When Sam Shepard sadly passed away in July of this year, the world lost one of its greatest playwrights. A master stager of the American myth and the man responsible for classics such as True West and Buried Child but one who by the end of his career had developed into an equally masterful character actor. An actor who probably had the looks to be a traditional leading man, but chose instead to pursue smaller roles and work with some of cinemas greatest directors. 

I'm going to be looking at three films that Shepard was an integral part of. Two which he acted in and another that he was the writer of: Days of Heaven (1979), The Right Stuff (1983) and Paris, Texas (1984). Three films that have more in common than at first glance.

In Terrence Malick's sophomore picture, Days of Heaven a poetic narration meets a visual elegance that's rarely been matched since. Indeed, Malick himself has used this movie as the blueprint for his further cinema explorations.  Set in the panhandles of the early 20th century, Malick creates a 'magic hour' fable, with all the footage being captured just before dusk and entirely in natural light.

Shepard had only appeared in small roles up until being cast as the enigmatic Farmer. A ghost still encased in human form and isolated in his house at the top of the land, Shepard -the eternal cowboy at heart- makes for perfect casting. Indeed, he haunts the first third of the movie leaving most of the limited narrative movement to Richard Gere and Brooke Adams. Gere is a brash macho man, standing in direct comparison to Shepard's passive presence. When they finally come together, they represent the passing over of an era.

When Gere's wife -Adams- attracts the eye of the farmer, so begins a poetic battle of jealousy. Shepard as playwright stands in for any accusations of an underwritten character, with the narration doing all the heavy lifting and gives us the first indication of what his cinematic work will be like: iconic in tone and of small gestures.

With The Right Stuff, Shepard was trusted to play a real-life character -or, at least a cinematic interpretation of that- in General Chuck Yeager, the man who broke the sonic sound-barrier for the first time. Though the film initially sets Yeager up as its protagonist, it becomes clear later that he's standing in for something else. Director Philip Kaufman presents us with a cast of heroes, some of the first men to orbit the Earth but it's clear that in his mind there was only one true hero -Yeager. His entrance into the picture is nearly as iconic as that of John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939). From horseback riding to volunteering for test flights for the same money as his Air Force salary, Kaufman presents Yeager as more than a man. He stands in for all the great American myth-makers and disappears for long stretches of the narrative because the race for space takes precedence. Whilst that increasingly becomes a showboating act of corporate public relations, Yeager does what he always does - tries to attempt more feats that should be impossible in a jet. Kaufman's impression is one of wonder at Yeager's achievements and Shepard absolutely embodies that character in a charismatic but restrained performance, taking his acting to perhaps its zenith -he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

With Paris, Texas, Shepard found the ideal cinematic visualiser for his prose. Wim Wenders had already established his own cinematic geography with a series of road movies -that would come to be known as The Road Trilogy- but with Paris, Texas he found the perfect mix of material and leading man, in Harry Dean Stanton. Stanton uses every inch of his physical being to project very little, internalising so much that by the end of the film when he finally releases that tension, the barrier between audience and actor is completely shattered. It’s heart-breaking to watch and it’s most famous piece of dialogue -the lengthy monologue that comes between Stanton and Natassja Kinski- was written by Shepard overnight, with Wenders not fully convinced that it would work. Shepard knew the power of what he had written would play on screen. The film has since gone on to be regarded as one of the best of the 1980's and Wenders own filmography.

The three are thematically linked by men driven by an internal logic that might not be initially apparent to those close but is heart wrenching to watch. Shepard would go on to nearly become a romantic leading man in Baby Boom (1987) Before becoming a late career favourite of directors such as Andrew Dominik -he appeared in both The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and Killing Them Softly (2012)- and Jeff Nichols, in Mud (2012) and Midnight Special (2016).

His death feels like a loss to the cinema screen for more than the three films studied above. His presence lifted projects small in scale and limited in quality, no matter how long he spent on screen. The echoes of his performance in Days of Heaven that play through as Frank James in The Assassination of Jesse James -as he warns his brother Jesse, played by Brad Pitt- stand in for Dominik's own echoing of Malick. Shepard, ever the cowboy even in real life, had an honesty and a humanity that burned brightly. Dominik needed that, and we'll all miss it.