THE LAW AND JAKE WADE has a lot going for it: two of my all-time favorite actors, Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark, starring in a Western filmed in beautiful Lone Pine, California. Additionally, it was directed by John Sturges, who made a number of films I've enjoyed. Given these credentials, I was hoping I'd really love this film, but instead I settled for simply liking it reasonably well.
The film starts off on an unsettling note with Jake Wade (Taylor) breaking Clint Hollister (Widmark) out of jail, repaying an old debt. It turns out that Jake and Clint were once an outlaw team, but Jake has reformed and is now a sheriff. Shortly after the jailbreak, Clint chooses to repay Jake's kindness by taking Jake and his fiancee Peggy (Patricia Owens) hostage, intending to force Jake to unearth some long-buried loot before he kills them both.
The two lead actors are excellent, with the garrulous Widmark playing well off the stoic Taylor; it's interesting observing the stark contrasts between characters played by a pair of fine actors.
Additionally, as Colin wrote a while back at Riding the High Country, the film has a bit of the look and feel of a Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher film, what with a group of travelers in Lone Pine, a hero with a past, and a charming villain. As with the Scott-Boetticher films, director Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees make excellent use of the entire area around Lone Pine, from the Alabama Hills to Death Valley, filling the wide screen with interesting landscapes.
While the film is beautifully made, I'm not more enthusiastic simply because I didn't care a great deal for the storyline. Although the film comes to the expected resolution, it wasn't particularly enjoyable watching Robert Taylor spend most of the movie literally with his hands tied!
Perhaps a bigger criticism is that I didn't get much of a sense of connection between Jake and his fiancee Peggy, especially as their first scene together is a quarrel. She shows some gumption as the movie goes on, killing an Indian when she has to, but she remains kind of a vague cipher. The viewer never really understands who she is or why, out of all the girls in the world, Jake wants to spend his life with her. Their perfunctory relationship undercuts the film; a stronger romance would have increased the stakes for both the characters and the viewer.
On the plus side, there's a nicely choreographed Indian battle partway through the film. On the negative end of things, some nighttime scenes are shot against terribly obvious soundstage settings, which take away from the film's otherwise strong sense of realism.
The William Bowers screenplay was based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert; the movie runs 86 minutes. The supporting cast includes Robert Middleton, DeForest Kelley, Henry Silva, Eddie Firestone, and Burt Douglas.
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE is part of Warner's Western Classics Collection, which also includes Sturges' ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953) and the Robert Taylor films SADDLE THE WIND (1958), on which Sturges is said to have done uncredited work, and MANY RIVERS TO CROSS (1955). The set is rounded out by CIMARRON (1960) and THE STALKING MOON (1969). (Update: I've now reviewed THE STALKING MOON.)
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE DVD can be rented from Netflix. This film also had a release on VHS.
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE can also be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available online.
For another take on this movie, visit my friend Deb's blog, Sidewalk Crossings.