I’m revisiting this essay because while I liked Shane quite a bit, and might probably put it in the lower part of my top ten favorite westerns from the List so far, I was also kinda puzzled by its notoriety, by how beloved it is. I guess because it’s so clean? Shane himself, the mysterious handsome loner-charmer played by Alan Ladd, is pretty rough, almost like a James Bond or Jason Bourne of the west with the insane marksmanship and hand-to-hand skills (near-comical precision with firearms has been a strange cliché of these movies, taken to probably its most comical extreme when Jimmy Stewart, in Winchester 73, shoots clean through a silver-dollar’s pre-existing bullet hole while it’s twirling through the air), but there’s something about Shane’s swagger that feels less cowboy than Rat Pack. The family he stays with seems influenced by ‘50s television. Ahdunno. It’s dark and brutal at times but lacks this vague quality that I wanna tentatively call…grit?
But that lack of grit allows for something else. The movie’s colorful and tender, and in its depiction of loving neighbors being terrorized out of their community by ranchers who wanna steal their land, that general cleanliness makes them more modern and, by extension, more sympathetic.
To say that any one group of people is more or less sympathetic than another feels like a touchy and uncouth thing, but it raises this question, as I consider stories that strive to communicate, in a relatable and moving way, the hardships of bygone eras: do you, as the storyteller, prioritize period detail (costume, sets, dialect, mannerisms, customs) or audience engagement (which might mean modernizing everything so that the movie is more suggestive of its time period than strictly evocative). Because I imagine if we were really shown how these characters shat in outhouses, the poverty of dental care and the comparative dearth of hygiene, we might squirm a bit. The condition of their lives might become a spectacle that eclipses the drama and relatability of it.
Anyway: the reason I’m coming back to this is because I just saw Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which tells the story (in part) of a middle-aged actor in 1969 who built his career on a 1950s/1960s TV show called Bounty Law.
Filmmaker Rob Zombie tells the story (and I know I’ve heard a similar account from some other filmmakers, whose names I’m forgetting) about being a guest director on one of the big network forensic crime shows. NCIS or CSI. Something. Anyway. They’re shooting on a tight schedule, as is always the case with TV, but he’s wanting to exercise a filmmaker’s attention to detail. Which is understandable.
Why would they hire him if they wanted anything less?
But eventually one of the stars of the show took him aside and said, basically, “No offense to your artistry, I know what you’re tryna do and I respect it, but this is a job for us. We show up, do our scenes, and we go home. You’re burning everybody out with all this perfectionism.”
Makes sense when you consider that, for Zombie, this is just a passionate weeklong project; for his cast, on the other hand, this is just one of many consecutive weeks of toiling on the same sets, working the same hours, for the same pay.
Shit gets homogenized and monotonized in the world of TV. And while I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Shane lacks a cinematic quality, I do think that it wears the shadings of TV.
What’s decidedly cinematic about it, in fact, is how violent it gets. There’s a bar fight toward the beginning, the episode that gets our hero tangled up in all this drama between the locals and the ranchers, that reminds me of like the long walking kiss between Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman in Hitchcock’s Notorious, where it feels like a direct challenge to the censors.
The closed-quarters shootout int hat same bar at the movie’s end is gorgeously stylized, cinematic, suspenseful. And then, of course, the somewhat woeful ending that I won’t give away here. Suffice to say it isn’t the sorta thing home audiences woulda been lifted up by if they were watching it before bed.
Shane’s a great time, and also probably one of the genre’s best entries to show somebody who isn’t a fan of westerns. I’ve got my gripes, but overall I’d say I’m a fan.