Review: A Place in the Sun (1951)

 

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George Stevens is only one among a plethora of filmmakers who came back from WWII changed. He had seen a great deal of the world’s ugliness — Dachau Concentration Camp for instance — and as a result, the films he made thereafter were more mature ruminations on humanity at large. Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and a subsequent play, A Place in the Sun is one of those pictures crafted in the wake of such historical change.

There’s no doubt that this is Hollywood melodrama backed by a raging score from Franz Waxman but this is no less, high powered high-class stuff. It’s augmented by gorgeous black and white imagery that reaches pitch black tones and still manages to make Lake Tahoe into a scintillating getaway. Meanwhile, the camera captures the action with elegant movements, sashaying through space, at times nearly imperceptible to the eye. Though admittedly the film’s stature as a social commentary is less interesting now than it probably would have been in its day. Still, we can’t have everything now, can we?

Montgomery Clift is often forgotten in the fray of powerhouse actors but the line can easily be traced from his intense performances to the work of Brando and Dean which would also sprout up in the 50s. Though that same intensity is there, it never feels like he’s trying to sell us a gimmick or a method. He’s simply trying to provide a lens to see a bit more clearly the intricacies of an individual, in this case, one George Eastman. It manages to be a profound and at times an agonizing performance.

Of course, Elizabeth Taylor is exquisite in every frame as always but her bright-eyed sincerity is equally arresting. She feels perfectly made for the role of Angela Vickers and seamlessly transitions into more adult fare with A Place in the Sun, standing tall alongside Clift, destined to make them one of the great romantic pairings of the 1950s. She supposedly said that she finally felt less like a puppet and more like an actress after this film. It shows.

Still, though given a thankless role at times, Shelley Winters is equally important because, in her simpler, humbler way, she reflects how quickly a man can change. She’s not a bad person at all, just a frail, even helpless one who feels like she has very few people in the world to hold onto. George proves to be a comparable companion until he unwittingly finds himself running in different circles and that’s where the tension begins.

I look at George Eastman and see the same drive for recognition, power, and wealth in many of us, those desires that oftentimes can be our undoing because they turn out to be meaningless. The irony is that his intentions never seem malicious but he is undermined by something. He quickly sinks into this double life. At first, he was simply happy to have a job and some companionship. His desires were simple. But slowly, as he found himself rising in the ranks of the Eastman company and getting more recognition, he couldn’t help but want more. Are these impulses bad? Not in the least, but they led him to some pretty rocky soil.

The scene that stands out in my mind could seem fairly mundane. But Stevens maintains a fairly long shot that’s peering through Eastman’s living room and we can see into the next room over as he is on the phone. It feels like minutes go by and Stevens fearlessly never cuts the sequence. The first call is from Alice which he takes.

But the second comes from Angela and at that point, we know that things have changed. It’s set up the dilemma. He genuinely loves Angela and wishes to be with her and to be a part of her life. Yet for that to come to fruition he must do something about the other girl. Alice won’t disappear. It’s funny how someone who you used to appreciate so dearly now feels like a burden. To her credit, we feel sorry for  Winters’ character without question.

In fact, the film succeeds along those lines. We pity her for the sorrowful position she is placed in — essentially abandoned by George. And even in her frivolity and opulence, there’s a candidness to Angela that makes us want to root for her and that allows us to simultaneously pity her because she has no idea of George’s other life. If there is anyone to lash out against it is George Eastman himself and still even in that regard, Montgomery Clift reveals the full gamut of this tortured man so even if we are hesitant to feel sorry for him, he does open us up even with a tinge of compassion.

But the muddled morality is complicated by the fact that Clift’s character has a sense of remorse. Surely he cannot be all bad based on what Vickers saw in him? His capacity to love and be tender is evident. Still, that is not enough to keep him from going on trial and the film’s final third takes place, for the majority, in a courtroom. The district attorney is played by Raymond Burr, who might well be in a dry run for Perry Mason and he comes at Eastman with all the fervor he can muster to convict him in his lies. Even in these moments, we must fall back on George’s inner conflict, his capability to love others, and his intentions for love.

