The quiet gunfighter drifts into a community of humble homesteads, trying to make a new life for himself, but he inevitably can't avoid his past. That describes a lot of Westerns (and Western inspired films), one of the most famous of which is 1953's Shane. I wouldn't call it the best example of that kind of story--John Ford's The Searchers, released three years later, expands on and deepens the psychological dynamics of the lone gunfighter having limited purpose in a civilised world, and The Searchers had better casting, too. Shane does have standout performances but its greatest qualities are its visuals and the subtle weirdness of the relationship between the title character and a little boy named Joey.
The first shot after the credits end is this remarkable shot of a deer with Wyoming's Grand Teton in the background:
We soon meet the film's point of view character, a shrill-voiced little boy named Joey (Brandon deWilde). When Shane (Alan Ladd) ambles into the desolate ranch owned by Joey's parents, Joey almost immediately begins to idolise the stranger in ways that are at turns annoying and striking.
It's no accident, as Stevens' makes plain when he has little Joey sucking on a peppermint stick while he watches Shane get into a violent barroom brawl. With Joey's constantly egging Shane on to fight or teach him how to shoot, and the fact that the villains somehow never notice Joey, the boy seems to be a not entirely flattering surrogate for the audience.
The primary voice of pacifism is the boy's mother, Jean Arthur, who, at fifty, was too old for a role requiring pink lipstick and for other characters to call her "a girl". Her performance isn't bad but not especially memorable--the same could be said for the ever affable Alan Ladd. But the film has three roles cast perfectly with Van Heflin, Elisha Cook Jr., and Jack Palance.
Palance plays a master gunfighter hired by the cattle ranchers to drive homesteaders off their land. A breakthrough role early in Palance's career, his odd, sinister looks pack gallons of menace into a few, brief scenes. Stevens wanted to show the ugliness of violence in contrast to little Joey's enthusiasm. Shane is pretty tame compared to Spaghetti Westerns just ten years later but when Palance guns down meek little Elisha Cook Jr., the latter's fall backwards into the mud after an explosive sound effect is suitably grim.
The costumes all look remarkably lived in for a western of the era and I like how the buildings constructed for the film look credibly weathered.
Shane is available on The Criterion Channel.