Many of MGM’s productions were scraping bottom in 1958, yet the studio found one more acceptable western vehicle for their last big star still on contract. Only-slightly corrupt marshal Robert Taylor edges toward a showdown with the thoroughly corrupt Richard Widmark in an economy item given impressive locations and the sound direction of John Sturges.
The Law and Jake Wade
Warner Archive Collection
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 86 min. / Street Date September 12, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley, Henry Silva, Burt Douglas, Eddie Firestone.
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Film Editor: Ferris Webster
Written by William Bowers from a novel by Marvin H. Albert
Produced by William B. Hawks
Directed by John Sturges
As the 1950s wore down, MGM was finding it more difficult to properly use its last remaining big-ticket stars on the steady payroll, Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor. Cyd’s talents mandated a musical or two, and they were teamed for a somewhat strained gangster epic, Nicholas Ray’s Party Girl. The 1958 western The Law and Jake Wade has a good reputation mostly owing to its director John Sturges, whose career was still ascending while the great Nicholas Ray’s was self-destructing. Sturges had graduated from work in the MGM trenches, getting above-average performances out of actors and making westerns like Escape from Fort Bravo seem above the norm; the critics loved his modern day morality play western Bad Day at Black Rock. More loan-outs and more westerns followed as Sturges’ own contract played out. It’s altogether possible that the Jake Wade co-star Richard Widmark was working off a contract commitment as well, with this show and in the unfortunate Doris Day comedy The Tunnel of Love.
The Law and Jake Wade is in most respects standard-issue western material. Writer Marvin Albert later invented the Tony Rome character; his story here is a lean tale of desperate people riding through the desert toward a grim fate. As in the Anthony Mann/James Stewart westerns, two old time outlaws just can’t let bygones be bygones; they learned their trade in the lawless Quantril Raiders days but only one of them bothered to grow a moral conscience. Screenwriter William Bowers had a hand in drafting some good films noirs and westerns including the classics The Gunfighter and Cry Danger. His screenplay here generates a mood of dark bitterness not exactly in vogue in 1958.
Marshall Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) takes time off from duty to repay what he thinks is a debt of honor — he rides halfway across the state to spring his former outlaw colleague Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) from jail, saving him from a hanging. Back home, Jake wonders if Clint will cause trouble, and all but breaks off his engagement to local woman Peggy (Patricia Owens) when she balks at leaving and heading west. But Clint has already collected his gang members Wexler and Ortero (DeForest Kelley and Robert Middleton) and with a new gunslinger Rennie (Henry Silva) grabs both Jake and Peggy before dawn. Clint insists that Jake take him to where the proceeds of their last robbery is buried. Tied up and helpless, Jake tries more than one escape attempt. They get to the ghost town where the cash is buried, but more problems arise when Indians attack. As the cowardly thieves value their lives over money, Clint must threaten them to stay. Jake explains as best he can to Peggy that no matter what they do, Clint has every intention of killing them as soon as he has the loot.
The Law and Jake Wade is pretty much an extended hostage situation on the trail, a formula that accounts for several Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott westerns, at least one Sam Peckinpah desert trek, and of course the very similar Anthony Mann/Gary Cooper western of the same year, the prophetic Man of the West. Both Man of the West and The Law and Jake Wade see a reformed outlaw facing up to his past while accompanied by a beautiful woman. As the criminal shame is revealed, disillusion sets in. The Anthony Mann story reaches for a ‘death of the West’ vibe. John Sturges’ picture is just an effective morality tale of the kind that was then playing out a dozen times a week on television, but without the glossy production values. Sam Peckinpah’s revisionist western world view is in sync with the cynical Man of the West, and contemptuous of Jake Wade’s notion of frontier morality.
Bowers’ characters show some alarming inconsistencies. Seeing as how utterly vicious and opportunistic is Widmark’s villain Clint, Taylor’s hero Jake seems like an idiot to bust him out of jail in the first place, and even more stupid to not realize that Clint will immediately turn on him. Clint was always a cutthroat, so the notion that he’ll play fair now is silly. Jake essentially jeopardizes everything to do a nice deed for an old pal who really isn’t any kind of a pal – Clint immediately clubs one man and shoots at least two more.
The idea that Jake is noble falls flat too, because he has indeed hidden the stolen loot and has no plans to give it up. Jake acts as if a huge moral weight is lifted from him when his former crony Ortero reveals that he wasn’t the one who shot a kid during a hold up, as Clint keeps reminding him. This is nonsense. No matter who shot the kid, all the thieves robbing the bank are equally responsible. In the Reginald Rose screenplay for Man of the West Gary Cooper’s character is psychologically haunted by his lawless, murderous youth. Jake Wade may act like a nice guy but morally he’s a flat-out SOB, pretending he’s something he’s not. He fully intends to keep Peggy in the dark, and mess up her life too.
The back-story idea of a kid being shot in a holdup was brought front and center in Sam Peckinpah’s first feature The Deadly Companions. Although that movie has it’s own problems, the issue of guilt is never glossed over, or neatly put away.
