Twenty Greatest Movies of the 1950s: Shane, The Big Heat, Ugetsu

Allan Ladd and Brandon deWilde in Shane.

Allan Ladd and Brandon deWilde in Shane, 1953.

We continue our survey of the twenty greatest movies of the 1950s.

For a complete listing of the greatest movies of the 20, 30s and 40s, click here.

7. Shane, 1953.

The gunshots in Shane are unlike any other gunshots in Hollywood history. They are heart-stopping thunderbolts, from either heaven or hell.

Shane, a mysterious gunslinger, rides into an isolated valley in the post-civil war Wyoming territory and finds work on a struggling farm owned by Joe Starrett (Van Heflin) and his wife, Marian, Jean Arthur, in her last Hollywood role. Their young son, Joey (Brandon deWilde) is drawn to Shane and wants Shane to teach him how to shoot.

Of course, there’s a ruthless cattle baron, Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), who wants to force Starrett and others off their land. All the basic elements of the classic western are in place. But Marian is an anti-gun fanatic, and she insists that guns will have no place in her son’s life.

Shane calmly explains: “A gun is a tool, Marian; no better or no worse than any other tool: an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it. Remember that.”

Jack Palance turns up as a psychotic killer hired by Ryker. Shane, a weary gunfighter, is forced to  blaze away.

After World War II, director/producer George Stevens was well aware of the damage bullets do to a man’s flesh. But Stevens also witnessed the horrors of the concentration camps, and he knew that only good men with guns could have liberated these camps. Thus, Stevens abhorred violence even as he knew that it was necessary.

Shane was one of the first films in which actors were attached to hidden wires that yanked them backwards when they were shot. Stevens also fired a small cannon into a garbage can to simulate the loud roar of a pistol.

The ending is justly famous for Brandon deWilde’s cry of: “Come back, Shane!” As the gunslinger, perhaps mortally wounded in the last battle, rides off into the distance. This is one of the most haunting and moving endings in movie history. Because we all want Shane to come back.


Gloria Grahame is the avenging femme fatale in The Big Heat, 1953.

Gloria Grahame is the avenging femme fatale in The Big Heat, 1953.

8. The Big Heat, 1953

Bannion (Glenn Ford), a bull-dog cop, takes on the mob after the death of his beloved wife. This is a classic revenge tale, normally played out in a Western landscape (like Shane), but here the city, the mob, and the angry cop replace the west, the gunslinger and the cattle baron, as the moral landscape where good fights evil.

In film noir, the femme fatale ensnares and then destroys the hero. But The Big Heat cleverly turns this tradition on its head. Gloria Grahame as Debbie, the gun moll, throws in with Glenn Ford’s avenging cop, and in the film’s most famous sequence gets a pot of boiling coffee flung in her face by gangster Lee Marvin. Debbie yearns for Bannion’s approval and love, but he’s still mourning his wife even as Debbie lies dying in Bannion’s arms.

The film, a pitiless and hard-edged narrative, proved popular with audiences and critics alike and director Fritz Lang theorized that, “Deep down, in every human being is the desire that good shall conquer evil. Could it be that people see in Bannion a symbol of hope in these days of taxes, insecurity, and the H-bomb?”


Still from Ugetsu, 1954.

Machiko Kyo as Lady Wakasa in Ugetsu, 1953.

9. Ugetsu, 1953

Director Kenji Mizoguchi and screenwriter Yoshikata Yoda wanted to make a film exploring the effects of the terrible Japanese civil wars of the sixteenth century on ordinary people. Mizoguchi, one of Japan’s greatest directors, wrote a memo to Yoda:

The feeling of wartime must be apparent  in the attitude of every character. The violence of war unleashed by those in power on a pretext of the national good must overwhelm the common people with suffering—moral and physical. Yet the commoners, even under these conditions, must continue to live and eat. This theme is what I especially want to emphasize here? How should I do it?

Yoda ended up telling the story of  two peasant families, potters and farmers living in the same village, eking out a living, even as warlords ravage the land.

This is a lyrical masterpiece that contemplates no less than the nature and meaning of man’s life. The potter and the farmer abandon their wives and children in order to seek wealth and glory. Of course, their blind ambition leads to ruin, heartache and tragedy. And then, finally, an almost divine moment of comprehension for one of the film’s main characters.

