Saturday 25 August 2007

Shane (1953) George Stevens

It's hard to say how much I really don't like watching Tom Kenny present films on TCM. I'm completely aware that many of the regulars probably thought the same about Rob Zombie, but it's only Kenny that annoys the crap out of me. However at least here he let us in on some interesting material, such as reminding me about Alan Ladd's height. He was only 5' 5" tall, thus requiring director George Stevens and the people who worked with him on Shane to play all sorts of tricks to make him look bigger, not that they managed particularly, but that doesn't matter.

We start off in a beautiful landscape. The landscape is beautiful, and could easily be called idyllic. There's plenty of water and greenery before a mountainous background. There are white clouds and blue sky and deer and only a single homestead run by Joe Starrett. While I'd probably seen it many times before, I really learned about one of the key themes of westerns in The Sea of Grass: the battle between ranchers and homesteaders, and it's made very apparent early on that it's the theme here.

Ranchers, who after all were there first, felt the open country should remain open, for cattle to roam free on, at least until they rounded them up and turned them into beefsteak. To them, homesteaders were nothing more than squatters, putting down fences and getting in the way. On the flip side, the homesteaders felt that the old way was gone and that too much land was used for too little result. So they staked their claims, built their fences, raised their few cattle and got hassled by the ranchers. Shane is so archetypal that the very first words tell us that whole story on a macro scale before focusing in on the micro scale. Joe Starrett's son Joey tells him 'Someone's coming, pa,' and he answers 'Well let him come.' That's what the whole picture is about.

The battle here is between seven or eight homesteaders, ostensibly led by Starrett, and a rancher by the name of Rufus Ryker. The 'someone' is Shane, a weary gunfighter who finds his way to Starrett's and enjoys the welcome. Starrett is Van Heflin, in probably the best role he ever played. Certainly it's far more appropriate than Lord Gaythorne, the character he played in his debut film, A Woman Rebels, opposite Kate Hepburn. Ryker is Emile Meyer, who I don't know anywhere nearly as well as people like Elisha Cook, Ben Johnson and Edgar Buchanan.

As you can expect, Ryker is trying to drive out the homesteaders and he's winning the battle. However the presence of Shane changes everything. One of Ryker's men tries it on with him and Shane lets him, but the return match escalates into a full blown bar brawl in which Starrett and Shane take on Ryker and his men. They win too, but of course that just escalates it another level. Ryker sends for the man who makes this film a success far more than Alan Ladd did, though Ladd is superb and that diminutive stature helps him get away with lines like the one he delivers after Joey shows him his rifle and asks him if he can shoot. 'A little bit', he says.

Alan Ladd is excellent at being quiet and reserved, yet still being a man of action. He fits very well on the screen with Van Heflin and Jean Arthur, who plays his wife as a quiet yet tough woman. She looks good in soft focus, and of course sounds great, as she always did. It was her last film, five years after her previous one, A Foreign Affair, though even over fifty she looked younger than Emile Meyer as Rufus Ryker, who was ten years younger. Eleven year old Brandon de Wilde is hardly a great actor, but he does fine in his second film and he's absolutely perfect for the part as a hero worshipping little kid. He's a mirror for everyone else's emotions and he's spot on. His Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was for the casting as much as for the acting.

The man we're waiting to see though is Jack Wilson, gunfighter by profession and so tough that even the dog on the floor of the deserted bar gets the heck out of his way. He's as archetypal as Shane, Ryker, the themes, the settings and everything, and he's played to such perfection that he's one of the greatest bad guys the screen ever saw. Jack Wilson is played by a man who had as many names as Shane didn't. He was born Volodymyr Palahnyuk and he fought as a professional boxer under the name of Jack Brazzo. Here he's credited as Walter Jack Palance, but he'd soon drop the Walter. His Oscar didn't come until City Slickers in 1992, when he memorably accepted it while doing one handed pressups at the age of 73. He was only nominated for this one, but he made his presence emphatically known for a notably short number of screen minutes, even if he never says 'Pick up the gun'.

What's most astounding here is how veteran director George Stevens got this film made. It was supposed to be made with Montgomery Clift as Shane and William Holden as Starrett, but both ended up on other films. Jean Arthur was effectively retired. The film was nearly abandoned or sold to a different studio because of the cost. Alan Ladd, beyond being only 5' 5" tall, couldn't shoot, thus the rock shooting scene with little Joey took 119 takes. Jack Palance couldn't ride a horse, though he practiced incessantly and managed to get one good mount on film. Screenwriter A B Guthrie didn't even know what a screenplay looked like when he started work. Stevens had to import cattle that didn't look so well fed and even dress a man up in a bear costume to scare them during one of the fight scenes. None of that boded well for Shane in the slightest, but Stevens made it, spent a couple of years editing it and it ended up as great as it could be.

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