If A Place in the Sun gets too preachy or succumbs too much to Hollywood’s stirringly romantic tendencies, it still might be one of the finest examples of such a film. Front and center are two phenomenal stars and Stevens films their euphoric romance with a meticulous eye catching them in particular moments, with close-ups, and such angles that we are constantly aware of their intimacy.

As much as Eastman is looking for his place in the sun, and he could spend hours just sitting with Angela soaking in the sun’s rays (not many would blame him), it’s just as true that there is nothing new under the sun. That’s what we’re left with. Mankind is still distracted by many things. Oftentimes they are good things but we make them ultimate things and they wreak havoc on our lives. Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless under the sun. But that doesn’t keep us from wanting to bathe in its tantalizing warmth any less. That’s part of the American Tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Giant (1956)

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People might come to Giant for James Dean. They might come seeking out the final film in George Stevens unofficial American Trilogy (including A Place in the Sun and Shane).  Maybe it’s even the promise of a sprawling epic of monumental length and scope that turns out to be both a blessing and a curse by most accounts.

But this adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel, despite all of this, is really a film about marriage and family in a world that’s constantly changing. Rock Hudson is a towering giant in his own right turning in a performance that works as quintessential Texan Jordan “Bic” Benedict. Elizabeth Taylor proves that far from a one-dimensional classical beauty, she has acting prowess as well delivering a spirited showing that gels with Hudson for the very fact that it often chafes against his characterization. Meaning they’re believable as husband and wife.

James Dean plays their marginalized ranch hand Jett Rink who is nevertheless treated well by Bic’s  hardy sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) as well as Leslie while harboring a life long feud with Bic over the ensuing years.

Time turns this story into a battleground of two dueling giants. One a life long rancher of great stature. The other a modern figure blessed with a meteoric rise as an oil magnate. Their resentment carries through the generations as much as their differing fields reflect the sign of the times. The tectonics shift as the old guard of the Texas plains is replaced with a new breed of powerful men.

Of course, Dean’s performance is the stuff of legend and there’s an idiosyncratic, grumbling magnetism about it as only he could do. This isn’t Brando and it’s not even Monty Clift who previously played opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Stevens’ earlier picture. It’s James Dean showcasing his personal flare.

The final moments of his “Last Supper,” after his subsequent rise to glory, are devastatingly pathetic. The mighty oil tycoon of Jetexas falls into utter disgrace crashing to the floor of the empty banquet hall with a clatter. Rolling around in a drunken stupor, making a shambles of his grand exhibition of wealth, and simultaneously concluding Dean’s last scene in front of an audience.

His life would be taken even before Giant finished filming, some of his last scenes of dialogue being reread by close friend Nick Adams, his temperamental nature and habit of mumbling lines impacting the production even after his passing. Still, George Stevens himself, despite the insurmountable hell he was put through, and the hits his shooting schedule took, even admitted that Dean was something special.

You might not like him but all of us seem to gravitate to him for some inexplicable reason. He carries our gaze with his ticks and his delivery. It’s as if he forces us to take heed even out of a necessity to understand him, his head downcast, his hands fidgeting and such, all a ploy to carry our attention. It generally works.

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Yes, we lost him so young but the beauty of Giant’s epic stature is that in cinematic terms Dean was blessed with a full life. We saw him as a fiery youth in East of Eden (1954) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and in Giant he evolved into an equally tortured man who grew old before our eyes. That’s the magic of the movies. But sometimes it’s so easy to have his legend overshadow all others.

The latter half of the film is really about the Benedict family evolving with the maturation of their children. Dean is worth a closer look certainly, but I’m inclined to enjoy the performances of Carroll Baker and Dennis Hopper nearly as much if only for the simple fact that they’re less heralded.

Baker is the daughter caught in the throes of romance and decadence who finds Jett Rink more fun partly for the very fact that her stuffy parents abhor what he has become. Meanwhile, Hopper brings a surprisingly earnest candor as the Benedict’s eldest son with aspirations to be a doctor instead of a rancher, pushing against family tradition, subsequently marrying a Mexican-American bride, and facing the unfortunate ostracization that comes with such a life.

