|'Simply put, Shane tells a classic story of heroes and villains very, very well'.|
Contemporary audiences may well see a great deal of modern parallels within the 19th Century set story of Shane. The varying viewpoints on the use of guns both within and outside of the law expressed throughout George Stevens' film could perhaps lend some fresh perspective to the arguments that continue to be traded back and forth over gun control in America. The ill feelings harboured between the established ranchers and the recently settled homesteaders also share more than a little similarity to the current political hot potato of immigration.
It's perhaps not surprising that Stevens' film offers such poignant echoes; many stories which have endured throughout the decades, centuries and millennia are those which serve up universal food for thought. But, even with such topical relevance, to suggest that Shane is held in continuous high regard because of this quality feels unnecessarily contrived. The reasons for the film's success are far more straightforward: simply put, Shane tells a classic story of heroes and villains very, very well.
In many ways, Stevens chooses to make his film distinctly traditional in both the presentation of its characters and the narrative beats it follows. The titular hero, brought to life through a flawless performance from Alan Ladd, is the quintessential mysterious stranger who places himself in the middle of a struggle between right and wrong. It's an archetype that existed long before Shane, and that the Western genre and others would return to again and again - perhaps most notably through Leone's Dollars trilogy in the succeeding decade. But thanks to Ladd's consistently excellent work and Stevens' assured direction, it's a tale that's as engrossing and affecting as it has ever been.
With this age-old narrative as its foundation, Shane builds pleasing layers within characters on both sides. Shane himself is undoubtedly the most enigmatic: a gunslinger from a recent yet obsolete era who clearly harbours a great many demons, none of which are ever either explicitly revealed or indeed successfully exorcised come the film's conclusion. Equal parts angelic saviour and volatile vagabond, only occasionally does Stevens misstep with his main character, the constant adoration of Shane by youngster Joey (Brandon deWilde) feeling overdone at a few points. The homesteaders too are pleasingly authentic, even if we only ever get to know Joey's parents Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife Marian (Jean Arthur) in any real detail.
Amongst the antagonists, Stevens achieves relatively more mixed results: Old West cattle baron Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer) is fleshed out gratifyingly as the story progresses, lending him extra dimension at the right moments. The moral journey of Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men, is less convincing however, feeling a little rushed to serve a narrative purpose more than anything. Stevens is also happy to allow Ryker's unsettling one-gloved gunman Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) remain a one-dimensional villain. It's a role Palance brings to life brilliantly from his introduction at around the halfway point, but who nonetheless feels somewhat out of place surrounded by more developed figures.
As a visual experience, Shane is exquisite. Stevens and cinematographer Loyal Griggs capture the American frontier artfully, setting a great many of the film's scenes against beautifully shot natural vistas. The deliberate use of dusk lighting at several points is particularly effective, lending an ominous tone to key points in the story.
Stevens also shows a keen ability to build tension throughout his film. Whilst there are a couple of times where he allows matters to spill over into satisfying bar brawls, much better are the moments where we can feel the suspense building to a intense climax. Unlike many Westerns, you can probably count the amount of shots fired by one character at another on your fingers. It's a restraint that makes it all the more thrilling when the bullets do begin to fly.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
Shane is released in the UK on Monday 30th November 2015