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.

The Killers (1964)

The_Killers_(1964_movie_poster).jpgAfter an opening to rival the original film noir The Killers (1946), though nowhere near as atmospheric, Don Siegel’s The Killers asserts itself as a real rough and tumble operation with surprisingly frank violence. However, it might be expected from such a veteran action director on his way to making Dirty Harry (1971) with Clint Eastwood.

With hitmen (Lee Marvin and Clu Galagher) as the motors for the story, they help maintain a similar flashback structure to the original film taken from Hemingway’s short story, except this time their inquiries are a little more forceful than anything the insurance investigator managed in Robert Siodmak’s film.

Furthermore, to fit better with the cultural moment boxing is traded out for race car driving as our fateful hero in this instance is Johhny North (John Cassavetes) a tragic figure who got caught up in love and wounded in the same instance.

Still, Cassavetes even before he was a director of great repute, he made for a quality acting force because the intensity always seems to burn in his eyes and it serves him well here yet again.

He and his mechanic partner (Claude Akins) are intent on winning a big pile at the racetrack but Johnny gets caught up in a romance with an alluring beauty named Sheila Farr (Angie Dickinson) who can’t get enough of him. But she also happens to be pretty closely connected to an unscrupulous “businessman” who conveniently pays the bills for her. If Johnny knew any better he would get out of there as fast as he could but she’s a knockout who seems to want him and he wants to believe in her sincerity.

Ronald Reagan takes on the uncharacteristically grimy role as the corrupt Jack Browning which interestingly enough would be the actor’s last Hollywood role before switching his sights on politics first as governor of California and then down the road aways as the president of the United States.

Like his predecessor so many years before, The Swede (Burt Lancaster), Johnny (Cassavetes) gets played for a bit of a stooge and as embittered as he is after a faltering racing career, he inserts himself into Jack Browning’s (Reagan) get-rich-quick bank job which is bound to spin out of control. Adding insult to injury Sheila is right there searing through him like she always used to. The imminent results speak for themselves concerning hitmen, dames, and everyone else who could possibly be caught up in the dirty business.

There are isolated moments where the drama gets laid down a little thick and yet for a film that was initially supposed to be a TV movie, this effort really is an enjoyable neo-noir despite being starkly different than its predecessor. In fact, that allows it to stand on its own two feet and even if it’s not nearly as good, Siegel’s film is still quite thrilling. Thankfully this one lives up to its name and it goes out as deadly as it came in which usually bodes well for a crime picture.

Part of that goes down to the acting talent because it feels like there’s no real throwaway role and everyone has something to keep them busy. Lee Marvin has top billing and he takes up a post that feels like it just might be the precursor to the enigmatic crime spree of Point Blank (1967). His performance along with Clu Gulager’s are undoubtedly the coolest bar none and yet they aren’t even in the majority of it.

That privilege goes to Cassavetes and Dickinson who light up the screen and play their character types impeccably. The same might be said for Claude Akins or Norman Fell. The only odd spot is Reagan but then again maybe that might only be my bias since I’m so used to seeing him be presidential.

3.5/5 Stars

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Rosemarys_baby_posterFrom the haunting opening notes of a lullaby to the otherworldly aerial shot floating over New York, Rosemary’s Baby is undeniably a stunning Hollywood debut for Roman Polanski.

What follows is a tale weighed down by impending doom and paranoia. But although the tone is very much suited for Polanski, it’s perhaps even more surprising how faithful his adaptation is to the original source material. Most of the dialogue if not all of it is pulled from the pages of Ira Levin’s work and the Polish auteur even went so far as getting the wallpaper and interiors as close to the novel’s imagery as he could. But that hardly illuminates us to why the film is so beguiling–at least not completely.

In an effort to try and describe the look of the film, the best thing that I can come up with is inscrutably surreal. Some of it is undoubtedly due to the lighting. Partially it’s how the camera moves fluidly through the cinematic space which is mostly comprised of interiors. But nevertheless, it’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at and it pulls you in like the wreckage of a car crash. As much as you don’t want to, your eyes remain transfixed.

Mia Farrow, with her figure gaunt and her hair short, becomes the perfect embodiment of this young wife. The progression she goes through is important. Because she starts out young, bright-eyed and cute. Still, as time progresses she evolves into her iconic image, shadows under her eyes, ruddy and covered in beads of sweat. Her state is no better signified than the moments when she walks through oncoming traffic in a complete psychological daze.

John Cassavetes brings his brand of comical wryness to the role of the husband and struggling actor. But face value gives way to more sinister underpinnings. Old pros like Ruth Gordon, Sidney Blackmer, and Ralph Bellamy are given critical parts to play as an overly hospitable old crone and her husband and the aged doctor who are all privy to this deep-seated conspiracy.

