Saturday, September 22, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Law and Jake Wade (1958)

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.

October 2017 Update: THE LAW AND JAKE WADE is now available on Blu-ray from the Warner Archive. My review of the Blu-ray is here.

October 2019 Update: I visited the site of the film's ghost town location at the 2019 Lone Pine Film Festival.

May 2020 Update: This movie has now been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Firstly Laura, thanks for the link.

That's a fair enough assessment of the movie. I reckon I came away from it with a higher regard than yourself but I do see where you're coming from as far as its weaknesses are concerned. Patricia Owens' character could be rounded out/explained a bit better but, despite that, I felt she functioned just fine in the context of the story as it is. In a way, any alteration would necessarily have drawn some of the focus away from what s the central conflict/relationship of the picture: Wade vs Hollister.

By the way, I assume you haven't gotten round to viewing The Stalking Moon from the box set. It's a terrific movie, highly recommended.


3:09 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks so much for your feedback, Colin, I love to compare notes!

That's an interesting idea that a deeper Jake-Peggy love story would have detracted from the Jake-Clint conflict; maybe so, but I wish the film could have handled both. It could have added an interesting level of anguish if the viewer really felt the love of Jake's life was involved in the incident. It seemed more like she was just someone he knew who had the misfortune to get mixed up in his problem. I couldn't help wondering what would happen when Jake and Peggy met up again after the final scene. Did the experience bring Jake and Peggy closer together or drive them apart forever? I had no idea, which disappointed me.

One of the additional things I did like: knowing that off the screen the two lead actors were considered to be real class acts, gentlemen with reputations as congenial colleagues.

My father just recommended THE STALKING MOON to me after he saw it a few days ago. I'm looking forward to it, especially as I enjoy Gregory Peck. Thanks!

And thanks again for sharing your thoughts, Colin!

Best wishes,

8:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, point taken. Mind you, with a lot of these sparse, punchy little westerns - and again it's hard not to be reminded of Boetticher - there's always a degree of ambiguity as regards the development of the characters' relationships. I feel there are many questions left unanswered at the end of The Tall T, Ride Lonesome etc.
In a way, I kind of like that; life itself doesn't offer tied up endings, and movies that reflect that in some way have their attraction.

10:15 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

I'm going to interested to see/hear your "take" on "The Stalking Moon" Laura. I loved it and I also loved the book by T.V. Olsen.....I just have ONE criticism (make that a "suggestion") of the film; it needed Bernard Herrmann....badly! (and he was VERY available at the time)I'll be interested to see what you think.


5:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Colin and Brad, I was inspired by recent recommendations to watch THE STALKING MOON this afternoon and enjoyed it very much. You can find my review here.

Brad, that's fun you mentioned the score, as it's one of the only things I didn't like about THE STALKING MOON. At times it almost screamed "1960s!"

Colin, that's true, I generally enjoy shorter movies and they do tend to leave unanswered questions at times. I guess whether or not I mind depends on what the questions are, LOL -- in this case I wanted to know more!

Thanks again for being part of the inspiration to watch THE STALKING MOON today, Colin, it was a very satisfying film.

Best wishes,

6:05 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Incidentally, Colin -- the more I think about THE STALKING MOON, the more questions I have there -- how the characters' relationships may be impacted by the deaths, how the Indian boy will be affected by his father and the film's climactic events, what kind of a relationship he might have with Sam, etc. In this case, though, it felt to me more like a rich book where I wished I could keep turning the pages, rather than that there was something "missing."

Just some additional thoughts --

Best wishes,

7:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, The Stalking Moon certainly does raise questions such as those you mentioned. Again, I think the most intriguing movies do this, and it's a positive rather than a negative quality. After all, the fact that we wonder about these things after the credits roll suggests that the movie has succeeded in drawing us in sufficiently, making the characters interesting enough to be curious.

12:20 AM  

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