A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.
It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though – he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.
Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters – the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang – quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.
The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer – this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.
As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.