Monday, June 26, 2023

Rod Serling Saddles the Wind

John Cassavetes glares.
The opening of notes of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans's title tune--a torch song whispered intimately by Julie London--lets you know that Saddle the Wind (1958) won't be a conventional Western. But if you start to doubt that notion, Rod Serling's credit as screenwriter and the casting of John Cassavetes as an unhinged cowboy will dispel any such notions. 

Robert Taylor stars as Steve Sinclair, a reformed gunfighter who operates a mid-sized ranch in a scenic valley. Steve spends a lot of his time looking out for his younger brother--and surrogate son--Tony (Cassavetes). Steve loves his brother, but recognizes that Tony is a "gun crazy, loco kid." One day, Tony returns from a cattle-selling trip with a saloon singer named Joan (London) and announces his intention to marry her. 

Julie London as Joan.
Steve doesn't exactly welcome Joan into the family and she initially resents his parental treatment of Tony. However, Joan gradually realizes how much Steve cares for his brother. She also learns there is a dark side to Tony--especially after she watches him kill a gunfighter after goading the man into a face-off.

The opening scenes of Saddle the Wind promise to deliver a unique take on the Western genre. Unfortunately, the story goes off the rails when it nudges Julie London to the background and shifts focus to the tired old plot about Eastern settlers building fences on the open range. It's hard to fault screenwriter Serling, who was saddled (pun intended) with a story by Thomas Thompson. 

Saddle the Wind also exhibits signs of studio interference. The sub-90 minute running time is atypical for a star-powered feature and the denouement wraps up the story too quickly. Also, Jeff Alexander's score was replaced by one composed by Elmer Bernstein. (In 2005, Alexander's Saddle the Wind soundtrack was released for the first time.)

Robert Taylor as Steve.
Rod Serling's screenplay still crackles with memorable dialogue. When Steve is trying to make a point to Tony, he asks: "Do I have to crawl inside your head with an iron and burn it there?" The opening scene is pure Serling, a brilliantly-written, three-character "play" in which a grizzled gunfighter barges into a saloon looking for Steve Sinclair. It reminded me of Serling's later, underappreciated Western TV series The Loner, which takes place during the same post-Civil War period.

Robert Taylor and John Cassavetes work well together as the very different brothers. Taylor exudes calm and resilience, while Cassavetes plays Tony like a rubber band that's ready to snap at any given time. Julie London brings an gritty realism to her disenchanted saloon singer. The scene where she sings to Cassavetes could have been a throwaway, but she turns it into a touching moment. I was bummed when London's character was shuffled to the background and relegated to a minor supporting part.

One of the last "adult Westerns" of the 1950s, Saddle the Wind is an odd duck--and I mean that in a good way. It may not always work, but what's left on the screen holds one's interest while leaving the viewer a little sad that didn't turn out to be more.

You can watch Saddle the Wind for free on by clicking here. My Twitter pal @CED_LD_Guy has uploaded lots of interesting films on his Rumble channels.