Some of the most evocative scenes are actually held between Hudson and Taylor. To most, their careers were known for personal lives exploited by tabloids. They don’t get the same adulation as Dean as actors. Still, in this film, they do something quite spectacular in a more unassuming way. They quite authentically reflect the life of a married couple as their romance and life together waxes and wanes over the years. That includes Jett Rink’s onslaught and the trials with kids but, at the core it’s just the two of them, grappling with it together.

Because this is a film that unfolds over decades we come to appreciate the changes that come over the characters and not so much the makeup or touches of gray. More important are the strides they make in their lives or even how they remain the same.

They model what it is to be young and in love, to quarrel and bicker and to make up and to be diplomatic and to have dreams and aspirations and to want the best for your children and at the same time hold grudges and feel like the ones you love are purposely trying to undermine you.

To begin with, this is a fairy tale romance of opposites. Hudson is the formidable Texan bred as a rancher and he comes to the upper echelons of eastern society looking for a stallion and he comes back with a bride instead.

She comes to his country initially welcomed and then feeling like an outsider in a land that is so set in its ways. Men and woman are expected to exist in certain spheres. White folks don’t fraternize with Mexicans. And cattle barons tame their land and breed their stock like their fathers before them. It’s tradition and they stick to it. Bic Benedict is raised in that Texas tradition dating all the way back to the Alamo, his stock proud, fiery, and tough.

Still, his wife Leslie is just as audacious but in different ways, testing his sensibilities and testing the matrimonial bonds of their marriage. She rather comically proposes her own marriage, looks to break up the boy’s club mentality that dictates the culture, and tramples over the de facto laws of the land in favor of goodwill to all. That means if a baby is sick, she fetches a doctor. The color of its skin makes no difference. In that atmosphere, it’s radical that she extends kindness to everyone, not simply her own “kind” as it were, whether divided by class or racial barriers. Ultimately, it’s a testament to the sorry state of affairs but also of her personal convictions and they bleed into the rest of her family.

The final showcase comes not in his front and center bout with Jett Rink because although we’ve been expecting it for decades, as such it never comes. Jett’s not worth it anymore. Instead, Bic’s shining moment comes in, of all places, a roadside diner. He’s not as strapping as he used to be and he gets wailed on something awful. But in this moment as he’s duking it out with a local bigot, the platform that he stands on is not simply about his family name or his own personal honor as a Benedict but along the planes of what is morally right and wrong.

Rejecting service to people based on the color of their skin is inherently wrong. Disrespecting people of other races can and never should be accepted. Years before he would have never taken a stand on such touchy issues but he’s matured in that regard and his wife falls in love with him all over again. She sees first hand why she grew to love this man.

He lies there on the floor heaving and bloodied with food flung all around him the oddly upbeat throngs of “Yellow Rose of Texas” still whirring on the jukebox but ironically Leslie has never been more proud of her man. It’s that paradoxical maxim written about many times. Blessed are those who are persecuted for doing good.

Most modern viewers will honestly thank their lucky stars that they don’t make epics like this. But there’s something fleetingly enchanting about these old-time vehicles that managed to encompass so much space with grandiose ambitions and awesome imagery full of million dollar skies and fluffy clouds as far as the eye can see.

The West is dead as is the American genre. The stars as we knew them are no more. We are still a nation struggling with issues of race and class. Love and marriage. That mixture of nostalgia and timelessness still makes Giant a draw.  George Stevens is one of The Great American Directors and though Shane (1953) will remain his unassuming masterpiece, Giant deserves at the very least a modicum amount of respect as a dying breed of American epic.

4.5/5 Stars

Note: Entry in The Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon!

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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The first moment Pete Morgan (James Stewart) actually catches sight of alluring nightclub singer Francey (Ginger Rogers), the gangly botany professor proceeds to knock over a drink cooler. He’s enamored. In the movies, it’s that magical trope called “love at first sight.” For other pictures that’s where they go to die as the two loved birds get wrapped up in the throes of romance exploring New York City together. With Stewart and Rogers as our guides, there’s no place we’d rather be. Soon they are married and on their way to meet the parents in the idyllic town of Old Sharon.

