Posted by moirafinnie on May 20, 2009
Maybe it was the moon, or that 4th cup of tea I had that afternoon or just a touch of Spring fever. In any case, last week, the Sandman forgot my address. I was wide awake at 3a.m. Those burning coals that used to be my eyes just weren’t eager to dive into the text of any of the books next to the bed, it was too cold to be star-gazing, (I’m always hoping to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis), and flipping on the tube, those infomercials about the joys of cryovacing food at home just aren’t something I’d like to watch at any time. Inevitably, a perusal of those late night movies seemed to be a pretty good way to entice Morpheus to drop in soon. Except for the movie I came across while channel surfing.
It was a small scale western called Saddle the Wind (1958). The movie was directed by Robert Parrish (and reportedly an uncredited John Sturges). The script, with a story credited to Thomas Thompson and an uncredited Daniel Fuchs, was written by the estimable Rod Serling before The Twilight Zone, when he was the new boy in town just beginning to cut his teeth in movies after his initial success on television with such innovative plays as Requiem for a Heavyweight, The Rack and Patterns, (all of which were made into movies that still hold up quite well today).
Saddle the Wind asked us to buy the notion of a generational gap between the rapidly aging Robert Taylor (whose face really got interesting the more beat-up he became) as the elder brother, a reformed gunfighter, and his younger, juvenile delinquent brother, played by the perennial “loose screw” and bundle of talent, John Cassavetes. The younger actor, who plays his unbalanced broth of a boy like a native New Yorker, never suggests for a moment that he might be a lad who has grown up in the saddle in the same gloriously beautiful Colorado landscape as the much older and now more grounded Taylor.
Not surprisingly, this pair is at odds throughout the film. Somewhow it sucked me in, even though I told myself this was really “I Was a Teenage Gunslinger”. If you’ve seen Rebel Without a Cause, or have scoped out true fifties westerns such as The Gunfighter, The Left-Handed Gun, Run for Cover and The Tall T–you know what fate awaits the younger hotheads such as Skip Homeier, John Derek, and even Paul Newman by the time “The End” looms up in the frame.
Though these westerns seem to be reinforcing the status quo, acknowledging the authority earned by an older generation, there is a nice subversive edge to the relationship between the brothers here, especially since Taylor hints more than once that he harbors private doubts about his own responsibility as a role model when he was building a reputation as a quick man with a gun while raising his brother. There are hints that there is a mental instability within the family tree, which makes Cassavetes seem more poignant and dangerous and Taylor‘s need for self-discipline and control more understandable. There is also a schematic quality about the storyline, with a whiff of Freud 101 in the air, but the beautiful look of this film, (photographed by George Folsey) and the occasional crackles of electricity in some scenes makes it more compelling in parts rather than as a whole. There is an odd chemistry between Taylor who plays Steve Sinclair, a retired gunfighter turned cattleman and Cassavetes, who plays Tony Sinclair, a youthful younger brother asserting that his stodgy brother “better open your eyes because I’m not just your kid brother anymore. I’m a full partner and I ride abreast of you. And you’re not sitting on me anymore.”
Taylor‘s character spits back his belief that he “never sat on you; I never tied you down! I only wanted one thing in my life and that was to see you rise up. You only got up as high as your gun belt. And that’s a low height for a man. “ The tension between the two very different actors and some of the sharper lines of dialogue are so interesting I can’t help wondering what the atmosphere might have been like off-camera between the two. I think what engrossed this sleepy viewer’s attention were the pronounced moments of confused affection and fear over what had gone wrong in Cassavetes‘ upbringing hinted at so well by Robert Taylor in several scenes in which he tries to mollify, discipline and understand his mercurial sibling. At one point, taking a gun away from his reckless brother, Taylor asks with wonder, “The use of it, you got from me, but where did you get the love it?”
Cassavetes, who told self-deprecating stories about his own humiliation on the set of this movie when someone claimed he was an accomplished horseman (hardly), played men who were always one spark away from an explosion on the screen, though, according to those who knew him well, his work was almost always about characters with a “need to analyze love” and, in his own words, “that’s all I’m interested in–love and the lack of it.” Though he would continue to make mainstream films and television appearances for economic reasons, a year after this movie Cassavetes would launch his career as a director abandoning almost all the elements of telling a linear story with no villains and heroes in Shadows (1959), as would most of his often powerful later work as a filmmaker.
