Jack Wilson (played by Jack Palance, pictured): “I guess they named a lot of that Southern trash after old Stonewall.”
Frank 'Stonewall' Torrey (played by Elisha Cook Jr.): “Who'd they name you after? Or do you know?”
Wilson (pulling on black gloves to match his black hat and vest): “I'm saying that Stonewall Jackson was trash himself. Him and Lee and all the rest of them Rebs. You, too.”
Torrey: “You're a low-down lyin' Yankee!”
Wilson: “Prove it.”
[Torrey draws, but Wilson is faster. Torrey stops, and for a split second it is quiet. Then the explosion from Wilson’s gun resounds in the air, and Torrey is propelled back into the mud, dead.]—Shane (1953), screenplay by A.B. Guthrie with additional dialogue by Jack Sher, based on the novel by Jack Schaefer, directed by George Stevens
I’ve wanted to write about Shane, among the most satisfying of westerns, for awhile now, but the 60th anniversary of its premiere passed without my noticing it. One would think that today, the centennial of the birth of star Alan Ladd, would provide reason enough for a post. But I’ve never been that enamored of the onetime Paramount idol.
The release of the movie on Blu-Ray, however, allows for a broader consideration of its virtues, particularly the importance of this pivotal shattering scene.
Critics came up with the umbrella term “American Trilogy” to group together three films made by director George Stevens in the first half of the Fifties: A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and Giant (1956). That would not be a particularly helpful label if it were merely meant to distinguish these somber postwar dramas (all made after he was part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps unit that photographed the liberated Dachau concentration camp) from his frothier pre-war fare of musicals and rom-coms. But the term does recognize that each of the three films examines a major defect in American culture.
In the case of Shane, that defect was violence and its cost to both the individual and the larger community. That trait has long been associated by European intellectuals with both American civilization as a whole and our first indigenous artform, the western. D.H. Lawrence gave a highly problematic interpretation of the wider implications of this in his essay “Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Novels,” in the British novelist’s Studies in Classic American Literature (1923):
“Democracy in America was never the same as Liberty in Europe. In Europe Liberty was a great life-throb. But in America Democracy was always something anti-life. The greatest democrats, like Abraham Lincoln, had always a sacrificial, self-murdering note in their voices. American Democracy was a form of self-murder, always. Or of murdering somebody else.”
The epitome of this in the Western (or, at least, the early, literary version of it) was Cooper’s Deerslayer, a.k.a. Natty Bumppo, whom Lawrence described as “A man who turns his back on white society. A man who keeps his moral integrity hard and intact. An isolate, almost selfless, stoic, enduring man, who lives by death, by killing, but who is pure white.”
The shorthand that Lawrence used for Natty—“a saint with a gun”—applies perhaps even more so to Shane. He is the mysterious stranger come down from the mountains, eager to help the Starrett family but not to talk about his past.
More than perhaps any other Ladd role, this one might have been tailor-made for him. Audiences carried expectations, from his film noir work of the prior decade (This Gun for Hire, The Glass Key and The Blue Dahlia), of a man handy with a gun—which, it turns out, exactly describes Shane. Moreover, Ladd's minimalist acting could be interpreted as stoicism—the exact opposite of the central figure in the sequence above, Wilson.
Woody Allen summed up the nature of the achievement of then-unheralded actor in this role: “If any actor has ever created a character who is the personification of evil, it is Jack Palance.” For a medieval literature class, a college professor of mine, wanting to convey the terror spread by Grendel, likened the Beowulf monster to Wilson.
The Fifties may have been the apotheosis of the Western on film because it was the heyday of the psychological western, a subgenre that emphasizes heightened states of greed, jealousy, rage, and above all, fear. Shane does not have to take a back seat even to other exceptional examples of this kind such as The Gunfighter, High Noon, The Man From Laramie, and The Searchers, and the treatment of Wilson demonstrates why.
This bit of dialogue I've quoted above is only part of a tense four-minute confrontation between the villain and the hapless Torrey. (If you can put aside the annoying subtitles in this YouTube excerpt, you'll have a pretty good idea of what follows here.) It has been more than adequately prepared for, with the homesteader, stoked on whiskey-fueled courage, vowing to the rancher Stryker that he wouldn’t be driven away—and, in the same saloon, with a dog moving stealthily out of the camera frame to get out of the way of sinister Wilson, a malign presence from another realm.
Would that Torrey had shown more sense. Despite Shane’s warning to be careful of Wilson, the proud ex-Confederate gets drawn into a confrontation with him. We never get a close-up of Torrey, but Stevens allows us to infer his mounting fear through the scene’s composition, with the blustering little man caught between the taunting, black-hat-wearing stranger and his own, sensible Swedish friend, whose call—“Torrey…Torrey…Torrey!”—has to be ignored lest he seem a coward.
And now, perhaps the most expertly choreographed, symbolic cold-blooded killing in all of cinema follows, with Torrey gingerly stepping across and slipping in the treacherous mud, surely aware that he is now, literally, in too deep, as the far taller Wilson, with the sleek grace of a panther, follows him on the dry plankboard above, closing off his path, stalking his prey. Wilson is far physically superior to Torrey, even without a gun. The fact that Wilson has observed the central legal nicety—letting Torrey draw first so Wilson and Stryker can claim self-defense to the sheriff—doesn’t change the fact that we are not watching a shootout but an execution.
The tension building for the entire scene, starting with the ominous thunder and darkening sky, now ends with a sickening sound and sight—the loud report of Wilson’s gun, followed by Torrey’s sudden jerk backward (accomplished by a harness-and-pulley underneath actor Elisha Cook Jr.’s outfit that yanked him six feet back). “You know, the one thing I wanted to do with Shane,” the director recalled some years later, “was to show if you point a .45 at a man and pull the trigger, you destroy an upright figure.” It’s impossible to imagine anyone watching this scene without being jolted, with their perspective on every subsequent action in the film from here on drastically changed—including Warren Beatty, who, more than a decade later, consulted with the veteran director to see how he could pull off something similar with Bonnie and Clyde.
Stevens had balanced this technical gizmo with some human sleight-of-hand. Just before the scene was shot, he took Cook aside and hissed, “You know, I've got you eight weeks on the picture, and I'm stuck with you. You're the worst actor I ever saw in my life bar none.” This piece of manipulation, along with the mud Stevens made the actor walk through, got the director what he wanted: fear and fierce anger, the combination that gets Torrey killed.
A monster like Wilson of nearly mythic proportions requires a hero of similar epic qualities. But gunfighting takes something out of a man—if not his life, then his soul. There is some debate whether, in the film’s great ending, Shane is riding off away from the Starrett house and into the mountains to die from his wound in the gunfight with Wilson and his confederates. In one sense, it doesn’t matter—if he doesn’t die here, he’ll die someplace else, profoundly alone and removed from the community he’s permitted to live through his own self-sacrifice.
There’s nothing in the slightest romantic about Torrey’s miserable murder in the mud, anymore than there is in Shane’s last explanation for his nomadic career and sudden departure to the little boy who’s grown to worship him:
“Joey, there's no living with... with a killing. There's no going back from one. Right or wrong, it's a brand. A brand sticks. There's no going back.”
A brand…a mark of Cain, making its wearer an outcast in the community he wishes he could join. In George Stevens’ frontier America, the “winner” of a gunfight gains nothing but isolation—and, perhaps, the satisfaction that he has rid the world of a menace to all order and goodness.