Shane (USA, 1953, George Stevens)
Despite being burdened with grand pretensions, George Steven's Shane stands securely as one of the most intelligent westerns of its era. The story, underscored by potent historical conflicts between cattle ranchers and homesteaders in 19th century Wyoming, and broad philosophical issues contrasting the rugged individualist of American lore with the value of belonging to a community, is mythic in scope. Alan Ladd ably portrays Shane, a man shrouded in mystery enters the lives of a small frontier community, and through his rugged integrity shows the citizenry how to deal with apparently indominable forces of unjust authority.
The massive, imposing and ragged landscape of Wyoming's Grand Tetons, captured capably by Oscar winner Loyal Griggs, provides an appropriately awe-inspiring backdrop to the action. Stevens rarely passes up a chance to offer up attention-seeking directorial flourishes (long takes capped by extended fades), but in the end his faithfulness to the characters and their stories preserves the movie's greatness. Jack Palance, whose sneering charisma is palpable, is the embodiment of evil as the ranchers' hired assassin. Ladd, who is enigmatic and mysterious as the neo-pacifist ex-gunslinger titular character, is quietly imposing (despite his lack of physical stature) in the role. As a man with a dark past, Shane willingly martyrs himself in order to atone for past sins and to save his newly adopted family. Therefore, it is appropriate that his son-by-proxy Joey provides the predominant point-of-view, since it is his coming-of-age that reflects the maturation of the American west.
Some of the film's more subversive critics have pointed to the psychosexual nature of the exchanges between Joey and Shane as evidence of the film's subconscious perversity. Regardless, the cinematography of Loyal Griggs wraps in the film in more conventional epic grandeur, while the film's refusal to offer a pat happy ending gives Shane a sheen of modernity as well.