In MGM’s 1958 Western “The Law and Jake Wade,” Robert
Taylor rides down from the Sierra Nevada mountains early one morning into a small
town and busts his old partner-in-crime, Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark), out
of the hoosegow. Hollister is a nasty guy. Not satisfied with escaping a
hanging, to Jake’s dismay, he clubs the sheriff and shoots a couple of people
out in the street while he and Jake make their getaway. Jake has to take his
rifle away from him to keep from killing more people.
Back up in the mountains Clint wants to ride on with Jake
but Jake says no. He busted Clint out of jail because he figured he owed him
for doing the same thing for him once. Now they’re even. Clint doesn’t agree.
There’s that matter of the $20,000 they stole on their last job together. He
wants his share. Jake tells him he buried the money and never touched it and
advises Clint to forget about it. “Don’t try to follow me,” he tells him. “I’m
still pretty good with this,” he says, patting his holstered gun. They go their
separate ways and Jake rides down on the other side of the mountain into
another town where he pulls up in front of a marshal’s office. Two men inside
welcome him back. He takes his coat off and surprise! There’s a tin star pinned
to his shirt.
It’s a shocker. He’s a law man, and he just broke a convicted
killer out of jail. It seems while Clint continued his career as an outlaw,
Jake reformed and became a town marshal. He’s an upstanding citizen now and
even has a lovely fiancé named Peggy (Patricia Owens) he’s going to settle down
with. Now you might ask yourself why a guy in Jake’s position would risk
everything to save his old partner from a noose. It would be somewhat
unbelievable if veteran screenwriter William Bowers (The Gunfighter), adapting
a novel by Marvin H. Alpert, didn’t provide some background indicating that Jake
is not only a guy with a conscience, Clint has some psychological hold over him
that he uses to his own advantage.
It helps that “The Law and Jake Wade” is directed by John
Sturges (Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven). Sturges sets a
steady, understated, no-nonsense tone to the proceedings that makes everything
credible and authentic. His directorial skill is nowhere more evident than in
the way he handles a cast made up in part by some familiar Hollywood bad asses.
After Jake gets home Clint shows up with some mutual friends—members of the old
gang. The first is Rennie, a young psychopath played by Henry Silva (Manchurian
Candidate). Silva affects a weird way of talking and looking like he’s about to
draw on anyone who looks at him crossways. Next up, Robert Middleton as Ortero,
a hulking, cold-blooded gunman with a big belly and a nasty disposition. And
last but not least, a pre-Star Trek DeForest Kelly as Wexler, who would almost
rather kill Jake than try to find the money. (I know it’s hard to think of Dr.
McCoy as a bad ass but actually he played that role in several westerns back in
the fifties). Sturges provides each of the heavies enough screen time and
action to establish their bonafides.
The story heats up when Clint and his Merry Men kidnap
Jake’s fiancé and force him to take them to the hidden loot. Sturges was not
only good at getting great performances from his cast, he was also one of the
best at filming in rugged locations. A lot of “The Law And Jake Wade” was shot
in the Sierra Nevada mountains around Lone Pine and down in Death Valley, an
area of the American landscape so often used in westerns that it has long since
become part of our national dreamscape. Even movie goers who are not
particularly fans of westerns can immediately recognize the mountains and
deserts of this stretch of ruggedly beautiful country. Budd Boetticher was
perhaps the director to make the best use of this scenery in the films he made
with Randolph Scott, but Sturges and his cinematographer Robert Surtees almost
surpass him in this film. The movie not only provides compelling drama, it’s
also gorgeous to look at.
On top of all this, Taylor and Widmark are at the top of
their game. Taylor was 58 at the time he played Marshal Wade, a little long in
the tooth, perhaps, to be paired with the 33-year old Owens, but he was still
in shape, and age had only added a bit of gravitas to his classic good looks.
He spends a lot of time in the film riding along the high passes of the Sierras
with his hands tied behind his back, which must have been difficult. One of the
biggest marvels in the movie is the way his hat stayed on while they rode over
one of those passes where the wind was blowing so hard Widmark and the others
all had to hold on to their lids to keep from losing them. But not Bob Taylor.
When you’re a star, baby, the hat stays on, even if you have to glue it on.
Widmark has one of his best sadistic psycho-killer roles
as Clint Hollister. It’s as though his notorious Tommy Udo from “Kiss of Death”
had donned gun belt and spurs and headed
west. Henry Silva was plenty creepy as Rennie, but one twitch of Widmark’s
snarling upper lip quickly resolved any doubt about who was deadlier or meaner.
The Warner Archive Collection has released “The Law and
Jake Wade” on a decent, if somewhat unspectacular, Blu-ray with no bonus
features other than the original theatrical trailer. The film lacks an original soundtrack score because it was made during a musicians’
union strike. Thus, the music heard in the movie was lifted from previous features.
Despite the lack of special features, this
is a solidly entertaining film and this Blu-Ray disc is highly recommended.
John M. Whalen is the author of "This Ray Gun for Hire...and Other Tales." Click here to order from Amazon.
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