Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Keep Going, Shane

I watched Shane for about the billionth time last night. For those who don't know it, Shane is a Western of the cattle-barons-vs.-homesteaders variety, featuring Van Heflin and Jean Arthur as the stalwart frontier couple Joe and Marian Starrett, Brandon deWilde as their son Joey, and Alan Ladd as the mysterious stranger who takes up their cause.

Shane is one of those movies that I read about long before I ever saw it. When I was a teenager in the '70s, my mother subscribed to the New Yorker, and I read certain parts of it religiously -- the ads, the cartoons, and especially the movie reviews by the reigning goddess of film criticism, Pauline Kael. Capsule reviews of long-playing movies recurred week after week, so that I practically memorized them. That gave me a freakish reputation in college for identifying movies no one else had ever heard of, but that's another story.

In any case, Pauline disapproved of Shane, finding it self-conscious and self-important. And she wasn't wrong, but there's still a couple of things about it I like. The first is the gorgeous Wyoming scenery, with snow-capped mountains ringing the Eden-like serenity of the homestead.

The second is Van Heflin, an underrated actor who, because he wasn't especially handsome, was usually relegated to supporting roles. I particularly liked him as the drunk and disillusioned best friend in Johnny Eager. As Joe Starrett, he has a simple directness and dignity I find very moving.

The last is the theme, unusual for a Western (or indeed for any American movie), which roughly boils down to: violence may sometimes be the only solution, but it pollutes those who come into contact with it. That's why Shane, who has been trying to give up the gun, takes the final confrontation with the bad guys on himself, to keep the innocent rancher from staining his own soul. It's also why he has to expel himself from the peaceful valley afterwards.

This theme is carried out even to the sound of the gunfire. I remember once seeing an interview with Warren Beatty (was it Inside the Actor's Studio? No, a quick check of IMDb reveals he's never been on. Oh, well) in which he revealed that he and director Arthur Penn had worked to make the gunfire in Bonnie and Clyde sound the same way. And it's true, it's completely jarring. You can hear how out of place it is, how disruptive to people's lives.

Of course, there are just as many problems with the movie as there are virtues. One of the biggest is the criminal misuse of Jean Arthur. Instead of her patented sassy, wise-cracking independence, she's straightjacketed into a role where she does nothing but serve pie and say, "No, Joe!" over and over. And she's likewise burdened with a mess of short platinum-blond curls that's one of the most punitive hairstyles in all of movie history. I'm sure they did it so that she would look plausible as the mother of the tow-headed Brandon deWilde (surely the whitest child who ever lived), but it's hideously unflattering.

That hairstyle just makes it doubly hard to believe that she and Shane (himself with a hairline receding toward Arizona) would fall in love at first sight. Yet they do, and the plot depends on it. When the evil cattle baron Ryker insinuates that Shane is only hanging around because of Starrett's wife, Shane explodes with righteous anger. But it's a stupid and unearned moment, because it's basically true.

And now let's talk about Joey. I know he's supposed to be engagingly innocent and curious and winsome, but with his endless "Shane? Shane? Mother? Shane?" the kid works my last nerve. When he pursues the departing Shane across the plain with his famous, "Come back, Shane!" all I can think is, "Thank God Starrett lived and you can escape, 'cause not even an unreformed gunslinger deserves to be saddled with that annoying brat for a stepson."

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