Except they never get there or rather they get to the town but Pete never gets to the part about telling his parents he’s married. Charles Colburn is bullish as Peter Morgan Sr. the obdurate, overbearing intellectual who will not allow his son to get in a word edgewise. That’s aggravated by the fact that in his typical manner Stewart is always beating around the bush, never quite able to get the words out and so the happy news never finds an audience.

Besides Mr. Morgan has his sights on his son marrying the prim and proper Helen (Frances Mercer) while he turns his nose at the blonde woman that his nephew Keith (James Ellison) is traipsing around with it — that undoubtedly unsophisticated creature who also happens to be his actual daughter-in-law!

Thus, begins the film’s longest digression as wife becomes a student for the sake of being close to her husband and Pete tries his darndest to break the news to his parents while still getting time with his wife. But the guise of student and teacher isn’t helping much. They probably broke the whole code of conduct book on student-teacher relations circa 1938.

One of the favorite hot spots for late night extracurriculars just happens to have an outboard motor right next to it and it can make quite the din if accidentally pulled. Otherwise, Pete has an awful time trying to see his wife as the lobby clerk (Franklin Pangborn) is a real stickler and so the only access to her room is of a clandestine nature up the fire escape.

And still his father won’t listen to him and his former fiancee is still trying to nab him. It’s getting so hopeless that Francey thinks it might be best if she leaves Old Sharon behind for good. A memorable dance party with the parents in Francie’s room proves the kicker. Though she forms a bit of a rapport with the kindly but frail Mrs. Morgan (Beulah Bondi in 1 out of her 5 turns as Stewart’s mother), an indignant Mr. Morgan will have none of this tomfoolery.

Soon enough Francey decides to leave town of her own accord.  But even at the cost of his professorship if need be, good ol’ Jimmy Stewart won’t let her get away that easily. Whether or not this film drags a bit in the latter half is beside the point because you couldn’t have two more likable stars than Stewart and Rogers nor a Hollywood director more competent than George Stevens in balancing the breadth of slapstick comedy and romantic drama.

If the material is simply adequate enough, they are the type of talents that take us along and we will willingly be their audience through every complication. It’s our privilege.

In case there was any doubt whatsoever Ginger Rogers is awesome and it’s put on full display when she has a slap fight with her archnemesis before taking her in a headlock. If you liked her before simply for dancing prowess, she proves to be a savvy cat fighter as well.

Jimmy Stewart was still in the fairly latent stages of his illustrious career but Rogers recommended him for the role and he provides his homespun charm and length to every frame like we are accustomed to seeing from him. Not to mention his forays in home brewing. They’re quite impressive.

The only major blot on the film is an appearance of the prolific Willie Best playing his typical googly-eyed waiter — the walking stereotype that always feels like a cringe-worthy addition to any picture of old as does a cameo by Hattie McDaniels. At least there weren’t any chinamen. Not that there’s much consolation in that. Shall we just say that Rogers’ vivacity and Stewart’s universal affability make for a quality viewing experience and leave it at that?

4/5 Stars

I Remember Mama (1948)

I-remember-mama-1948_poster.jpgInitially, I Remember Mama comes off underwhelmingly. It’s overlong, there’s little conflict, and some of the things the story spends time teasing out seem odd and inconsequential at best. Still, within that framework is a narrative that manages to be rewarding for its utter sincerity in depicting the life of one family–a family that feels foreign in some ways and oh so relatable in many others.

In this case, the Hanson’s are a family of Norwegian immigrants circa 1910 and the story gleaning inspiration from two earlier works features a post-war George Stevens at the helm with Irene Dunne anchoring the cast as the titular character.

And it’s true that the film is rather like a eulogy, memorializing this woman who was such a strong, stalwart example despite her unassuming ways. It is her daughter Katrin (Barbara Bel Geddes) who looks back fondly at her mother, as she, now being an author sees her mama as a worthy protagonist for a story. Because, after all, this is their story, personal, individual, and unique.

The film feels anecdotal as much as it is serial, taking galvanizing moments, little snippets of that time and place and crafting a very distinct picture of what life was like back then. And that’s part of the simplistic beauty of I Remember Mama just like Marta Hanson herself.