Ugetsu is, above all, a series of interweaving love stories in which even a ghost, beautiful, lonely and deadly, is given her due.

Mizoguchi’s elegant camera constantly prowls and tracks, vertically and horizontally. In this way, the world’s instability is emphasized. Life meets death, the living interact with ghosts. Everything and everyone is in a constant state of flux.

A few nights before I married Karen I saw Ugetsu for the first time. At the end of the movie I was crying like a baby. I cried because this film, more than any other I have ever seen, confirms the sanctity of marriage, the importance of loyalty, and the eternal bonds of love. Ugetsu is beautiful and timeless.

To be continued.

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  1. Kevin Aldrich
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Shane. The gorgeous setting of the Grand Tetons. The iconic “western” music. The way each member of the family falls in love with Shane. Shane’s unfaltering heroism and nobility. Gosh I love this film!

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  2. sennacherib
    Posted February 17, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    Re: Debka File
    Well Robert these people have been spectacularly right and just as wrong, but if this is true
    US plan for UN to endorse Khamenei’s fatwa
    then Israel had better get with it right now. And if there is an omnipotent and almighty Jewish lobby here they had better pull out the all the stops now.

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  3. David Foster
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    Sorry…guess the Conservative Sociologist link shouldn’t have been in HTML. Try this:

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  4. David Foster
    Posted February 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

    Slightly off-topic: a comment thread at <a href=””>The Conservative Sociologist</a> discusses the disadvantage conservatives/libertarians/conservatives have given the Left dominance of popular culture.
    Which raises an interesting question….Robert and other here, what are the best conservative or libertarian (but in any event contrary to the leftist worldview) movies that have been made in the last 20 years or so?

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    • Posted February 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      I think “Zero Dark Thirty,” while not intended as such, is an example. “Star Wars is probably another. Although it is hard to remember that it violates the 20 year rule. I go to so few modern movies anymore that I can’t come up with any more examples. “Forest Gump” is another example. And another example of inadvertence.

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  5. Posted February 15, 2013 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    When I was a kid of about 7 or 8, I had a subscription to Argosy magazine. Don’t ask me why my mother let me do it but she did. Shane was serialized in Argosy as “Rider from Nowhere” about 1948. When I saw the movie, when it was released, I immediately recognized the story. From Jack Shaefer’s wiki biography:
    <i>Schaefer’s first success as a novelist came in 1949 with his memorable novel Shane, set in Wyoming. Few realized that Schaefer himself had never been anywhere near the west. Nevertheless, he continued writing successful westerns, selling his home in Connecticut and moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1955.</i>
    I have a copy of the novel but it does not mention the serialization. At the end it says the boys afterward believed that, if the valley ever got into trouble again, Shane would come back.
    Argosy was a great fiction magazine and it is too bad that the contents can’t be found on the web.
    Gloria Graham was great in “Bad and the Beautiful.” She did a good southern accent.
    I watch movies from that era frequently. I was a little disappointed in The Big Heat because the novel was quite a bit different. In the novel the guy was a bodybuilder and more of a gentle giant until his wife was killed.
    Glen Ford was not one of my favorites but is very good, better than Russel Crowe, in “3:10 to Yuma.” Why do they have to mess up remakes? I had my kids, all in their 30s to 40s now, watch “Thomas Crown Affair” with me a couple of years ago. They could not believe how good it was.

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  6. sennacherib
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:58 am | Permalink

    This is off topic, but enjoy;

    Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad calls President Obama and tells him, ‘Barack, I had a wonderful dream last night. I could see America, the whole beautiful country, and on each house I saw a banner.’
    ‘What did it say on the banners?’ Obama asks.
    Ahmadinejad replies, ‘UNITED STATES OF IRAN’.
    Obama says, ‘You know, Mahmud, I am really happy you called, because believe it or not, last night I had a similar dream. I could see all of Tehran, and it was more beautiful than ever, and on each house flew an enormous banner.’
    What did it say on the banners?’ Ahmadinejad asks.
    Obama replies, ‘I don’t know. I can’t read Hebrew.’
    Got it from normblog

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink


      LOL! Thanks so much.