For Robert Taylor, this movie would mark the beginning of the end for his long contract at his home studio of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The studio, which once prized itself on having “more stars than there are in heaven” focused the studio’s flagging creative energies on big budget films such as Ben-Hur and Gigi in this period, neglecting to develop their products as effectively for the new youth markets as had upstarts such as American-International and even Warner Brothers, which fed the teenage beast of an audience regularly with formulaic movies and teen stars such as Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue and their ilk. Taylor, whose crisp features, unreal profile and patent leather hair, (which, in a dry comment by my father, was once described as “looking as though he parted it with a ruler”) had endured far too many boring parts in boring movies for the sake of a steady paycheck at the studio. Fortunately, he did not appear to have taken artificial means to stop Father Time, and as his once too pretty features faded, he developed more character and expression in his tired, world weary face. He could also look back on having done his sometimes surprising best in earlier films that played off his own discomfort with the way the world reacted to his face. As you see his evolution as he went from dull earnestness of a handsome stuffed shirt to an ardent lover to man who is troubled by the choices he has made in Camille, Three Comrades, Billy the Kid, Waterloo Bridge, Johnny Eager, Bataan, High Wall, The Bribe, Devil’s Doorway, Rogue Cop to this film and his last for MGM, Party Girl, you can trace the map of a life lived on screen and off in the lined, finally expressive, often pained face that he wore as he evolved into a good, perhaps underrated actor. Taylor‘s lived-in “natural look” as a man of the west may also have been enhanced by his numerous times playing cowboys (he’d played a similar uncontrollable sort as Cassavetes in 1941′s Billy the Kid) and his own pursuit of ranching away from the movies.
The worn face of Taylor has a nice counterpoint in the elderly land baron who controls the valley where Taylor and his brother are homesteading. He is played by Donald Crisp, a man whose loathing for violence places the future of the brothers in jeopardy as Cassavetes inevitably spins out of control. Crisp, one of the greatest character actors of his era, from the teens to the early sixties, may have felt a sense of deja vu when he undertook the role of Dennis Dineen, who is one more philosophical man looking back on life from a western perspective, though his character was more fully developed in Anthony Mann’s The Man From Laramie (1955), which I wrote about here in an earlier blog.
The elements of the story all fall into place when three other characters are placed in the scene. The first is the wonderfully gritty character actor, Charles McGraw as “Larry Venables, Gunfighter” who arrives in town early in the movie, takes over the saloon, verbally and physically abusing poor Jay Adler (uncredited as usual!) while asking pointed questions about the exact whereabouts of his one-time opponent (Robert Taylor). Bad boy McGraw departs the movie far too soon in an unexpectedly electrifying scene in the saloon which is the blood christening for Cassavetes, who then proceeds to celebrate the event over corpse with assorted hangers on. According to Alan K. Rode in his excellent biography of the actor, McGraw‘s all too brief appearance was particularly vexing for his fellow character actor Richard Erdman, who had a small part in the movie as a saddle tramp and had hoped that “we were going to have this great heavy for the balance of the film.”
Julie London, a truly wonderful jazz singer who must have had an exceedingly hardworking agent at this time, also appears as the prize that John Cassavetes has brought home from market. As a saloon girl who takes up with Cassavetes when his persistence wears her down, revealing her longing for a way out of her dead end life, she arrives as the younger man’s fiancée to an insulting welcome from Taylor. The elder brother assumes that she is motivated by money more than affection or the pity that she truly feels for this “lost boy”. As she witnesses the younger man’s transformation into a killer, London manages to look beauty parlor fresh thoughout the movie, (complete with false eyelashes). Unfortunately, though she sings prettily at one point during the movie, Miss London, who never cracks more than a brief, pained smile, is remarkably inexpressive when speaking or gazing in rather sullen discomfort at her intended bridegroom and her future brother-in-law. I kept wishing she’d bust out with her great rendition of “Cry Me a River” whenever one of the brothers started to chide or jolly her out of her funk, but alas, Miss London never seems to be caught emoting in this movie, much less singing for fun or showing signs of overt joy or sorrow. Of course, that could be due to an underwritten part, the grim circumstances that her character comes from or that she sees in this Colorado valley, but, since I’ve seen her do the same routine just after this movie in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West and Robert Parrish‘s best western, The Wonderful Country, I’m beginning to wonder if Julie should’ve stuck to singing.
