Clodbusters

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It’s pretty rare for me to find a movie I haven’t seen since I was a kid — when I do, it sometimes comes with a rush of nostalgic emotion. SHANE was like that — as part of my all-too-slow trek through the films of George Stevens, I ran it with Fiona, who had read the book at school but couldn’t recall if she had watched the movie. When I last saw it, I was probably the age of Brandon de Wilde in the film.

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In some George Stevens films, the long-standing belief that “he shoots in a circle” — covering the whole action from every possible angle and distance — is hard to reconcile with the evidence of the finished film. The tableau staging of THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is one example, with the director content to let scenes play out in long shot. A PLACE IN THE SUN is almost as striking when it does the same thing — there’s a truly bold scene when Monty Clift turns up late for Shelley Winters’ birthday, where Stevens keeps his camera outside the window looking in throughout the three minute forty second sequence shot, with both his stars quite small in frame, and for a key part of the scene their faces turned so we can’t actually see either of them (he back is to camera and he’s hidden behind her). The effect of awkwardness and tension is palpable. If he did shoot that scene from nine different angles, I’m even more impressed by his courage in going with that one.

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SHANE shows the extreme coverage style more clearly — it’s cut FAST, and nearly every cut reveals a new angle, rather than intercutting two repeated compositions. Veteran editor William Hornbeck collaborated new hand Tom McAdoo, and their cutting does a few quite modern things. Firstly, it compresses time — we’re frequently changing angle to jump out pauses and longeurs, violating continuity just enough to energize the movie, not enough to be glaring or disturb the audience. Secondly, the cutting is deliberately disruptive during fight scenes, surprising the viewer with unexpected angles and juxtapositions of compositions, making the eye work hard to increase the sense of dynamism (the bar-fight uses exaggerated sounds of breaking glass and crashing furniture to increase the violence; a punch-up at the farm is accompanied by all kinds of bucking and thrashing animals). In other words, the cutting is deliberately obfuscating the action, creating a sense of confusion and a feeling that we have to stay alert or we might miss the key punch. This chaos effect isn’t pursued to Christopher Nolan BATMAN BEGINS levels (thank Christ) but it shows a more intelligent and sensitive application of a similar idea.

By contrast, there are also scenes reminiscent of that PLACE IN THE SUN scene where Stevens holds a shot for longer than you can believe he’d dare. When the death of a supporting character is reported, Stevens films from a great distance, through foreground horses, with foreground horse noise drowning out most of the dialogue. I’m not even sure why — maybe the same impulse that had Brueghel portray the fall of Icarus as a single detail in a broad landscape.

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Finally, the film contains not only dialogue that almost recurs in TAXI DRIVER — “You speakin’ to me?” “Well I don’t see nobody else standing there” — but also a visual trick. What I call a jump dissolve removes the middle of a shot of Jack Palance crossing a room, so that he melts through space in a strange, dreamlike and menacing manner. Compare to Travis Bickle’s walk up the street after his job interview…

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Stevens plays with film grammar in the fifties — those languorous lap dissolves that make the kissing faces of Clift and Taylor melt into one another in A PLACE IN THE SUN — in a way that practically no other Hollywood filmmaker was doing, save Hitchcock. Nicholas Ray had a more iconoclastic tone, but his style was actually more formal. Discuss.

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10 Responses to “Clodbusters”

  1. A childhood fave that I recently watched for the first time in about 25 years. It’s aged beautifully. Still my favourite Western.

    Prove it…

  2. Jerry Lewis said he was inspired to become a film director by watching Stevens edit A Place in the Sun “How many ways can you drown Shelley Winters?” he wondered. Watching Stevens at work he found out.

  3. Fiona remembers much more philosophical dialogue in the book. It looks to me like Stevens was trying to dispense with that as much as possible and get the relationships and moral across without discussion. It is possibly a first in the genre for suggesting that the violent man, though he has a role to play, does not ultimately have a place in society.

  4. I met the scriptwriter once — the Western novelist A.B. Guthrie, who was the stepfather of a friend of mine. I don’t recall talking about movies with him, but my friend told me that Guthrie was particularly proud of the fact that in Shane, as opposed to generic shoot-em-and-forget-em Westerns, you see the consequences of violence.

  5. I’m impressed!

    Yes, for its time, Shane’s view of violence is quite different from the standard genre stuff. Of course, people can still break furniture over each others’ heads and suffer no ill-effects, but in general it’s a step towards realism and responsibility.

  6. I see Guthrie also wrote The Big Sky, in which Hawks’ attitude to violence isn’t nearly as serious. But it does violate the western law that a punch has to be returned — Kirk Douglas is so surprised by a sock in the jaw that he finds the experience oddly charming.

  7. I don’t think Guthrie wrote the screenplay for The Big Sky; he wrote the novel. Ditto The Way West. He only seems to have written screenplays for other people’s novels, Shane and The Kentuckian.

  8. Classic Hollywood thinking — always get somebody new to adapt a book, never the author. There may be some wisdom in it, and it gives us fascinating blends like Donald Westlake adapting Jim Thompson.

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