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  7. Johnny
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure Stevens could have made Shane before WWII. Looking at his body of work you can see what he witnessed in Europe changed him and his craft. I’m not sure you can find another director in Hollywood with such a career split. Ford seemed to be the same after the war as before but then I think Stevens was the only established Hollywood director that went into the camps.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink


      The war, especially the death camps, had a profound effect on Stevens. After coming home and returning to Hollywood, he never made another comedy.

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  8. Larry
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    “Shane” is one of my favorite Westerns. The first time I saw it when I was a kid, two things in particular knocked me out: the gunshots and the fistfight.
    To this day I have never heard any gunshots that come close to putting you right in the middle of everything happening on the screen. You can’t avoid being startled by every shot the first time you see the movie and then every subsequent time you still marvel how over the top those shots are. They are up close and very personal. With every firing you believe you’re standing right next to the shooters because of it.
    As for the fistfight it remains the epitome of the knock-down, drag-out sweaty, dirty, dusty, bloody fistfight I can recall in my personal review of film history. It’s not a mere put-up-your-dukes kind of fight you often see, nor is it the good vs bad guys playing it out kind. It’s two good men that you have got to know and even love a little standing up against the other man they each respect and became fast friends with defending their principles knowing that one is saving his family and life values and the other is saving his friend’s life. Every blow is a thundering strike on flesh and bone and it’s horrifying and awe-inspiring. When it’s over you know the one who walked away did not win the fistfight so much as the right to defend the one who couldn’t get up. You also know that the next scene was just qualified to be epic.
    “Prove it!”
    Gloria Grahame has always been a favorite of mine. Her tiny mouth fascinated me since I first saw her.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm | Permalink


      You are quite right to point out the fist fight, which is a turning point in the narrative.

      Gloria Grahame hated her mouth and had several plastic surgeries to correct what she saw as a defect. Unfortunately, the multiple surgeries froze her lips in an unnatural position. This is clearly seen in her last few movies. Very sad.

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  9. Bill Brandt
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I think Shane is one of those prototype westerns, from which the plot – mysterious stranger rides into town, cleans it up – leaves – has been used over and over.
    Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider was almost a remake.
    In one of the Icons Radio interviews they are interviewing Steven’s son and he said that the sound of the gun shots startled the audience. As you mentioned Steven’s used gunfire realistically.
    The only other western that I can think of doing this was Open Range, with Robert Duval and Kevin Costner. Again, Costner’s character has a mysterious past that ended up (with Duval’s help) cleaning up the town.
    BTW I think this was one of Jean Author’s last movies – they had to talk her into doing this.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:10 pm | Permalink


      Warren Beatty screened Shane very carefully before starring in and producing Bonnie & Clyde. He consciously tried to reproduce the distinctive gun shots.

      Yes, this was Jean Arthur’s last movie role. She played Julie Blane in an episode of Gunsmoke in 1965, and then had her own short-lived TV show in 1966. Her role, as Marion, was originally slated for Katherine Hepburn. The Alan Ladd/Shane role was supposed to go to Montgomery Clift, and the Van Heflin/Joe Starrett role was for Bill Holden.

      Interesting the way things that don’t work out, do work out.

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      • Bill Brandt
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

        Robert – interesting – if I recall what Steven’s son said – but to reproduce those shots Stevens used not a rifle or pistol but some artillery piece.
        It is interesting that sometimes despite our best intentions to the contrary things sometimes work out for the best 😉

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  10. Barry
    Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    Shane is, of course, worthy. A few years earlier at Republic Bill Elliott under Joe Kane’s direction did a film called Wyoming. Same theme as Shane, different point of view. The hero is the big land owner. The gunman a villain. More recently Heaven’s Gate proved what big budget boredom looks like. But, same story…? AS for The Big Heat, I have a copy on Blu Ray. Looks great and from a design perspective has all the auterists ejaculating. I don’t get it as anything more than a passable A – film.

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    • Barry
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      Oh, the Bill Elliott picture is pretty good with a few surprises that include Gabby Hayes. Supporting cast quite effective: John Carroll, Albert Dekker Maria Ouspenskaya, and the often criticized Vera Ralston. Not to forget Virginia Grey a long time personal favorite of mine.

