As young Joey Starrett (Brandon DeWilde) plays around the front of his isolated valley home, stalking a deer with an unloaded rifle, a buckskin-clad stranger (Alan Ladd) rides in from the distance and crosses on to his family’s land. The boy is captivated by the man, who reveals his name—Shane—and little else. His father, Joe (Van Heflin), on the other hand, eyes the wayfaring gunfighter with the caution of one who works to build up his dreams in a world adept at kicking them over. It is at this point, however, that the real bad guy appears—riding right over Joe’s crops rather than around them like the courteous (if mysterious) Shane. Cattle baron Rufus Riker (Emile Meyer) needs all this land for free-grazing, and is bent on banishing hardworking homesteaders like the Starrett family by any means available.
After Joe proudly bucks Riker’s threats, the latter hires notorious gunfighter Jack Wilson (Jack Palance) to wage a campaign of intimidation and violence on the occupants of the range. The answer to Riker’s hired gun is of course Shane, the enigmatic wanderer with a gift for gunplay so ingrained that he draws his pistol at the first sign of trouble as involuntarily as drawing a breath.
More than this, though: it is through the figure of Shane, and Joey’s admiration of him, that Stevens’s film establishes conflict between the workaday pride of family life on the frontier, and a solitary life of adventure. The stranger and Joey’s father represent competing instincts. The subtle attraction between Shane and Joe’s wife, Marian (Jean Arthur), evokes the security and companionship of an existence he can never have. Nevertheless, the buckskinned glamor of gunfighting and lone riding is difficult to resist. Shane’s departure at the conclusion of the film, as Joey famously calls after him, represents the idea that the boy must accept his father’s values over the romance of the gunfighter (a romance signified by his desire to show Shane his rifle in the opening scene).
Despite his relatively short screen-time, Palance’s Wilson is one of the more memorable villains in the genre’s history. He is sadism and violence in every gesture: a skull-faced, black-clad serpent of a man, taunting his adversaries with the acid-sizzle whisper of someone who enjoys killing for cash. A gunfighter of this variety is like the terrible negative-image of the idealistic and courageous homesteaders. Whereas they humbly strive to make the most of themselves and provide for their families, he asserts his gunfighting skill with loathsome arrogance and may move from job to job without responsibility, using his independence to ruin the dreams of others.
Story-wise, Shane retreads what is, by 1953, already a distinctly familiar scenario. Additionally, Stevens does have a habit of too deliberately infusing scenes with idealism, lacquering them over with momentous dialogue and vaulting score. However, strong performances and thoughtful character-relations lift the film beyond mere melodrama. Shane is not content with spellbinding viewers with grandiose visual and musical cues, providing an intriguing portrayal of the subtler conflicts inherent in the romance of the frontier. 4 / 5