You’ll find out soon enough what that means if you watch the film. However, for me what kept coming back to me is that this is, in essence, a subversion of the Christ child narrative with a new “Mother Mary” figure.  And hidden behind this psychological horror show is something, oddly enough, darkly comic. It’s summed up by the scene in the doctor’s office waiting room where Rosemary begins to leaf through Time Magazine. The headline reads bluntly, “Is God Dead?” As a relapsed Catholic surrounded by people who scoff at religion, the world is seemingly devoid of such things. Even the film itself features more profane moments, greater sensuality, and darker themes than any film of the early 60s. Thus, that magazine headline is not too far from the truth

It’s a question that many would have undoubtedly answered in the affirmative in 1968 too, a year fraught with rebellion, unrest, assassinations, and conflict. Polanski himself would even lose his beloved wife Sharon Tate at the hands of the Mansion family. Mia Farrow was served divorce papers by Frank Sinatra on set. It surely was a dark time and yet while Rosemary’s Baby is disillusioning, there’s also an absurdity running through it.

However, the bottom line is that it maintains its frightening aspects because so much is left ambiguous. We don’t see the baby. We never fully understand what’s afoot. And we don’t even know what will happen to Rosemary in the end. What choice will she make? What path will she choose? Is this all a cruel nightmare or will she wake up? Can anyone rescue her from her torment? There are no clear-cut conclusions only further and further digressions to be made.  There’s something fascinatingly disturbing about that. It ceases to grow old.

4.5/5 Stars

Shadows (1959)

shadows1By today’s standards, it might not look like much, but all conversations of independent filmmaking cannot go anywhere without John Cassavetes and specifically his debut Shadows. It’s hard to get out of our modern perspective with so many different outlets to get films made, but back in the 1950s your only road was Hollywood and that was only a select few. Then Cassavetes got the idea to make a film with a group of his acting school students, who were trying to carve a niche for themselves amidst the method acting revolution overtaking New York.

In its initial cut, Shadows was far from popular, and after it was overhauled and re-edited it did a bit better. But now it is the emblem of indie movies — it’s a different type of film-making altogether. It’s the Beat Generation. It’s New York City. It’s handheld camera work. It’s thumping jazz. It’s improv. It’s spontaneous.  All of this loosely ties together the narrative of three siblings dealing with universal issues like family and highly volatile ones like interracial relationships.

shadows2The first is younger brother Ben Carruthers, a light-skinned black who has a struggling career as a jazz musician which he balances with a nightlife of escapades with his buddies. More often than not he’s getting in trouble, in a pinch for cash, and his violent temper gets the best of him more than once.

Then there’s his older brother Hugh who is trying to sing a new gig with the help of his agent, but he must settle for a stint at a sleazy nightclub. It feels below his talent and completely wastes his ability, but he just goes with it. On the side, he tries to keep an eye on his younger brother and sister who he feels responsible for.

shadows3The youngest, Leila, is still an innocent and naive girl who thinks she knows how to take care of herself. Over the course of the film, she winds up with a few very different men. The first is a stuffy author with an authoritative streak. The second is a soft-spoken bright-eyed man, who gets her to sleep with him. Finally, the last one is a young African-American man who is gentlemanly, but not about to be made fun of. In fact, over the course of these relationships, we see the evolution of Leila as she starts out as a demure girl with the big doleful doe eyes. Slowly she becomes more controlling and self-absorbed, but still, she has a lot to learn about actual romantic love.

She’s not the only one either. We leave Ben as he lays battered with his buddies after they got in a brawl with some tough guys over some broads in a diner. There’s no big epiphany at the end of this or some riveting conclusion. We leave them in a moment of their existences just like any other. It’s nothing altogether novel or interesting, and ironically that’s what makes Cassavetes’ film so fascinating. It broke the mold — perfect in all of its imperfections or more aptly because of them. Not to mention the fact that it flipped conversations on race and gender upside down.

4/5 Stars

A Woman Under the Influence (1974)

a6338-awomanunderinfluenceWow, this film from John Cassavetes was truly gut-wrenching and powerful. Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk are wonderful as Mabel and Nick. At their core they both seem like essentially good people. They love their kids, their family, and friends. Except Mabel’s problems tear them apart and in turn hurt the ones they love. The drama is not created my major plot twists, but the mundane and the typical. Dinner conversations, picking the kids up from school, gatherings with friends. This is when the film takes place and this is where we see their family unwinding at the seams. It is a personal story and the cinematography and the script for that matter are not polished. They are allowing us to see into this situation and thus the heartache and the pain washes over us and we become engaged with it.

Supposedly Richard Dreyfuss threw up after watching this film. Some may not be able to claim that same reaction, but there is no doubt that your heart goes out to not only Mabel but her children who are caught in the middle of it all. Even Nick, who can be a callous and even violent person is given a heart because he was portrayed by the great Peter Falk. This is definitely powerful stuff that is worth seeing.

This film may actually be more difficult to watch than some gorier films for the simple fact that it will hit the audience close to home. Literally. This is my first film from the director John Cassavetes and hopefully there will be more in my near future. Take a chance with this one because there is a chance that it is different than many of the polished Hollywood films you have seen in the past.

4.5/5 Stars