The Western, is arguably American mythology, for it is peopled with characters who are larger than life and situations that focus on universal themes that can acquire epic proportions in the hands of the right story teller. Stevens is just such a storyteller. A meticulous director with a legendary attention to detail he is a master craftsman - a directors' director who adds just the right touch to raise scenes from the ordinary to the extraordinary. No where is this more evident than in "Shane" where the director crafts several nearly perfect scenes.
Stevens and Academy Award winning Cinematographer Loyal Griggs' visualization of Americana combine to give the film its' epic sweep. The two create a series of near perfect scenes that heighten the films western rituals to mythic proportions. Most notable are the fist fight to end all fist fights, the studied and detailed funeral, and the gun duel (which involves some of the fastest gun play one is likely to see). Also noteworthy is the films depiction of the idealized love of Marian ( Jean Arthur in her final film appearance), and Shane. These scenes resonate with a longing that is as palpable as anything ever captured on screen. All these sequences are pushed to such extremes that they literally serve as an allegory about the civilization and settlement of the West.
None the less, the heart of this drama lies in its depiction of the duality between good and evil. Alan Ladd (Shane), who should have received an Academy Award nomination for his performance (he was switching studios at the time and they chose not to nominate him), is nothing short of marvelous as the good guy gunfighter who chooses his causes on principle. He shoots to kill only when reason fails and then only after exhausting less deadly means of settlement. A blond haired superman in buckskin he radiates spirituality. His counterpoint in all of this is Jack Palance as Wilson, the bad guy gunfighter for hire. He is Shane's antithesis and enemy. He is dark, dresses in black, and even drinks black coffee from a blackened pot. He radiates evil and menace. He is a black knight who enjoys killing and has no compunctions about shooting an opponent who is clearly unequal to him in fighting skill. Palance did receive an Academy Award nomination for this performance as did young Brandon De Wilde (Joey) although neither won.
The photographer of a film -- the cinematographer-- faces many challenges. Many cinematographers are true artists and this is certainly the case with Loyal Griggs. A number of great films are remembered primarily for their photography. "Shane" is one of these films. Although many camera techniques are utilized throughout the film there are two that viewers should particularly watch for in this film. Composition, which refers to the way in which the cinematographer decides to frame the subject in the rectangle of the screen to create a pleasing effect and texture, which is the surface area, which appears rough or smooth, soft or hard, appealing to our sense of touch. Film is a visual medium and while you would think you could not perceive texture you can. It is possible, in the hands of a knowledgeable cinematographer, to tell when a surface that is being photographed is rough, hard, sandy, slippery, smooth, or slimy by the way the light reflects and creates shadows. Textures are also created by the subject itself, by the various kinds of lenses, and by different types of raw film. Griggs is a knowledgeable cinematographer and in his hands the viewer is transported to the harsh reality that was the West. When you evaluate the composition of his shots in "Shane" ask yourself, "Why was the subject framed this way?" Pay special Attention to the way Shane is framed in the antlers in the opening sequence, the depiction of the isolation of the town, the way the villains are framed in the broken slats of the bar room door, and in the films depiction of the desolation of the cemetery.
The combination of all of these elements and the outstanding performances of Van Heflin as Joe Starrett, a tenacious homesteader who refuses to be intimidated and run off his land by the cattlemen; Brandon de Wilde as the Starrett's son Joey who idolizes Shane; and Elisha Cook Jr. , whose performance as Stonewall Torrey the hotheaded homesteader who is murdered in the film (the director hooked him up to a special hitch in order to simulate his murder in a gun fight sequence), make "Shane" an enduring classic.