"Subtext" is a word I heard tossed around a lot at the New York University Cinema Studies department. To put it simply, it refers to the message that is hidden beneath the text. In a book, it's the things that are implied without ever being overtly stated. For movies, subtext means that which is never said aloud, but is given voice by subtle and often non-verbal cues.
"Shane" is a film that's positively loaded with subtext.
On its surface, it seems like a very simplistic tale: An ex-gunfighter comes to an untamed town in the Old West and inserts himself into the battle between ranchers and farmers. In fact, it's often pointed to as one of the most family-friendly Westerns, and its early appeal was primarily young audiences. This is bolstered by the presence of Joey, played by Brandon De Wilde, a young boy who idolizes Shane and serves as the eyes through which the audience views him.
(Funny aside: My dad likes to tell the story of his friend Bill Goldman running around the campus at Oberlin College yelling, "Shane! Shane!" as Joey iconically does at the end of the film. They thought it was a hoot. Bill would go on to win two Oscars as a screenwriter.)
Since the film has become such a classic, it's difficult to think now of what a risky move it was for director George Stevens ("Giant") and star Alan Ladd to make Shane as remote as he is. In the course of the two-hour film, we don't learn a single concrete fact about who Shane is, what is in his past, or why he does what he does. He is the ultimate ronin, a warrior without a home or creed.
But oh, that subtext speaks volumes.
With his mournful eyes and the reticent way he takes on the toughs of the head rancher, Ryker, it's clear that Shane is trying to make a change in his life. If I were to guess, I'd say that Shane had once been someone who reveled in his status as a gunslinger -- look at the showiness of the fringe-lined outfit he first shows up in -- and did something so terrible, it made him ashamed of who he'd become. Did he kill a woman or child? Gun down his own brother? Whatever it was, the stain of its guilt colors Shane's every expression.
In another place and time, Shane might very well have been Jack Wilson, the hired gun Ryker brings in to oust the farmers, who are led by Joe's father, Joe Starrett (Van Heflin). Played by Jack Palance in one of his most iconic roles, Wilson is a chilling construction of pure terror who hardly ever speaks. He's simply a professional who's very good at what he does, and enjoys doing it, and that just happens to be killing. With a face so rawboned it looks like his skull is trying to pry its way past the flesh of his face, Wilson is a grinning death's head, a mocking counterpoint to Shane himself.
Then there's the barely-hinted at romance between Shane and Starrett's wife Marian, played by Jean Arthur. It's so subtle that both Joe and son Joey catch no glimpse of it. This being a 1953 film, there's no overt depiction of adultery. Ironically, it's the villain Ryker who quickly surmises that Marian is the real reason Shane sticks around. Watch the early scenes, and see how indifferent Shane is to Joe Starrett's plight before he meets Marian. Just before Shane leaves for the big final gunfight, Marian asks him if she's doing it for her sake -- the movie's only, and fleeting, acknowledgement of the connection.
Perhaps because so much goes unsaid in "Shane," it's one of those movies that does not diminish with time but seems to gather more resonance with repeated viewings. This was probably the fourth or fifth time I'd seen it, and frankly I can't wait for the next time.