In the opening moments, the adult Katrin recounts vividly the evenings at the dining room table where the whole family would gather around to count out the weekly expenses. They scrimp and squeak by with the meager funds at hand so mama never has to go to the bank. Meanwhile, the timid Aunt Trina (Ellen Corby) looks to marry the local undertaker and she calls on her sister to rein in their two other sisters Sigrid and Jenny who are both rather unfeeling.

Other happenings include the entrance of the boisterously quirky Uncle Chris who blusters his way into their lives initially frightening the children with his antics which secretly mask a generous spirit. Young Dagmar subsequently goes in for an operation and Mama goes to visit her breaking hospital protocol to keep a promise to her little girl. This instance reflects exactly the character that Marta imbues.

She also appreciates the influence of the families’ elderly lodger Mr. Hyde who reads each evening from his many editions of classic literature from Dickens and “Fenimore Kipling” as mama recounts erroneously. She sees this as a gift not only to herself but also her children, opening them up to thoughts, ideas, and even a little bit of culture that she can never give them. The fact that he leaves behind his books in lieu of rent receives only her gratitude while her sisters become puffed up with contempt.

Again and again, she exemplifies that almost all-knowing love of a parent. While never perfect, there’s an innate understanding of what is best for each one of her kids and she is continually willing to work and sacrifice for the sake of her family. To say what those things are would be precisely against the ethics of such a person as Mrs. Hanson and so I will refrain. See them for yourself and you too will understand as Katrin does what makes this woman great.

This is yet another feather in the cap of Irene Dunne, confirming my belief that she is one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. At times she’s almost unrecognizable hidden behind that accent and a certain amount of stern, straightforward, and still motherly charm. Look at her character and you see a woman of such a phenomenal stock and integrity.

Nicolas Musuracas’ crisp black & white photography lends an authenticity to the San Francisco street corners as well as the interiors helping to develop a healthy aura of nostalgia. And you get the sense, that perhaps George Stevens was intent on tapping into a bit of that old-fashioned goodness because the post-war world was a far different, far darker place. I Remember Mama is a film of tremendous virtue and inextinguishable light.

There’s also a bit of a personal connection to this film as well because half of my ancestors were, themselves, Norwegian immigrants. Although I doubt they came through San Francisco there are some familiar touchstones and it’s easy to imagine that these people pictured up on the screen could share the contours and backgrounds of my own kin from bygone generations. Wishful thinking perhaps but it’s also incredibly exciting and that’s part of the reason that I left this story feeling as if I gained something from it.

So Stevens and Dunne succeed excellently with what they set out to achieve providing a character study that is nuanced and still evocative in its pure depiction of the sacrificial love of a parent. Some would say that there’s no greater love than that.

4/5 Stars

 

4 Star Films’ Favorite Movies: 16-20

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Okay, here we go with the next installment in the series of my favorite films. But, in case you missed #21-#25 and have a passing fancy to see what I fancy,  check them out Here…

Otherwise, enjoy part II!

16. Back to the Future (1985)
Doc Brown and Marty McFly. A delorean time machine. Awkward mother, son relationships. High School Dances circa 1955. Good ol’ fashioned rock n’ roll. These are only a few of the reasons that Back to the Future is a perennial classic and the best time travel film around. Two more installments followed re-teaming Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, but it’s hard to top the original Sci-Fi classic.

17. Shane (1953)
There are numerous classic westerns from the Golden Age, but Shane is one of the most unassuming. It’s a treasure of a film, revolving around of the great iconic heroes of cinema, the eponymous Shane. He’s a gunslinger, upright and kind, but he’s also deadly. Within the expanse of George Stevens’s tale of the untamed West, is a human heart and also foreboding moments of darkness. It’s the complexities of this film that bring me back to it time and time again. Its main character being a fascinating man indeed.

18. Chariots of Fire (1981)
Walking on that beach in St. Andrews Scotland was one of the most enjoyable things in my life thus far. Partially because it’s so incredibly gorgeous in a raw, untouched sort of way. But the other reason is due to this film, full of heart and some of the most inspiring music ever. By telling the biographical story of the likes of world class sprinters Eric Liddel and Harold Abrahams, it successfully blends so many things that I like. Sports, history, Great Britain, and deep spiritual dilemmas. Let us remember those few men with hope in their hearts and wings on their heels.