Sturges’ movie wants to have it both ways, to take Jake Wade as an upstanding pillar of decency, but also let him reap the rewards of his criminal career. I don’t hear anybody, including Peggy, saying anything about giving the money back. The screenplay just doesn’t ‘go there.’
The screenplay goes other places, though. Without being explicit, Clint keeps talking about he and Jake being together, and even insinuates that Peggy ‘doesn’t understand’ what the relationship was. He means the relationship of two guys who fought a guerilla war together and then became outlaws together, but anybody looking for a homosexual subtext will have all they need to make a case. Although Jake is a little confused (he thinks he’s a righteous man) the two guys share an implicit, if murderously perverse, bond. With Peggy, on the other hand, Jake is completely false. Sensing that he needs to run to escape Clint, Jake wants her to commit to taking off with him without a clear explanation. They’re both firmly established in town, so why move? Ah, but Jake has a secret life Peggy knows nothing about.
The movie doesn’t really get at this issue, and I’m not suggesting that Robert Taylor, John Sturges or MGM even thought of it during filming: it just seems a curiously valid interpretation now. As a mechanical desert-trek-to-a-showdown picture, The Law and Jake Wade is solid western filmmaking. But those character/thematic/moral disconnects trip it up to no small degree. Whether corny or shrewd, John Sturges’ other westerns know exactly what they are and make perfect internal sense. This one ends with a fairly unbelievable situation — after living under a threat of death for two days, the hero decides to give the villain a preposterous, Matt Dillon-style chance at a fair fight. Why does he keep trying to save the worthless Clint? It must be love.
Sturges finds handsome imagery near Lone Pine in the Alabama Hills, and several shots are also taken in Death Valley. A scene at Zabriskie Point, should have looked awfully familiar to filmgoers, even serving as Mars in Rocketship X-M. Like most ’50s westerns some night scenes are done day-for-night, and others are staged back on sets at MGM, using those giant cycloramas. One backdrop is a generic view of Monument Valley, which undercuts the realism established elsewhere. On the other hand, most of the scenes in the ghost town appear to utilize indoor-outdoor location sets, maintaining a strong you-are-there sensation.
Although not as dynamic as Sturges’ and cameraman William C. Mellor’s work in Bad Day at Black Rock, the ‘Scope compositions here have that pleasurable ‘big sky’ feel, and a nice sense of scale. Key shots are taken just after dawn, with dramatic side lighting. DP Robert Surtees shot Sturges’ Escape from Fort Bravo and, much later, The Satan Bug. That spy-disaster thriller creates an even more tangible feeling of desert clarity and cleanliness.
Robert Taylor is solid and humorless, but puts up a convincing bluff against Richard Widmark’s threats. Widmark also doesn’t have to stretch to make his rotten bad guy interesting. Neither actor is called on to stretch, but their interplay has its rewards. Clint keeps teasing Jake, as if daring the Marshal to stop acting so noble. Fresh from his notable performance in Boetticher’s The Tall T, Henry Silva creates an interesting troublemaker sidekick for Widmark, one who does indeed seem stupid enough to trip himself up. Between the sharp cheekbones and beady eyes, Silva would make a better cyborg than almost anybody. Robert Middleton played so many creeps that his positive character in Friendly Persuasion seemed a conscious casting against type. His Otero here is an okay guy too, but not one that changes sides until the handwriting is completely on the wall. He’s solid support as well.
Once again Patricia Owens provides a distinctive presence, even if her character clouds instead of clarify’s Jake Wade’s screwy idea of morality. Peggy voices no opinion about the loot, but she also never says Jake shouldn’t keep it. Audiences liked Owens but even after several high-profile movies (Island in the Sun, Sayonara, The Fly) she just didn’t click — in just another year she’d end up in a small role in Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity, playing a Honolulu good time girl.
John Sturges never made a bad western; this one suffers some nagging internal problems but still gives us the action and scenery we want to see. Perhaps Sturges’ best western is the one due out in a few weeks, 1967’s Hour of the Gun. It deals with the problems of gunslingers, the law, and staying alive in a treacherous landscape with a maturity rare in the genre.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Law and Jake Wade looks quite good; the WAC must be following up on their popular disc for Bad Day at Black Rock. The added oomph of HD makes the desert landscapes a pleasure to behold, and the added resolution means that we can ‘read’ the expressions of actors even when they’re not close to the camera.
No music is credited, and cues we hear appear to be library music from the MGM vault. I imagine the reason for this is the music strike of 1958, the same one that played havoc with Cyd Charisse’s dance playback tracks for Party Girl. Although I couldn’t pinpoint the source of any of the cues, they do the show no favors. Some action music seems done in a different style than the other cues, and at least one selection is a rough fit at best. MGM had its bad habits regarding music choices — too much, too sentimental — but it was almost always unobtrusive.
The lone extra is a trailer, that uses some alternate takes and even some camera angles not seen in the finished film.
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Law and Jake Wade Blu-ray
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson