Friday, July 9, 2010

Sex, death and horses

First things first. Any Western that begins with nasty old frog-croak Charles McGraw lurching into a saloon and demanding to see somebody in a very menacing way, then getting himself shot by the official town punk, can't be all bad.

Clearly there was a notion floating around at the time Saddle The Wind (1958) was made that the way to get the teenagers back in the theater to see Westerns, which the studios were churning out by the yard, was to get some Brando-Dean-type punks into the Old West. John Cassavetes served that function in this outing, running into conflict with his father-figure brother Robert Taylor and his grandfather-figure Donald Crisp.

Can we talk about Donald Crisp a moment? This is a man who started in pictures around 1908, was featured in Birth of a Nation and other Griffith features, and kept soldiering on, usually playing a good and decent man--often a patriarch--until 1963, when he was 81 years old. He never succumbed to ham or self-righteousness, remarkable for his generation. And you crossed him at your peril. As a cherry on the sundae, Saddle the Wind boasts Royal Dano playing one of his patented crazy aggrieved guys. The only actor better at getting ignominiously rubbed out by the bad guys was Elisha Cook, Jr.

Robert Taylor is one of those guys who spent the 1930s looking embarrassed about the tuxedo they had put him in, and only became a decent actor when he stopped trying. He's effective in this one, but he barely makes an impression next to the old-timers described above, nor does Cassavetes, who doesn't have a character to play, just an attitude, nor Julie London, who hasn't much to do after she sings the title song except to wait for fiancee Cassavetes to get himself killed and scoop up older, but more stable Taylor. Julie London was so sexy as she was, that if she had ever smiled on camera, grown men would have passed out in the aisles.

Although it's interesting that Rod Serling is credited with the screenplay, nobody goes to another planet, sees monsters or time travels. (Rats!) And is this little town deserted as an artistic statement, or because MGM was slowly going out of business when the picture was made?


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