Strong boxoffice possibilities accrue to this socko drama of the early west, which draws on sound plot and characters, solid directorial interpretation and fine playing to give it both class and mass appeal. It is by no means a conventional giddyap oater feature in Technicolor, being a western in the truer sense and ranking with some of the select few that have become classics in the outdoor field.
For the record, “Shane” was previewed in a process stage on Paramount’s experimental widescreen, to an audience perched on makeshift seating. Despite these abnormal viewing conditions, the picture’s worth was not lessened, and the widescreen projection did contribute, in some measure, to a sense of bigness, although, again for the record, “Shane” would be a “big” picture on any size screen. Theatres equipped for widescreen showings should find the extra ballyhoo angle of this gimmick adding to the dollars taken in at the boxoffice.
George Stevens handles the story and players in a manner that gives his production and direction a tremendous integrity. The casting is exceptionally good and the male stars have never been seen to better advantage. This is particularly true of Alan Ladd in the title role. Under Stevens’ guidance, Ladd’s performance takes on dimensions not heretofore noticeable in his screen work, possibly because he has seldom had such an honest character to portray. Van Heflin, the other male star, commands attention with a sensitive performance, as real and earnest as the pioneer spirit he plays.
An oddity of this screen venture, brought to life under Stevens’ supervision, is the fact that the screenplay is A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s first, as is the novel from which it was adapted, the maiden effort of Jack Schaefer. In both, the impact comes mainly from the fact there was a story to be told and all concerned went about the business of telling it without unnecessary writing embroidery. What fancying up there is comes from the directorial touches supplied by Stevens, who never rushes the picture or a scene. This measured, deliberate handling in many of the sequences may seem too slow for the tastes of the more regular run of audiences, and does not account for the picture taking up nearly two hours of footage, but when the plot demands action he deals it out in such ragged doses that even the most avid fan of violence will be satisfied.
There are several fight sequences in the plot, both fistic and gunplay. In the former, all veneer is shed as the males settle down to hand-to-hand combat, as primitive as the stone ages and as violent as are all survival battles between males. The two gun duels are of like action; loud, quick and deadly, with the footage leading up to them crammed with meaningful menace. Just as ably as he breeds violent tension into those sequences, does Stevens’ direction build life and emotion into the scenes of work, love, happiness and sadness that go in between.
Plot is laid in early Wyoming, where a group of farmer-settlers have taken land formerly held by a cattle baron. Latter resents this intrusion on the free land and the fences that come with the setting down of home roots. His fight is against Heflin chiefly, who is the driving force that keeps the frightened farmers together. Just when it seems the cattle man may eventually have his way, a stranger, known only as Shane, rides on to Heflin’s homestead, is taken in and becomes one of the settlers, as he tries to forget his previous life with a gun. His six-shooter lies unused in a blanket roll, until the rancher brings in a killer to provoke a fight with Heflin. It is then that Ladd, as Shane, sees that he must again use his pistol for justice and to save his new-found friends. In the deadly finale, all enemies of the settlers are wiped out and Shane rides off again to a restless life.
Starring with Ladd and Heflin is Jean Arthur, playing the role of Heflin’s wife, who is attracted to the stranger who joins her family. Miss Arthur gives the character her special brand of thesping skill, which shows through the singularly dowdy costuming and makeup. A standout is the young stage actor, Brandon De Wilde, whose work earns him a co-star credit. He brings the inquisitiveness and quick hero worship of youth to the part of Heflin’s son and Stevens’ direction displays a true understanding of boyhood in pointing up the role.
Jack Palance, with short but impressive footage, is the hired killer. Emile Meyer, the bearded cattle king who sees his empire falling, is another who creates a tremendous impression for characterization. Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Douglas Spencer are among the settlers who show up in the story-telling. Ben Johnson registers strongly as Ladd’s foe in the first bloody fist fight. John Dierkes, Ellen Corby and the others are good.
Pictorally, the picture has been beautifully photographed in color by Loyal Griggs. Wyoming’s scenic splendors against which the story is filmed are breathtaking. Sunlight, the shadow of rain storms and the eerie lights of night play a realistic part in making the picture a visual treat. The long footage has been well-integrated by the editing of William Hornbeck and Tom McAdoo, and Victor Young’s music score is a decided asset.
1953: Best Color Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Supp. Actor (Brandon de Wilde, Jack Palance), Screenplay