A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Friday, September 23, 2016

Shane (George Stevens, 1953)

I had forgotten how important the sexual tension between Shane (Alan Ladd) and Marian Starrett (Jean Arthur) is to the texture and motivation of the film. It's obvious from the moment when she watches him, shirtless and glistening with sweat, help her rather dull (and fully clad) husband, Joe (Van Helflin), uproot a tree stump, and it plays like a low bass note throughout the film, until it becomes the main reason why Shane feels he has to move on at the end. After all, he has just humiliated Joe by knocking him unconscious and taking on the role Joe assumes is his rightful duty, thereby reducing him in the eyes of his wife and son, Joey (Brandon De Wilde). It also doesn't escape the notice of the bad guys, one of whom taunts Shane with the fact that Joe has a pretty wife. (The filters used on some of Arthur's closeups are a giveaway: She was 50 when she made Shane, her last film, but she's plausible as a character 10 or 15 years younger.) It's to George Stevens's credit that he plays all of this as low-key as he does. It would have been much too easy to move the eternal triangle to the center of the film's structure. Shane is an intelligent film, though to my mind it gets a little heavy-handed with the introduction of the black-hatted Wilson (Jack Palance) as the potential nemesis to the knight errant Shane. As fine as Palance's performance is, I wish his character had been given a more complex backstory than just "hired gun out of Cheyenne." Otherwise, the screenplay by A.B. Guthrie Jr. does a fair job of not making its villains too deep-dyed: The chief tormenter of the sodbusters, the cattleman Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), is given a speech justifying himself as having gotten there first and settled the land -- we haven't yet reached the point in historical consciousness where the claims of the Native Americans are taken seriously. And Shane's first opponent, Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), eventually has a change of heart -- not an entirely convincing one to my mind, considering Calloway's behavior in his first encounter with Shane -- and warns Shane that Joe's appointment with Ryker is a trap. Stevens uses Jackson Hole, Wyoming, almost as effectively as John Ford used Monument Valley, and Loyal Griggs won a well-deserved Oscar for his cinematography, even if Paramount's decision to trim the original images at top and bottom to make the film appear to have been shot in a widescreen process resulted in some oddly cropped compositions. Shane is undeniably a classic, but I think it takes itself a little too seriously: The great Western directors, like Ford and Howard Hawks, knew the value of a little comic relief, but in Shane even Edgar Buchanan plays it straight.