19. The Odd Couple (1968)
I’m a fan of comedies that boast good unadulterated fun. The Odd Couple is one such film born of a Neil Simon play and subsequently turned into a successful television show. This is the rendition starring the bickering duo of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, both in fine form. They take this simple tale about two divorced men living together and make it a bellyful of laughs. Their poker playing buddies are a gas as well. It remains a classic with renewed value each and every time.

20. The Dark Knight (2008)
I am a product of the age of superhero films. Some mediocre, some simply run-of-the-mill, but few have left such an indelible mark as Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. What sets it apart is a villain, a most worthy adversary for the cape crusader. Heath Ledger’s Joker is the creme de la creme of cinematic bad guys, and he elevates this film to be one of the most intriguing moral tales released in the last decade. This is far more than a superficial action flick.

Penny Serenade (1941)

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Irene Dunne still remains one of the most underrated actresses of the 20th century. She was both a lively comedienne, an impressive singer, and performed in melodrama better than most. Pair her with Cary Grant and director George Stevens and you have an impressive bulwark to build a film out of.

I disdain the rather condescending term “Woman’s Picture,” but if Mildred Pierce was one of the darkest exemplars of the genre than Penny Serenade might be one of the most heartfelt. It finds its inspiration in the revolving melodies of records on a Victrola. It’s true that music is so very powerful in evoking emotion and it is precisely these songs that lend themselves to Julie Gardiner’s myriad memories. They began when she initially met the love of her life, a budding journalist who was not too keen on getting hitched or the future prospect of having kids. But Roger’s career took him to Asia and he tied the knot with Julie because he was not about to let another man take her away from him.

The rest of the film can best be described as a marital drama concerned with the many moments that make up a marriage. The thrill of the honeymoon period. The little marital tiffs. The tough times when your fledgling self-run paper is not doing the best. The struggles of trying to have kids or wanting to adopt and realizing the process is far more arduous than you first expected. All of these moments can be found in Penny Serenade. But it is one of the sweetest that also becomes the most heartbreaking.

Julie and Roger get the child that they so desire and it’s hard and trying and oh so scary, but they make a go of it and truly revel in being parents. But even that joy is taken away from them. It’s that same pain that shakes the foundations of their marriage just like the deadly earthquake they experienced in Japan. Once more amidst the heartbreaking tremors, there are wonderful revelations and an ultimate resolution that is good.

It’s true that Penny Serenade is overlong, lacking a great deal of substantial conflict or direction but it certainly plays to its strengths. The third time around Grant and Dunne continue their impeccable chemistry that carries the film alongside the direction of George Stevens who always seems to know how to helm both drama and comedy with ease. And the secondary roles are filled out marvelously by the always venerable Beulah Bondi and a noticeably younger Edgar Buchannan playing his usual old softie with a gravelly voice.

So if you’re in a sentimental mood tune into Penny Serenade a film that is less of a classic than a film that rides on the laurels of its main players who elevate the storyline above the normal fray through sheer charisma and ingenuity. While Grant is always remembered as a comedic actor, there are several notable heart-wrenching sequences where he taps into a different side of his persona.  In the end, having Cary Grant and Irene Dunne together again is worth it in itself.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Shane (1953)

shane1Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the looming Tetons lend the same iconic majesty to this western that Monument Valley does for many of Ford’s best pictures. But then again, George Stevens was another master and he too was changed by the war, coming back with a different tone and an “American Trilogy” that included some of his best work. Shot in Technicolor, this picture boasts more than wide open spaces and raw Midwestern imagery. Stevens has some wonderfully constructed sequences and there are a number of great characters to inhabit them.