I should mention that one of the nice parts of the movie was the restrained treatment of the growing understanding between Julie London and Robert Taylor as the story progresses. Theirs is not a grand romance, but the pair have their tender moments as he tries to explain his mixed feelings about his brother and she discovers his true nature. The thought crossed my mind that Julie‘s role may have only existed to give Taylor a sounding board to discuss his troubled conscience out loud, which could explain the lack of substance to her character.
The third, and least clearly defined character introduced in this movie is played by the remarkable Royal Dano, an actor who took a role made of straw and wove into small links of gold on more than one occasion in what seems to be a few hundred appearances in westerns on the big and small screen. As a claim jumper (with some legitimate right to the land he wants to cultivate), Dano is saddled with a character who is a veteran of the Civil War, one of those Eastern varmints who wanted to introduce barbed wire to the plains, being compelled to wear some ghastly whiskers, and to embody the wronged working man of all eternity. Aspects of his character are made all the more poetic due to Royal‘s haunted eyes and gaunt face, which certainly served him well whenever a casting director needed to fill a part that called for a man who had suffered. Mr. Dano, who was often described by the writer James Agee and director John Huston as brilliant as the Tattered Man in the director’s adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage did suffer–from the hands of the editors who eviscerated his role in that film, a blow from which the man’s career may never have fully recovered. Fortunately, in addition to roles that called for aggrieved distress, Dano played Abraham Lincoln in several theatrical and television productions early in his career, and was capable of playing wryly comic roles as well. Btw, Dano‘s portrayal of Lincoln was so uncanny, he was reportedly used as a voice and physical guide for the Disney Imagineers when preparing an animatronic Abe for their project in the Hall of Presidents in Disney attractions. Mr. Dano‘s familiarity as an actor makes this role initially seem prosaic, but the actor’s ability to make me believe that his realistically desperate state as the leader of the squatters was actual rather than pretend makes his demise at the hands of the Cassavetes character more pointlessly and criminally violent. This act, perhaps more than any other in the film underlined the need, not just the desirability of curbing the violence of the unraveling youth.
The brothers’ inevitable showdown—which plays out with guilt and verbose comments on both sides may have been summed up rather neatly by the character of the sheriff, played by veteran Ray Teal. While I was mulling over the nature vs. nurture verdict on violent tendencies in the adolescent male at 5 in the morning, Teal announced his judgment on the lad, “I don’t think that Tony (John Cassavetes) ever did get born. I think that somebody just found him wedged into a gun cylinder and shot him out into the world by pressing the trigger.” Donald Crisp‘s character absolves Taylor‘s surrogate father of all responsibility for the youth’s wildness, commenting that “I know all about the brother and the sickness inside him. He didn’t get that from Steve, (Taylor). He was born with it.”
The foreshadowing of an unexpected ending in this movie, which is only 84 minutes long, is there in such lines and in the unhappiness and need for recognition in the younger brother’s character. We last see that brother’s face, reflected in a puddle in the muddy earth as clearly as the blue Colorado sky and the pained smile on Cassavetes face. I found the method acting style of the younger actor much more dated than that of Robert Taylor, (as I must confess I often do when seeing ’50s movies), but there is something touching about John Cassavetes and the two very different actors playing together on screen that helps to make this little western more interesting than expected.
Saddle the Wind (1958) is available on dvd separately (and inexpensively) as well as part of a Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection that includes a rather mixed bag of movies, including Escape From Fort Bravo (1953), Cimarron (1960), The Stalking Moon (1968), and two more Robert Taylor westerns, Many Rivers to Cross (1955), and The Law and Jake Wade (1958).
What? No Westward the Women (1951)?
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