Thursday, September 4, 2014

Saddle the Wind

Saddle the Wind starts off with a menacing tone as a man rides into a town, ties his horse to the hitching rail in front of a saloon, and goes inside before it's officially open.  He orders the men there to serve him food and drink which, eventually and very reluctantly, they do.  At the end of that scene, we find out that the stranger is looking for someone named Sinclair, who owns part of a nearby valley.  Although unstated, it is clear that Sinclair is not a friend of his.

Then we see a bunch of cowboys working in a meadow and someone arrives; it turns out to be Tony (played by John Cassavetes), the younger brother of Steve Sinclair (played by Robert Taylor), and he has brought with him a girl he just met and plans to marry. Steve turns out to be an ex-gunfighter. 

In the subsequent conversation between Steve and Tony, and Steve and the girl, whose name is Joan Blake (played by Julie London), we find out something about all their backgrounds.  Joan was a singer in a saloon--she sings the eponymous song of Saddle the Wind--but she is not at all like the coincidentally-named Georgette Sinclair (Michele Lee in Bad Night in Big Butte).

As Saddle the Wind progresses, we get drawn into the family drama between Tony and Steve and the people around them who are impacted by it.  "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.  That's a low height for a man," says Steve to Tony during an argument that exemplifies how well-acted and finely drawn the characters are.  The title of this 1958 movie makes perfect sense, too.

Other stranger soon appear in the valley; they are squatters from Pennsylvania but they have a good claim to the land.  Sparks fly and the movie gets real interesting from here on in.  There are multiple conflicts and events escalate until the surprising end to Saddle the Wind.  Aside from the rather obvious love interest, the plot is intriguing and this 84-minute movie is well worth watching.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

McCabe & Mrs. Miller

“I don’t really care very much about story in a film—I think more of it as painting.”
       -- Robert Altman, director of McCabe & Mrs. Miller

And that sentiment just about says it all.  Starring Warren Beatty and Julie Christie, this 1971 movie was very much of its time.  Beatty plays McCabe, a man who arrives in an isolated northwest coast mining town and somehow manages to become the richest man there through ventures in gambling and prostitution.  Christie plays Mrs. Miller, a businesswoman who convinces McCabe he needs her to run his brothel.  Assorted other characters populate McCabe & Mrs. Miller but they are not clearly defined except for Sheehan, played by Rene Auberjonois, who is a rival saloon keeper.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller opens in a dark saloon and I hate movies whose scenes can’t be seen clearly because of the low lighting.  The action in the beginning of the movie was slow-moving but once Mrs. Miller arrived, it picked up.  Many scenes shifted abruptly back and forth and, while that might be an interesting cinematic style, I found it made it hard to follow the plot as the continuity just was not there for me.

But continuity really wasn’t the point of McCabe & Mrs. Miller.  Rather, the film showed slices of life in a new town at the turn of the 20th century, as seen through the eyes of these two main characters who are trying to do more than just eke out a living.  Much grittier than Alias Smith and Jones, it was probably a much more realistic depiction of that time period: Streets were muddy, buildings were in various states of construction and furnishing, the saloon was definitely not as comfortable or well lit as all the ones in the TV show, and the clothes worn by the people were much more ragged and well-worn.  Even the long johns were mud-stained and loose-fitting, unlike those Heyes and Curry wore in, for example, The Posse That Wouldn’t Quit or Everything Else You Can Steal.

There was also lots of cussing in the movie which, for obvious reasons, wasn’t heard on the 1970s TV show.  Some phrases also stuck out as likely being of that time, such as “gooseberry ranch” for brothel.  This, combined with the production design and location shooting, gave an aura of verisimilitude to McCabe & Mrs. Miller, although I found the song that was sung repeatedly throughout to be annoying.

Robert Altman and David Foster, a producer of the movie, provide audio commentary as a bonus feature, which I listened to for about 15 minutes and it was quite informative and is the source of the opening quotation to this blog entry.  But I found the 9-minute “Making Of” bonus feature more interesting than the actual 121-minute feature film, so I didn’t listen to the entire commentary as I was not about to watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller a second time.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder is a surprisingly good movie.  I say surprising because it was not at all what I expected it to be, which was a film about outlaw brothers and their mother sheltering them.  Rather, it was about four brothers, two with questionable backgrounds, who come together after their mother’s funeral and then find themselves, mostly through no fault of their own, in serious trouble.

Starring John Wayne as the oldest brother, John Elder, a gunslinger, and Dean Martin as Tom, something of a conman, The Sons of Katie Elder co-stars Earl Holliman as Matt, another brother.  He is quieter than the others and his character is not as fleshed out as the other brothers, but his voice is unmistakable and, since this movie was produced in 1965, he looks quite young.  The fourth brother, Bud, played by Michael Anderson, Jr., is much younger than the others and has come home from college; he looks up to John but has never really known him.

Paul Fix (Tom Hansen in The Day They Hanged Kid Curry, Clarence in Night of the Red Dog, and Bronc in Only Three to a Bed) plays Billy, a level-headed sheriff on good terms with John; their relationship is a highlight of the movie.  He reminded me a bit of Lom Trevors in that he respected John Elder yet did not put up with any nonsense from him, and that respect was reciprocated by the gunslinger.  Boyd "Red" Morgan (Augie Helms in The Fifth Victim) has an uncredited role and I did not recognize him in The Sons of Katie Elder.

Naturally, something crooked is going on that is impacting the Elder boys and John makes it his business to find out what.  All the townspeople apparently loved Katie Elder but the same can’t be said of her husband, who died under mysterious circumstances before her, nor of her sons.  Martha Hyer, who plays the owner of the boarding house in Clearwater, the Texas town that is the setting of The Sons of Katie Elder, clearly has conflicted emotions about John and their scenes together are enjoyable to watch.

Fast-paced and well-plotted, there is lots of good banter between the brothers, lots of action, a great climactic shootout, and a satisfying conclusion to The Sons of Katie Elder.  A few connections to ASJ: The funeral of Mrs. Elder, which occurs early in the film, reminded me of the first funeral in The Fifth Victim, when the preacher said many nice words about the deceased.  A scene in the town saloon in the second half of the movie was very similar to the walk-off scene in the Pilot.

The relationship that the brothers had with each other as The Sons of Katie Elder was made plausible by the excellent acting.  One conversation, which occurred shortly after the funeral—John was not with them at the cemetery but observed the proceedings from high on a hill—was, to me, reminiscent of the banter Curry and Heyes shared.  The three brothers are in their home discussing John, who has yet to make his presence known to them:
     Bud (the youngest son): “Is he as fast with a gun as everyone says he is?"
     Tom (the con artist): “Fast?  When he was a kid, he was the fastest.  When  I  was a kid, I was afraid to be in the same room as him.  But let me point something out to ya, kid.  That kind of work doesn’t pay too well.  If you’re lookin’ for a line of work to follow, I’d like to recommend mine.”
     Matt (Earl’s character): “Yeah, larceny.”
     Tom: “Well, the hours are better and you get shot up a lot less.”  

At one point in the movie, I thought I heard echoes of the music used in the Marlboro Man cigarette commercials on TV.  Upon investigation, I discovered that the composer of the score of The Sons of Katie Elder, Elmer Bernstein, also scored The Magnificent Seven and motifs from that movie were used for the TV commercials.

There are no bonus features but The Sons of Katie Elder is definitely worth watching and although it is 121 minutes long, it seems much shorter because it holds one's interest from start to finish.