Shane is the eponymous gunman who is content to linger in the background while others become the focal point. Namely, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a man who came to the untamed land due to the Homestead Act and won’t let the rancher Stryker muscle them off the land that he believes is rightfully theirs. Despite this being her final film — and a favor to her previous collaborator Stevens — Jean Arthur is as wonderful as ever. The character Marian is brimming with goodness and a sensitivity that is hard to discount. It’s a part very different than her earlier work and yet she plays it so wonderfully. As for newcomer Brandon De Wilde, he’s an astute little actor and we really see this world through his eyes, so he does wonders to hold the story together.

Grafton’s general store and saloon become a wonderful arena of conflict within the film because it is rather like Ryker’s stomping ground since he and his men can always be found lounging around there when they aren’t terrorizing some poor sodbuster. After he agrees to work for Starrett, Shane goes into town for new duds, leaving his gun behind, and he quickly learns what he’s in for. It’s in such a scene that we learn who this man really is. He’s not a hot-head and he initially takes the abuse of Stryker’s guns, who call him out for purchasing soda pop. It’s for the boy Joey, but he doesn’t have to say that, because he needs not prove himself, at least not yet. Also, the relationship between Shane and Marian might be troubling to some — will they fall for each other — but when Ryker makes insinuations about Starrett’s wife, Shane is quick to shut him up. He’s not that kind of man. When Shane does return to the store, he’s prepared this time for retaliation and although it might not have been the smartest thing, it sure is gratifying for him and for the audience. He and Starrett make a killer team, after all, beaten and bruised as they end up.

shane2What follows is retribution from Stryker as he tries to buy out, threaten, and continually lean on the sodbusters, but Starrett remains resolute in keeping his friends together. In fact, there’s still time to share a wonderful Fourth of July dance with all the neighbors and it shows signs of a brighter, happier time that could be possible. With neighbors joining together in simple community and sharing life together. Shane feels somewhat out of place in this type of environment, and maybe deep down he knows it too, but he seems oddly content.

This happy time is juxtaposed with the funeral of ornery “Stonewall” (Elisha Cook Jr.), who was gunned down near the saloon by hired gun Jack Wilson (Jack Palance). His death is making some of the others jumpy, but once again Starrett keeps his group together, by first giving their former friend a proper burial and banding together once more. But by this point, they’re barely hanging on. Stryker’s got them on the run and Joe knows he needs to have it out with his arch-nemesis once and for all if things are ever going to return to the status quo. His dreams of ending this whole thing are ludicrous because there is no way he can get out alive. His wife knows it. He knows it, but it doesn’t stop him and his American Dream.

shane3It’s interesting how Shane at first does not try to stop him, but then he gets tipped off to what awaits Joe, and he decides to go in his place. This is his arena after all. The gun we all fawn over is finally getting put to use as Shane rides into town for the final showdown to have it out with the men in the saloon. However, although the shootout is intense it ends very quickly. Thus, what is really interesting are the moments beforehand where friend is literally fighting friend. Both doing what they think is right. However, since Joey only thinks in absolutes, when he sees Shane hit his father over the back of the head, he initially reacts with hatred towards his fallen hero. He doesn’t understand why all this is necessary. But as time goes on and he sees events unfold, he gets it.

As Shane rides off into the night, Joey yells after him to come back, he cannot bear for this idolized man to ride off. It makes me wonder if young Joey grew up with the image of Shane, the hero of his childhood. The doer of good and the ultimate champion of the oppressed.

The cast was rounded out nicely by some solid supporting players like Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Elisha Cook Jr., and down to Ellen Corby and even Nancy Kulp. It’s astounding to think that this film could have starred Monty Clift and William Holden potentially with Katharine Hepburn as well. Because, after all, the casting of Shane feels just right. Clift would have brought depth and emotional chops to the role, as a wonderfully impassioned actor. Just look at George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) for proof of that. However, what Alan Ladd has is a serenity and simple goodness that still somehow suggests something under the surface. It begs the question, how can someone so upright make a living packing a six-shooter? No doubt I like Holden better as an actor, but Heflin has the scruffy outdoors-man look, while still reflecting high ideals. Hepburn just does not seem to fit a western. This is one of the instances when all the pieces seemed to fit into place and we were blessed by a western classic that never seems to lose its luster. In a sense, we become boys again like Joey, completely in awe of Shane. Let us revel in that feeling, that moment of innocence once more.

5/5 Stars