Below is part 4 of 4 of an essay I wrote on director George Stevens in 2011. Click here for part one, here for part two and here for part three. Last week was Stevens 119th birthday.

I had a plan: to work our way through “Shane”, my favorite Stevens film and my favorite western, in order of the film’s narrative. There’s much to discuss after all–the magnificent fight scene of course, the methodology whereby Stevens creates multiple stories within a given scene simply by allowing the main conflict to play out while tracking reactions of other people looking over at others for their reactions. (I’m surprised this isn’t done more–was Stevens surprised too?) Most importantly, there’s the fact that Stevens somehow made a movie wherein two people fall in love–Ladd and Jean Arthur–never act upon it, never exchange a word about it and are clearly affected for life by the encounter. How this is transmuted–is it through the boy?–remains a mystery to me. But it’s there and I mentioned it to George Stevens Jr. who seemed to agree that it was very much at the heart of this mysteriously powerful films emotional resonance.

But I’m abandoning the chronological plan. The reason? I found the last ten minutes of the film on youtube (the entire movie doesn’t appear to be posted currently) and watched it and was so moved by it–I always am but usually I’ve just sat through the preceding two plus hours of it)–that I simply need to share it immediately. Click here to watch the first few minutes.

And click here to watch to the very end.

The Self Styled Siren recently posted her favorite Stevens scene–the fight at the end of “Giant”–and I too have always loved that climactic scene though without quite knowing why until reading her rather brilliant analysis of it. As she points out, Hudson’s fist fight–which he realizes he’s losing in the middle of it–becomes a moment of growth, a rite of passage if you will as he finally stands up for what he knows to be right. The “Shane” climax may appear to be quite different–Shane, after all, soundly whips ass and handily rids the town of evil as Joey (Brandon De Wilde) watches with fear, awe and satisfaction. But it too is a moment of character development–only not growth so much as death. For its Shane who is dying–and his ritual killing of the bad guys is, in a sense, his self-immolation. There is no celebration possible nor any future with the family–even though he’s made their world a brighter place. For Shane, in that fight, sacrifices what’s left of his own humanity to save the lives of the others. When he leaves, I feel the death of a soul–and that’s the reason for the painful no-last-glance back at Joey. He has nothing left for him. He isn’t the future. He’s the past.

The scene inside the saloon is comprised of at least twenty seperate camera set-ups and is edited in what had by then become Stevens singularly quirky style. The much feared “line of axis”–typically never violated in textbook filmmaking of the time–is crossed constantly, causing actors to appear to occasionally be looking at each other in different directions. It not only doesn’t matter–it works to the scenes advantage. I always feel a creeping sense of not quite knowing where I am in this scene, of who’s lurking behind me or around a corner, what’s about to happen–all directly attributable to Steven’s disorienting screen direction. In fact, look at what I just said: I feel myself to be in that saloon–not watching from the perspective of an interested on-looker. There’s one stunning shot that is a straight POV of Jack Palance staring dead on at Shane. It pops on the screen for about three seconds and is never used again. Stevens saves these stunning shots for just the right moment and snatches them away from us as quickly as he offers them up. Palance is looking at us–we are Shane–for just a short enough time for it to be unsettling, for us to not get used to the convention of a POV. And I do love the dog that slinks away as Ladd and Palance square off…

The ending of the film–Ladd and De Wilde outside the saloon, Shane’s farewell–speaks for itself. Or does it? In Marilyn Anne Moss’s merely okay bio of Stevens (“Giant–George Stevens, A Life on Film”) she writes, “A few years before his death, Stevens watched the ending of “Shane” in an auditorium full of students and as he described the film, shot by shot, his narrative seemed almost to be an artful dream as he constructed it one more time…”

Following is Stevens nearly stream of consciousness rendering of the majestic end to his greatest work. I find it especially moving and worth quoting at length largely due to the strange and almost mystical way Stevens had of combining technical conversation with emotional considerations. In some ways the following verbal rendering of the scene is just as moving as the scene–and Stevens speaks in much the same way as he edits. A certain line of thought is pursued, the information that he’s interested in imparting is given in his own time and manner, and then–suddenly–a jolt of emotion lands where you’re not quite expecting it. This is the speech of a man who is both a virtuoso technician and a poet. 

“I notice in taking it apart there’s very little unity to the film as shot; because there are so many different pieces. They’re inside the saloon with a variety of shots around the room…the boy’s face coming under the door–all shot in the studio; then, outside there is the shot where Shane is sitting on a horse and the boy is talking to him, shot on location so he can leave the front of the saloon.There, again, is the camera around from Shane’s point of view into the boys face, taken in the studio at another time–somethime after the work that was done in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. There’s the shot, shooting up at Shane on the horse, seated in the saddle in front of the saloon. And then a strange “Ring-around-the-rosy” business in which Shane leaves the front of the saloon and heads from another angle, then back to the front of the saloon when the boy comes around in the end of the saloon heading toward the Teton Peaks, the grand Teton in the background there, at the right time, when the cloud happened to be with us, with a long focal-length lens to give the mountains some structure and some height–because it’s a grand thing, with the horse moving into the distance. Then the boy coming around the building–a wide angle shot; then a reverse angle with the boy in the foreground and the horse in the middle distance going away toward the Tetons; and then around for what became the major aspect of the scene–the boy’s face…as he sees he’s not convincing Shane. Further shots with the camera now moved away from the saloon, following the horse and rider–it’s the horse and rider and the mountain. The same shot on the boy, back into his face, and, eventually Joey weakens–having the first experience in his life when something really doesn’t work his way–when he realizes Shane is not coming back. And his spirit dims a little bit and he grows up a lot…”


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