Tuesday, October 20, 2015

AFI Top 100: #45 "Shane"

Alan Ladd in Shane (1953)

We've made it now to our fourth of seven Westerns (arguably; this truly is a nebulous genre) on the AFI Top 100 list. Coming in at #45 in Shane, the family drama set in the West that may well be among several others on this countdown (Network, the upcoming Midnight Cowboy) to have a line more famous and memorable than the movie itself. In the film's final moments, when the words "Shane. Shane! Come back!" ring through the speakers and the credits begin to roll, we're reminded that sometimes, it only takes one little thing to keep a movie in America's heart forever.

A retired gunslinger comes upon the small farm of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his family, homesteaders fighting to keep their bit of land in the face of being pushed out by the callous landowner, Ryker (Emile Meyer), and his men to make room for roaming cattle. This mysterious stranger, Shane (Alan Ladd), offers his help to drive away Ryker's men and prevent continued harassment. When the entire family, including Joe's wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), and son Joey (Brandon De Wilde), begin looking to Shane for protection, he finds himself embroiled in a fight that becomes much more personal than he'd bargained for.

The film's representation of the impactful relationship between Shane and young Joey, who idolizes him, may not be the foundation of the story, but it's certainly the emotional drive. Much of the movie's events, the fights, the struggles, the fear, are all seen through Joey's eyes. Shane's appearance during the opening sequence, and Joey's fascination with everything from his horse to his gun holster, establishes Shane as an almost unreal manifestation of safety and hope.

Jack Palance as Ryker's gun-for-hire, Jack Wilson, is a spectacular, morally corrupt villain. He also appears to be unbeatable. Next to Palance, Ladd has a steep hill to climb in order to prove toughness. He manages to do it through an eerily calm demeanor, but there are moments where he simply gets lost. Palance's face twists and contorts in brutal delight, and his eagerness to kill makes him restlessand frightening, as a result. Ladd couldn't accomplish this level of menace if his life depended on it. The film relies on his innate, harmless qualities so we'll buy into this frontier family's immediate trust in himas well as his unfazed, reluctant involvement in the fight.

The realism of the sets and locations, the props and the costumes, are notable from the start. Especially the Starrett homestead. The landscape is sprawling, the feeling of isolation and the distance between each set contributes to the vastness of this almost lawless land. It's strange that Shane's fringe buckskin doesn't fit in with the same subtleties, and it is an often criticized aspect of the character. The ironic thing is that even Shane's overly "costume-y" costume is remarkably authentic. The exaggerated authenticity that director George Stevens fought to convey is likely what gives the entire film its staged feel.

The soundtrack score is epically over-the-top, and for much of the film, it's clear that such intensity is undeserved. The events are systematic and calm, building up to a climax that might be the only sequence worthy of the score's cinematic glory. As Shane and Jack Wilson face off in a final gun battle, it's not surprising why many Western aficionados claim this as one of the best gunfights in the movies. The stakes are remarkably high, and once again, we're viewing it through the hopeful eyes of a child, as little Joey looks on after his idol. It's what makes the film's final, famous line so cripplingly effective.

This memorable Western benefited from straddling two very different eras within the genre: the Golden Age of John Wayne and the glorious west, and then the dark and gritty, neo-Western that became popular during the 1960s (think The Wild Bunch). For Shane, it shares qualities of both styles, which makes it a unique film. Touching and emotionalnot to mention a bit glossybut there's a dark truth within it that often gets lost among the quaint dialogue and the starry eyes of children. The West was a lawless and dangerous place, almost as much as it was a place of opportunity.

That is what has given Shane legs among the best of American Cinema. It's ambivalent ending also shouldn't be ignored. Many might not agree that its other qualities warrant such praise (I happen to be among them), but it's hard to deny the performances or how greatly this differs from other films in the genre.

Rating: ★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next time for #44 on the list, The Philadelphia Story — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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