Sunday, May 25, 2014

SADDLE THE WIND (1958) - A Review
This is a solid MGM western, not epic in scope or story, but absolutely a film that delivers a compelling and believable story (with a screenplay by Rod Serling) enacted by a top-notch cast.
At the heart of this film is the conflict between brothers Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and his troubled younger brother, Tony (John Cassavetes). In the past, Steve was a hotshot gunslinger, but he's settled down into a stable life as a rancher. Unfortunately, his younger brother is neither settled or stable, and a number of conflicts become unavoidable when Tony returns home to the ranch with Joan Blake (Julie London), a saloon singer he has taken a shine to. She thought that Tony was her ticket out of the saloon and into a steady home life, but she soon sees what Steve sees - that Tony has the ability to destroy anything he touches.

Though this is set (and mostly filmed) in the vast west, and does feature some riding and shooting, the real action in this film is the conflict between the mature and responsible Steve and his violent, erratic (and probably mentally ill) brother. This small focus serves the film well, and makes for a nice contrast with the many westerns that are heavier on the fighting, shooting and action. Taylor and Cassavetes are very believable as the brothers, with similar features and coloring, and they both do good work here. Cassavetes has the showier part, given that Tony is an explosive hothead and constantly has something to prove, but Taylor grounds the film with his portrayal of the serious, duty-bound older brother. In the end, that sense of duty drives him to strap on his gun again and go after his own brother.
Julie London also does a good job here, and, playing to the crowd, is offered a chance to sing a song. Early on, she also declares to Steve that she's "not a slut," language that surprised me coming from 1958. (The line is also in the theatrical trailer for the film, so I guess it must not have been as shocking as all that.) Her character isn't necessarily essential to the plot, but she holds her own with the two leads.
The three name stars are more than ably assisted by an excellent supporting cast. Donald Crisp is very fine as a neighboring landowner who values morals and his word more than money. Charles McGraw, in his nasty tough guy mode, is effective as a gunslinger who comes looking for Steve Sinclair. And western regulars Royal Dano and Ray Teal are in there, too.

The only real complaint I have about this otherwise excellent production is that there are a few instances where scenes that were shot on location are (badly) intercut with scenes shot against a very obvious blue screen. But that's a minor quibble, and one that shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of this low-key but compelling western. At this point in history, the studio system was very much starting to break down - but at their most efficient, the studios were still capable of turning out satisfying films like this with ease. Would that such minor pleasures were so easily produced today.

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