Sunday, 24 September 2017

Movie Review: Man In The Saddle (1951)


A sturdy western with appealing artistic touches, Man In The Saddle does not stray far from genre conventions but carries a stylistic kick.

Rich landowner Will Isham (Alexander Knox) is about to marry Laurie (Joan Leslie), the former sweetheart of the much more humble cattle rancher Owen Merritt (Randolph Scott), who is still very much in love with Laurie. Will is keen to extend his influence and eliminate all competition both real and perceived, by good means or foul. His band of enforcers is led by Texan Fay Dutcher (Richard Rober). Meanwhile, Hugh Clagg (John Russell), another of Will's men, is lusting after independent cattle woman Nan Melotte (Ellen Drew), but she only has eyes for Owen.

Will goes about buying out adjacent landowners, but when Owen refuses to sell, their conflict becomes violent with a series of back-and-forth raids, murders and reprisals, and Laurie has to decide whether she can stand by her new husband. When Owen is wounded and forced to flee to the hills, it is Nan who helps him out, which further inflames Hugh's rage.

Notably directed by Andre DeToth, Man In The Saddle features noir and suspense touches rarely seen in a western. Just when what seems to be a traditional saloon shootout scene is about to ignite, DeToth turns out all the lights, allowing the bullet flashes and little else to tell the story. Several other scenes feature backlighting, silhouettes and shadows, heightening the drama.

In the film's most famous scene, a prolonged fist fight between Owen Merritt and Hugh Clagg literally brings down the roof and extends for hundreds of yards down a snowy embankment. As the punches fly, DeToth finds the time to inject a classic suspense element featuring a shotgun trapped under fallen debris.

The plot is only slightly above average, but the two overlapping romantic triangles add a dash of originality. Laurie is unusually clear that her marriage to Will is all about convenience and loveless social climbing, leaving all the threads hanging with Owen. Meanwhile the down-to-earth Nan is exactly Owen's type of woman, if only he can peel his eyes off Laurie and rescue Nan from Hugh. DeToth doesn't allow the romances to bog down the film but they do provide a potent power source.

Also adding to the film's appeal is Will's soft spoken, clearly insecure but immensely powerful villain, a classic example of a man who undeservedly has everything but won't be satisfied until he pushes too far for his own good.

Elsewhere Man In The Saddle is a straightforward 87 minutes of stock acting and gunplay or fisticuffs at regular intervals. The second half runs out of new ideas and defaults to raid and counter raid, rinse and repeat to run down the clock, with several scenes of riders on the plains extending well past what is necessary to pad the already thin running time. But with DeToth at the helm, the Man In The Saddle is just that bit more intriguing that he needed to be.






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