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Movie fans were thrilled when George Stevens' monumental Western, Shane (1953), appeared on the horizon in 1953, just a year after High Noon (1952) unexpectedly revitalized the genre. As visually expansive as High Noon is claustrophobic, Shane is one of those films whose individual moments add up to something more than the whole. Its gun-slinging politics may not play as well today as they did even a few years ago, but this is a soaring piece of Americana that can leave a lump in the throat of any viewer.
Shane is painted in broad strokes, but the picture is vivid. Alan Ladd stars as the title character, a mysterious drifter who signs on as ranch hand for Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) a put-upon homesteader who's being harassed by Mr. Ryker (Emile Meyer), an evil, land-grubbing cattle baron. When Shane's quietly intimidating presence drives Ryker's men away from the homestead, the drifter becomes a hero to Starrett's young son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). It's soon evident that Shane is a former gunslinger who's trying to reform, but the battle for possession of Ryker's land leads to a series of showdowns with Starrett's men, including a menacing, steely-eyed killer famously played by Jack Palance with a minimum of dialogue.
Stevens explores the key myths of the West while keeping the film emotionally grounded via the youngster who adores Shane's quiet masculinity. Whether you buy all of it or not, Shane is the real McCoy- a powerful cinematic myth with a stoic hero at its center who simply wants to do the right thing. Stevens himself noted that Ladd was the perfect actor for this role. "You know," he once said, "it's against the formula, but Ladd seemed to have a decency on the screen even in violent roles like this one. He always seemed to have a large measure of reserve and dignity."
Incredibly, given the film's across-the-board appeal, Paramount didn't know what it had on its hands with Shane. The studio's disinterest arose from the fact that this would be Ladd's last picture with them before jumping ship to a more lucrative deal elsewhere. It also didn't help matters that Stevens, who was known to take his time while filming, allowed the picture to go considerably over budget. Everyone involved - especially Stevens, whose career seemed to be hanging in the balance was ecstatic when the film became a solid gold hit.
It's a little known fact that, even though Shane is still remembered for its breathtaking vistas, it wasn't actually shot in widescreen. Cinemascope was beginning to take over the film industry while the movie was in production, so Paramount made the decision to blow up the negative and present Shane in the new format, even though the color faded considerably as a result. Stevens' cinematographer, Loyal Griggs, was aghast at what had happened to his images. It seems likely, however, that he got over it when he won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography! Go figure.
Critics were very kind to Shane. Even Bosley Crowther, the esteemed New York Times writer who usually made no secret of his distaste for Alan Ladd's performances, was won over: "Shane contains something more than the beauty and grandeur of the mountains and plains, drenched by the brilliant Western sunshine and the violent, torrential, black-browed rains. It contains a tremendous comprehension of the bitterness and passion of the feuds that existed between the new homesteaders and the cattlemen on the open range. It contains a disturbing revelation of the savagery that prevailed in the hearts of the old gun-fighters, who were simply legal killers under the frontier code. And it also contains a very wonderful understanding of the spirit of a little boy amid all the tensions and excitements of a frontier home."
When a critic of Crowther's stature writes a review that sounds like a studio-generated press release, you know you've hit your mark. When all is said and done, it would seem that George Stevens was the real gunslinger connected to Shane, even if he took his sweet time pulling the trigger.
Producer: George Stevens
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (based on the novel by Jack Schaefer)
Cinematography: Loyal Griggs
Editing: William Hornbeck, Tom McAdoo
Music: Victor Young
Art Designer: Hal Pereira, Walter Tyler
Set Designer: Emile Kuri
Special Effects: Gordon Jennings
Costume Designer: Edith Head
Technical Advisor: Joe De Young Cast: Alan Ladd (Shane), Jean Arthur (Marion Starrett), Van Heflin (Joe Starrett), Brandon De Wilde (Joey), Jack Palance (Wilson), Ben Johnson (Chris), Edgar Buchanan (Lewis), Emile Meyer (Ryker), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Torrey), Douglas Spencer (Shipstead), John Dierkes (Morgan), Ellen Corby (Mrs. Torrey), Paul McVey (Grafton), John Miller (Atkey), Edith Evanson (Mrs. Shipstead).
by Paul Tatara