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Saddle the Wind

Saddle the Wind(1958)

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Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was on financial life support in the latter half of the 1950s, economizing with its normal feature output while building up to prestige comebacks like Ben-Hur and Gigi. Part of the burden included finding proper vehicles for the studio's last remaining contract stars Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor. Nicholas Ray's Party Girl teamed them in a weird gangster tale interrupted by Arthur Freed -style dance numbers. Saddle the Wind may sound like a temp title for Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles, but it's really a stock Robert Taylor western enlivened by the casting of the young acting dynamo John Cassavetes.

Smaller studios had successfully hijacked the young movie audience, but MGM's idea of hooking the kids was to hire a director under fifty years of age. Robert Parrish had attracted some industry admirers with the impressive Gregory Peck film The Purple Plain and MGM was perhaps gambling that he'd turn out a commercial hit. At any rate, kids hoping to see "Rebel without a Six-Gun" were instead given a juvenile delinquent cowpoke with few redeeming characteristics.

Synopsis: Ex-gunfighter Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) has been granted a small plot of land to start his own ranch by the grateful cattleman Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), and is eager to keep the peace in the open range. But Steve's younger brother Tony (John Cassavetes) returns from the city with a fiancée, Joan (Julie London). Steve worries about the prospects of Tony founding a cattle dynasty with a saloon singer for a wife. Tony's unstable nature surfaces when he seeks to prove himself as potent a gunman as his brother. He guns down a troublemaker who turns out to have been the well-known pistolero Larry Venables (Charles McGraw). The reckless Tony then harasses some settlers who have a legal claim on a neighboring property known as The Strip. Their leader Clay Ellison (Royal Dano) intends to put up barbed wire. If Steve can't control his brother, the violence-hating Dennis Deneen will dispossess both of them.

Robert Parrish made a few good movies and several ill-fated projects like Fire Down Below and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun; Saddle the Wind fits uncomfortably on the positive side of the scale. Parrish's direction of actors is uniformly good. Cassavetes' acting is refreshingly unpredictable; his Tony is sincere but pathologically out of control. The beautiful Julie London goes through yet another western without smiling. She sings the title tune but and would continue her state of depression through Anthony Mann's Man of the West and Parrish's best western, The Wonderful Country. Parrish nurtures the tentative relationship between Steve and Joan, maintaining character interest even as the plot moves in predictable patterns.

Rod Serling's script reaches for the easy psychologizing of a 50s TV production, presenting brothers in an unhealthy relationship. The patriarchal Deneen abhors violence but it's obvious that his valley wasn't conquered with kind words. The western setup makes a cozy metaphor for the movie industry as envisioned by the conservative MGM brass. The old mogul (Deneen) was a wild boy in his youth but now wants a stable community with a place for loyal "employees" like Robert Taylor. Young punks like Allied Artists and American-International (Cassavetes) are causing a ruckus that could pollute the Hollywood money well. After the hopped up juvenile delinquent self-destructs, both the valley and the girl end up in the hands of the old guard. We can just see the MGM execs assuring each other that Rock 'n' Roll and cheap teen pix were fads that would soon go away.

The movie works best in claustrophobic settings, like the barroom where Tony out-shoots the abusive Larry Venables. The winner ends up buying drinks all around, literally atop the loser's dead body. Cassavetes and the stubble-faced Charles McGraw energize the script, raising hopes that the rest of the movie will be as interesting. Sadly, the outdoors confrontation with the homesteader-squatters is just too generic; by this time Tony's trigger-happy bad judgment is old news. The film's final act sees the characters marking time, waiting for the unstable punk Tony to get blown away.

Stern-faced Robert Taylor remains in charge. In reality, the venerable star's MGM contract would soon expire, leaving Taylor to move on to his own production company and television work. It's interesting that John Cassavetes' Hollywood career never developed farther than favored guest parts as psychos and killers. Perhaps he knew that he could never inherit matinee idol Taylor's white hat, and was already thinking of directing his own independent movies.

A worthy genre effort, Saddle the Wind will appeal more to knowledgeable film fans than the average western buff -- it has the one good barroom confrontation but is otherwise light in the action department. Primetime TV in 1958 offered more of what the audience wanted -- violent gunplay. It would take the entrance of Sam Peckinpah to truly shake up the western genre.

Warner's DVD of Saddle the Wind is a handsome enhanced transfer of this CinemaScope feature; the elements are in great shape. The only extra is a trailer. The composite cover graphic appears to be from a deleted scene, as the action depicted doesn't occur in the movie.

For more information about Saddle the Wind, visit Warner Video.To order Saddle the Wind, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson