By Rosalie Tirella
After THE SEARCHERS, SHANE is my fave Western. And no, the movie is not directed by John Ford! George Stevens is the auteur – just as brilliant as Ford, maybe more modern … I love Stevens’ other famous films, too: GIANT and A PLACE IN THE SUN.
Stevens made a different kind of movie: the currents of race, class, gender as they played out in our country – and still play out – run strong through his films. In SHANE not so much – though there are no gratuitous gun fights, people seem to try to think their problems through and discuss them thoughtfully with friends and foes alike. And, best of all, Shane, as played by the terrific actor Alan Ladd (in a performance of a lifetime!), is the ex-gun fighter-hero who, though lean and still lethal, is unafraid of his feelings. Wallows in them, so to speak. Is, in fact, haunted by them!
Ladd, physically speaking, is no John Wayne. But he’s “in touch” with his emotions in a way the strong silent Wayne could never be. Ladd’s not tall, his shoulders are just merely average in width, and his waist is slim. Wayne was pure POWER on screen – just his mere presence in a film scene spoke volumes, blotted out every other cowboy in the saloon! Ladd is the opposite in SHANE. He rides into the immigrant settlement, so pretty in the Wyoming sun, in a buckskin outfit, with fringes!, looking gorgeous – not like a “sod- buster.” His blond hair is combed back to showcase a tanned, sensitive, handsome face that nonetheless seems clouded by regret, remorse, alienation, aloneness. The perennial outsider. Small in stature, Shane is big in tragedy.
Like I said, Shane is big on feelings: gentle with Little Joey, willing to take the time out to teach him how to shoot, share little life lessons, “race” the boy to the farmhouse – his horse and Joey’s galloping through green fields … A great father figure, role model. Little Joey is smitten with his new hero.
But Shane is very much in love with Joey’s mom, Marion, played by the 1930s and ’40s screwball comedy actress, Jean Arthur. Of course, Shane can’t and won’t act on his feelings for Marion – he respects her husband too much. But more important, his gunfighter past constrains him … death for hire has a way of killing the killer. So Shane worships Marion from afar, telling her the dinner in her log cabin kitchen set against the Wyoming mountains is “elegant”; standing out in the rain, soaked to the bone, his cowboy hat soggy but too mesmerized by Marion to stop looking into her kitchen where she stands with Joey. Marion opens the window and the chemistry between her and Shane … wow. So sexy! And everyone’s got their top collar buttons buttoned!!
Intuitive like all children, Lil’ Joey, picks up on the couple’s attraction. However, his dad Joe (the excellent Van Heflin) is unaware of the simmering feelings. He sees ALL the possibilities loud and clear when Shane and Marion (dressed in her satin wedding gown) dance together during the settlement’s Independence Day celebration. And Joe and Marion’s wedding anniversary! The look on Joe’s face … There’s no fighting over the woman in this film – Joe knows Shane and Marion live by a higher moral code. He maybe once alludes to Shane’s violent past.
There are so many layers of feelings to this film – love of nature, love between wife and husband, love of justice, love of absolution and renewal. The children’s world shines through beautifully: a little girl innocently waves at the now dead Torry, slung over his horse’s saddle like a sack of flour, being carried home to his now widow. Or the same girl and Lil’ Joey running to play with a feisty little pony during Torry’s funeral. The mountains of Wyoming make a dark, foreboding and beautiful backdrop, the small group of ragtag homesteaders say the Our Father all the way through…but the kiddies are bored! They run to the adorable pony to pat him – and the pony does nip at Little Joey! His playmate giggles in delight.
Jack Palance as hired gun Jack Wilson paid by cattle king Russ Ryker to kill Joe and any homesteader interfering with cattle kingdom is frightening. A killing machine with zero feelings. Wilson is paid by Ryker to preserve a way of life that is fast fading from the American West: the open range. Going, going gone will be Ryker’s days – days of running thousands of cattle over hundreds of square miles of American land. All yours. For free. Now, thanks to the Homestead Act, civilization – farms, churches, schools, government – encroaches. Ryker wants to stop it in its tracks in a hailstorm of bullets. Shane – semi-retired hired gun – can’t be part of this new America, just like Ryker, “the difference is I know it” he says to the dusty, brutish Ryker.
What happens when you kill 10 men? 20? Or even one? “You’re branded,” Shane quietly tells Little Joey. “There’s no coming back from a killing.” And his face grows sullen as he acquiesces to his fate. His inescapable fate. Shane bows his head in shame at the realization and the consequences: he can never have the life he now covets – domestic bliss. A young son who idolizes him, a wife who is lovely and wants only him. Peace and love. No more blood and watching men die writhing in the mud (like Torry at the hands of Wilson). Nope. Just pure, unending love. When Marion cleans the wounds on his forehead after the fight at Grafton’s, Shane watches her with tenderness…can’t keep his eyes off Marion. He is so grateful for the painting of turpentine! It is like a caress. He’s known so little of it, the desperado “under the eaves”!
Shane is a tragic figure – as he enters one last gun battle to save Marion, Joe and Joey and the home, settlement they love so dearly, he knows its the end. But he knows he, the professional gun slinger, is the only one who can kill fellow professional killer Wilson, Ryker’s hired gun. Joe is tough and brave but no match for Wilson – “he’s quick on the draw” Shane tells the settlers when they ask: WHO IS THIS TALL MAN IN THE BLACK HAT?
Like the black and white hats worn in this movie, there is something black and white about life in this Old West, in this movie. But there is no nostalgia here for the Good Old Days. Just people making life decisions every minute of the day – most life-altering. But we don’t realize it until it’s too late. The cards have been dealt.