Not unlike the way the mysterious title character rode unexpectedly into the lives of the Starrett family in late 18th century Wyoming, Shane, the film, sneaked up on me. As a relatively new enthusiast of classic film, I had focused most of my attention on the black and white era--the silents, the pre-codes, some screwball comedies, etc. Yet, here was this 1950s technicolor Western, previously unknown to me, that after I first watched on a whim due to a recommendation from Netflix (!), I found myself watching multiple times. Why? After reflecting on this I came to the conclusion, as I'll share here, that it possesses varied elements of unexpected beauty that make viewing it a great pleasure, and no doubt contribute to its being an enduring classic.
The film's lone Oscar win was for Loyal Griggs' cinematography. Certainly the location setting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the rugged Grand Tetons in the background, made for many beautiful vistas in the film. In several of the outdoor shots, Griggs used a long focal-length lens that brought the mountains forward into crisp focus while keeping attention on the foreground action.
|Joe and Joey Starrett in foreground, Marian Starrett doing laundry in rear, |
and a wagon approaching, all set against the gorgeous Grand Teton range
near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
|Great shot using natural (stormy) lighting, and highlighting the muddy |
trench at the showdown between Palance's and Elisha Cook Jr's characters
|Wildlife, streams, plains and mountains from eye level|
Long-time Paramount contract musician Victor Young must have reached his apex in his creating and sustaining the varied moods of the film with his music, a blend of new composition and folk tunes. The primary theme of Shane, "Call of the Faraway Hills", is introduced during the title sequence with a short four-note trumpet fanfare, placed over the Paramount logo, that suggests a bombastic story, yet then unexpectedly relaxes into a quiet chord, followed by woodwind arpeggios, and then the strings that lead into the gorgeous plaintive melody. The melody becomes the theme of the movie, and for the title character. We know right away that the character seen riding his horse down into the valley is going to have an element of sadness to his story--he's not going to be the bombastic hero some may expect. The title scenes and the accompanying music can be seen here:
Similarly, the character of Marian Starrett has her own theme, a soft melodic (3/4 or waltz time) line from the folk tune "Put Your Little Foot", indicating her essential goodness and gentility, and symbol of home and hearth. This melody is played early in the film, when Marian is making dinner for Shane and her family, and in those interactions between her and Shane that indicate an unspoken mutual attraction. Marian's theme (2):
Montgomery Clift, star of PLACE IN THE SUN, was an early choice of George Stevens for the role of Shane; while he would arguably have been an excellent choice, it's now hard to imagine anyone other than Alan Ladd embodying this character. Ladd was a major star at Paramount at the time, and was chosen without much hesitation by Stevens when Clift was not available. Along with his resonant baritone, Ladd had a talent for conveying his characters through evocative facial expressions--and projecting both a sinewy toughness and a melancholy tenderness, critical for many of his noir roles. Those talents are used to great advantage for the character of Shane. There is a scene early in the film, at the dinner table, when suddenly startled by a loud noise -- Ladd goes from a sudden fear to embarrassment from what he knows is an overreaction, in about 2 seconds -- masterfully portrayed in his face and body.
|The Lone Gunman after the final battle -- |
wistful that he won't be able to escape his past.
|At the beginning of the film|
|Wearing her wedding dress later in the film (with Heflin)|
Speaking without Words
For me particularly, one of the most satisfying pleasures in this movie is the conveyance of character and relationships with elegant understatement: The nature of Shane's past is conveyed only obliquely--for example, the reaching for his gun defensively when startled by a loud sound; his references to young Joey that 'you can't live with a killing'. In fact, only intuition drives Joe and Marian Starrett to trust and accept Shane into their home without knowing anything about him, other than his apparent strength, need for companionship, willingness to help them in domestic tasks and to stand up to the antagonists. Roger Ebert, in his Great Movies essay on the movie, shared his fascination with the psychological complexity of Shane, and observed, "Looked at a certain way, the entire story of "Shane" is simply a backdrop against which the hero can play out his own personal repression and remorse" and "Shane is so quiet, so inward, so narcissistic in his silent withdrawing from ordinary exchanges, that he always seems to be playing a role. A role in which he withholds his violent abilities as long as he can, and then places himself in a situation where he is condemned to use them, after which he will ride on, lonely, to the next town."
There is beauty in portrayal of the chaste relationship between Shane and Marian. Not a single word or touch passes between them beyond what is necessary, but rather, only looks, and later, motivations for action, can convey the depth of their feelings. Because of the need to establish their feelings without words, Stevens set up some gorgeous shots of the two of them. This is one, in two mirror image shots the two contemplate each other:
|Marian (Arthur) and Joey (deWilde) look at Shane from the inside (we see this from Shane's POV)|
|The two men working to remove the troublesome stump|
|A brief moment to relish their teamwork during the big brawl|
On the surface the plot of Shane pits the 'good guys' vs. 'bad guys' and conflict is resolved by intimidation, fists, and then guns, in conventional Western fashion. But rather than glorifying the use of weapons or violence, the film surprises in that it is arguably an elegy for the inability of humans to find other solutions. Director Stevens experienced guns in war during his time in WWII, and came back disturbed that afterward German children idolized American soldiers and cowboys with their rampant gunplay. He said about this film "I wanted to show that a .45, if you pull directly in a man's direction, you destroy an upright figure....we wanted to indicate the violence of the West for what it was.... (the film) was a Western, but it was really my war picture. When you ask a man to fight and to take a life, you not only ask him to risk his own life but you ask him to make a great sacrifice of his moral ideals." (1)
A bit of dialogue illustrates this:
Marian Starrett: Guns aren't going to be my boy's life!
Shane: A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.
Marian Starrett: We'd all be much better off if there wasn't a single gun left in this valley - including yours.
near the end of the film...
Shane (to Joey): Tell your mother...that there aren't any more guns in the valley.
|Director George Stevens (center) with his actors Ladd and Heflin|
|Ladd, Arthur and Heflin on set|
(1) Mary Ann Moss, Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film; (2) Timothy E. Scheurer, Music and Mythmaking in film: Genre and the Role of the Composer; (3) Marilyn McHenry & Ron DeSourdis, The Films of Alan Ladd; (4) Woody Allen on Shane: NY Times Article by Rick Hyman, Aug 3, 2001.