as heroic and ideal and rightfully so, as the film unfolds through the eyes of a young boy. This young boy, Joey, craves the action found in Shane’s life but obviously, he has no means of understanding the personal, deeper, and more complex necessities absent in Shane’s lifestyle. Joey wants the wandering, adventurous life of Shane, while Shane himself longs for a simple family life, something that Joey has.

I’d hate to oversimplify the relationships Stevens documents, but I can’t help but find this longing for normality (really just a family) is something that has been handled much better by the great Anthony Mann in Man of the West. Mann’s film is concise and to the point, where Stevens’ is paced more deliberately. If there’s anything especially unique about this film, it is Stevens’ technique. He seems to hold his shots longer than any full-time western director that I know of, and even though he is stuck in the dull combination of color + academy ratio, he does manage to create some powerful visuals. The low-angle cinematography in the final shootout actually reminds me of Ozu more than anything else.

Another noteworthy factor here is Jean Arthur, in her final performance as Van Heflin’s wife. She’s excellent here, in what is perhaps the first performance in which she has to show a range outside of her usual witty self present in her earlier comedy roles. There’s a hint that Alan Ladd is fostering some romantic feelings to her, but nothing more than a handshake becomes of this. It’s not unlike Ford’s original ending for My Darling Clementine actually, and Ladd’s yearning is right on par with Fonda’s in terms of subtlety and complexity. This isn’t a masterpiece, but it is a damn fine film.