When television dried up the market for B-Westerns in the early 1950s, genre veteran Randolph Scott found a niche producing (with Harry Joe Brown) and starring in a steady stream of distinctive oaters made throughout the 1950s. These films hovered somewhere between high-Bs and low-As - they had the relative novelty of color, longer shooting schedules, better casts and more imaginative directors than Gene Autry or Roy Rogers usually had in their last films. Though they may not have been up to the level of the biggest and best '50s Westerns from Ford, Hawks, and Anthony Mann, they were still above average, with cultish directors like Andre De Toth and Budd Boetticher at the helm.
Tall in the Saddle (1951) is a typical Scott Western from the early-1950s. Its screenplay, by Kenneth Gamet adapting Ernest Haycox's (Stagecoach) novel, is mostly standard B-Western action, but it does have several interesting characters whose psychological flaws have a bit more depth than the usual Western stereotypes. Owen Merritt (Scott), owner of the Christmas Creek Ranch, is unhappy if resigned after his pragmatic girl, Laurie (Joan Leslie), leaves him to marry wealthy cattleman Will Isham (Alexander Knox). Isham is an obsessive capitalist: he pressures rancher Pay Lankershim (Clem Bevans) to sell out, even though Pay's more than happy to share the river that divides their properties. "I've never owned half of anything," Isham insists.
Turning his attentions to Merritt's land, Isham hires gunslinger Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober, who died soon after this was released) to drive Merritt and the other small-time cattlemen away. He and his men trigger a stampede, and shoot popular cowboy George (Cameron Mitchell) enraging his brother, Juke (The Alligator People's Richard Crane), who wants revenge. Meanwhile, another burgeoning rancher, Nan (Ellen Drew), tries to help Merritt, whom she loves, while fending off the obsessive attentions of Isham man Hugh Clagg (John Russell).
Tall in the Saddle makes for an entertaining 88 minutes with a nice balance of action, romance, and color. The Lone Pine, California locations are put to good use thanks to DP Charles Lawton, Jr.'s Technicolor lensing, and the film offers several very good action set pieces. One of these involves a knock-down, drag-out fight between Merritt and Clagg that literally brings down the cabin they're in, and which continues down a steep, snow-covered slope. It's well-staged and exciting. Director Andre De Toth stages a visually interesting daytime windstorm for the climatic shoot-out (a full decade before Yojimbo), but it's underutilized.
Better is the undercurrent of obsessive behavior on both sides, which takes all sorts of forms. Alexander Knox is excellent in what might have been played in the usual evil-rancher mode, but which he infuses with a neatly underplayed proprietary arrogance. He regards Laurie as little more than another possession others can't have - a trophy wife. ("Stay away from everything that belongs to me," he warns Merritt.) Laurie's loveless marriage, to which she remains loyal, is intelligently motivated out of a strained relationship with her leech of a father (Don Beddoe), who embarrasses her by asking everyone for money. Clagg's interest in Nan is creepy and almost clinically dramatized. She has no interest in him at all and does nothing to encourage him, yet he becomes possessive of her nonetheless, enraged with her attraction to Merritt.
Except for the Technicolor there's little in Man in the Saddle that would have driven its budget much over half a million dollars, yet from a production standpoint the picture is handsomely made. There's also a catchy title song by Harold Lewis and Ralph Murray, also worked into the story and sung by an uncredited Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Video & Audio
Sony's batch of 1950s Westerns, most starring Randolph Scott, seem to be sold on an "as is" basis, meaning that there's little in the way of digital clean-up and the images are only as good as the general condition of the available elements. In the case of Man in the Saddle, the original full-frame image has good color but some speckling here and there, most of it limited to the opening reel. The monophonic sound is fine, with Japanese and yellow-green English subtitles for those who want them. There are no Extra Features.
Undemanding audiences will recognize the modest but real merits of Man in the Saddle while those less interested in the genre will likely find it competent but generic. It's well-made for what it is, and comes Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.