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink


        I’ve never seen Wyoming. I will look it up. Thanks so much for the recommendation.

        And I agree, Virginia Grey was quite a wonderful talent.

        Heaven’s Gate proved very popular in, where else? France. I hated it.

        I’m hardly an auterist. None of my picks are there because of the director. In fact, Fritz Lang is one of those directors of whom I’m ambivalent. But The Big Heat just knocks me out. The script is tight, beautifully structured with spare and elegant dialogue.

        Glenn Ford is a lead man who usually leaves me indifferent, but in this film, he really works.

        And Gloria Grahame: Perfection.

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        • Barry
          Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          Agreed on every point. For me The Big Heat just doesn’t generate enough. Gloria Grahame, with or without hot coffee, is wonderful. The unfashionable violence aside, and admired as I know that it is, I am left entertained but not more. I suppose some of the story is inspired by events in the life of Joe Adonis and/or Frank Costello.

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          • Robert J. Avrech
            Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink


            I never debate taste in movies. For instance, there are some accepted classics that just leave me cold. I know they are good movies, but they fail to involve me emotionally. Citizen Kane is a technical marvel, important historically, but that’s as far as it goes for me. Whereas the pulpy Touch of Evil just blows me away.

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            • Barry
              Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

              Yes! And for Welles, Lady From Shanghai does it for me. As does The Magnificent Ambersons.

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              • Robert J. Avrech
                Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:29 pm | Permalink


                I have to admit that I don’t care for Lady. At all.

                Ambersons has some great moments, but for me, it doesn’t have that mysterious and necessary organic unity that elevates a good film to greatness

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            • sennacherib
              Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:16 am | Permalink

              “For instance, there are some accepted classics that just leave me cold. I know they are good movies, but they fail to involve me emotionally.” Holds true in many things, take Stevie Ray Vaughn, can play Hendrix perfectly, but was never Hendrix.

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              • Robert J. Avrech
                Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink


                That’s a fascinating observation. I know very little about rock music—save for the music of Richard & Linda Thompson—but I do know that Hendrix was a unique guitarist who, in my humble opinion, greatly improved Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

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                • Earl
                  Posted February 16, 2013 at 12:17 am | Permalink

                  ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ is one of my favourite albums.  If Richard and Linda Thompson is all you know, then that aint bad at all.

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                • sennacherib
                  Posted February 17, 2013 at 10:11 am | Permalink

                  In movies perhaps a good example would be “Casablanca” which I doubt would win any technical awards (feel free to correct me, movies are your bailiwick), especially compared to “Citizen Kane”. But if you had to watch one for 24 hrs straight which would you pick?
                  BTW you had to have been there at the time, Hendrix was like from another planet. I won’t go long about him, at least this time. If you’re curious watch a video of him doing “Wildthing” by the Troggs. The whole thing and you might get an idea.

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          • Posted February 15, 2013 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

            Gloria Grahame tended to improve most things she was in – she’s great in It’s A Wonderful Life, and marvelous in In A Lonely Place; convincingly sexy and intelligent, her character would work in any film made in any of the next six decades. An under-appreciated actress. Many people might find their mileage varies on In A Lonely Place; it’s pretty nihilistic, but it resonated with something in me when I saw it just at the end of high school.

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            • Robert J. Avrech
              Posted February 15, 2013 at 3:20 pm | Permalink


              Grahame was a wonderful and quirky actress. Sadly, she was terribly self-destructive. I’m pretty sure she was bipolar.

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  11. Posted February 14, 2013 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Shane was not a new movie by the time I (first) saw it in the late 1960’s, but I vividly remember watching it. I vividly remember the “A gun is a tool” dialogue and I vividly remember having a lump in my throat as Shane road away. Perhaps I related to Joey so much because I was about his character’s age at the time.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted February 14, 2013 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

      Prophet Joe:

      I screened Shane a few days ago, and even at my age—no longer a youngster—had a lump in my throat as Shane rode off into the sunset.

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    • Posted February 14, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      I can’t believe I use “road” instead of “rode”!

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      • Robert J. Avrech
        Posted February 14, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

        Typos are a way of life here at Seraphic Secret. Relax.

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