Retired gunfighter Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) is content to spend his time operating a cattle ranch. When his hot-headed younger brother Tony (John Cassavettes) returns home with a new gun and a new fiancee (Julie London), it can only spell trouble for the reluctant veteran.
There is a fascinating contrast at the centre of Saddle the Wind, a 1958 western directed by former actor and editor Robert Parrish. Much of the film is sustained by the sort of black-and-white principled values that typified the popular westerns of the 1940s and early 1950s. Steve Sinclair is a firmly upright citizen: he may allude to a violent past, but has clearly made amends. He has abandoned violence for a peaceful farming life. He strenuously attempts to do the right thing at all times, regardless of the personal cost. Robert Taylor’s performance is a precise match. It a straightforward, well-rehearsed thing. There is a solid charisma to him, and a strong screen presence, but there is little subtlety to what he is required to do. He exists to advance and tell a story in the uncomplicated fashion that most westerns of the time employed.
Cassavettes represents something different. He was born in 1929, and was part of generation of actors who had grown up with cinema. The technical nature of the film medium led Cassavettes’ generation to find new ways of performing that took advantage of cinema. The theatricalised acting of early film gave way to more complex and intricate character work. Thanks to close-ups, performances could be internalised and made more naturalistic. For his own part Cassavettes eschewed the popular ‘method’ acting of Lee Strasberg in favour of deliberate character creation. At the time of Saddle the Wind‘s release he had already directed an early version of his 1959 directorial debut Shadows, and would go on to be an instrumental figure in the independent America cinema scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
In his hands, Tony becomes a superlative character. He operates on multiple layers of thought and personality. He visibly says one thing and thinks another. The character develops and changes as his story goes, and comes across not as a character in a theatrical sense but as an observed, realistic human being. It is tremendous work, and it makes Cassavettes the most winning element of the film. Saddle the Wind catches Hollywood in a period of change, and by combining two performance styles in one work it enables the viewer to compare and contrast them.
Generally speaking, the film is admittedly a bit by-the-numbers. The first act in particular strains to summon much energy beyond Cassavettes, and the second and third acts feel a bit woolly – as if nobody quite knows what the film should ultimately be about. It is an average sort of work. By no means is it bad, but performances aside there is honestly not too much to let it stand out above the pack either. The word ‘solid’ comes to mind.