Saddle The Wind (1958): In Memory of Richard Erdman

Saddle-the-wind_posterJulie London provides her airy voice to the title track and Elmer Bernstein gives his scoring talents for the rest of the picture. In these beginning moments, Saddle the Wind evokes the expanse of the majestic landscapes of the West like the best of its brethren. There is a sense we really are out on the frontier, not some manufactured piece of artifice. For the time being, the film maintains this sense of the wind-open spaces away from Hollywood soundstages.

It gets its first jolt of action when a leering Charles McGraw stomps into a saloon and shoves his weight around for food and a bottle. He’s got his feet kicked back and starts breaking bottles over counters just to get his point across. The locals aren’t looking for any trouble, but he’s certainly looking for someone: gunslinger Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor).

Here we must introduce the glut of Saddle The Wind. Robert Taylor is still Hollywood handsome but time has set in and made his features more applicable for the West. Where a hard life and past wounds lead people to make a new existence for themselves. The reformed gunfighter is not a new concept, but it is a handy one. It gives a man menace without him having to show it, until it’s absolutely necessary.

The real action arrives in the form of his spunky dynamo of a little brother, who comes back to the family ranch with a woman (London) betrothed to be his wife. His big brother is less than pleased to find Tony has gone and got himself hitched and spent his money on a spiffy new gun.

If anything is cemented in this preliminary scene, it is that one is the hothead, the other maintains reproachful silence. They are the yin and yang of the West. Cassavetes and Richard Erdman, as rowdy Reb veterans, form a rambunctious partnership looking to tear up the town and have themselves a bit of fun. They positively take the bar by storm, only to have their merriment disrupted by the same out-of-towner. Except the man Venables meets up with isn’t an old local or a squeamish bartender.

Tony is on top of the world, and if there’s one thing he’s never gonna do is back off even when the other man isn’t looking for trouble. His quarrel, after all, is with the elder Sinclair. Still, the feisty buck takes it as a personal affront. He goads the man into action. There is no other way for it. Guns are drawn.

Steven rushes on the scene an instant too late. His brother isn’t killed, but something worse happens. He’s filled with renewed fire. The taste of power — the ability to strike a man down with the pull of a trigger — is like an intoxicating liqueur.

Steve Sinclair has long kept the peace with the main landowner in the area Dennis Deneen (Donald Crisp), who is, by all accounts, a businessman and a pacifist. The stage is set for something…

Clay Ellison (Royal Dano) is a proud man clinging unflinchingly to the promise of land out west, formerly bestowed on his dearly departed father when the territory was still wide-open. He’s come on the scene to take back what’s his even as Steve tells him, brusquely, he’s trespassing. In a different context, that might be the end of the incident.

What ignites it irrevocably is a remnant of North vs. South animosity left over from the Civil War (Ellison is a proud Union man with great distinction). The torchbearers are Tony and the impish Dallas as they have a grand old time with the squatters, upending their wagons and chasing away their livestock in fits of gunfire and laughter. It’s a bit of festering payback for wartime grievances, and it’s easily the most devastating scene, right smack dab in the middle of the picture.

It’s a testament of what happens when men take squatter’s justice into their own hands and when the protective big brother does little more than beat back his baby sibling and throw money at a problem. Nothing is remedied.

However, Saddle The Wind ends up being far more contained than I was expecting. It’s fundamentally a character study about two brothers and how they grapple with one another, based on outside stimuli.

We could name a number of people, first the new wife who is brought home. The old vagabond war buddy who is an instant enabler. A gunfighter with a vendetta looking to tromp up old wounds. Even the obdurate homesteader who’s not about to get pushed out by a punk kid.

None of these characters seems to truly exist for themselves. Even lord of the valley, Mr. Dineen, though deeply humanized by Donald Crisp, is just another piece in the brother’s story. This observation might seem too harsh, but with Rod Serling as the story’s scribe, it seems conceivable to say the intriguing idea — because it is that — takes some precedence over the characters.

There are moments to turn the stomach, feelings of conflict, and wrenching segments of tension. This is not a completely lethargic film by any means. If anything, Cassavetes alone sets it ablaze with his youthful fire. Still, some component seems to be missing.

With this vast assemblage of characters, it could be that there are a handful of stories worth telling when the credits roll, and we only got over the cusp of one of them. The ending lacks all the cathartic payoffs we craved so dearly. The strands don’t entirely tie together, though the movie does try and solve everything with a silver lining. Surely it’s not that easy.

Whereas the opening moments felt like a regalia of western imagery, Saddle The Wind settles into almost small-screen paces, going from long shots full of real sagebrush to close-ups with backdrops painted on.

Although it’s hardly fair to consider the film’s merits on this issue alone — I think the suspension of disbelief being broken speaks to something — even as these characters never settle into something truly genuine. It’s allowable to be harsh with critique only because Saddle The Wind has its share of all-too-brief shining moments to go along with its potential. It’s an oater with enthralling elements not fully realized.

3/5 Stars

Note: I watched this film literally two days before the passing of Richard Erdman at the age of 93. He was one of my most beloved supporting actors. He will be deeply missed for his myriad of classic roles and for his work as Leonard on Community.

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