Saturday, October 28, 2017

Tonight's Movie: The Law and Jake Wade (1958) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

Robert Taylor and Richard Widmark star in the western THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958), recently released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive.

As the movie opens, Jake Wade (Taylor) repays an old debt, breaking Clint Hollister (Widmark) out of jail. Jake and Clint once robbed banks together, but after the last job Jake had buried the loot, disgusted at what he'd become, and moved on to a respectable life as a sheriff.

Jake parts ways with Clint after busting him out, but not for long: Clint almost immediately turns up in Jake's office, taking Jake and his fiancee Peggy (Patricia Owens) hostage until Jake digs up the buried treasure and hands it over.

It's a desperate situation, as Clint threatens to kill Peggy if Jake doesn't cooperate, and it also seems unlikely Jake and Peggy will survive once Clint has what he wants.

When I first saw this film in 2012, I enjoyed it reasonably well, but not as much as several of my friends who are also fans of Westerns. On this viewing I think I liked it incrementally better; I knew what to expect going in, and the passage of time has only deepened my enjoyment of seeing the Alabama Hills on film, having been to several Lone Pine Film Festivals in the ensuing years.

The film's key strengths are those beautiful landscapes and the two outstanding lead actors. The contrast of Widmark's sarcastic motormouth with Taylor's taciturn, stoic sheriff is compelling; they're the main reason to watch the movie, along with the beautifully photographed Alabama Hills, evocatively filmed in the fall or winter. It looks genuinely cold, and I suspect it was!

The pacing of this 86-minute film, scripted by William Bowers, is good insofar as it keeps things moving, but my criticisms remain the same as in 2012: I didn't find the plot especially enjoyable, with Robert Taylor's Jake pushed around and tortured by Clint for much of the movie, while the much bigger flaw is a real lack of connection between Jake and Peggy.

A second viewing underscored that I have zero idea why Jake loves Peggy, or if he really does; all I can guess at is that he loved the idea of her, as part of settling down as a respectable citizen. He did love her enough to ask early on if she'd be willing to leave town with him, but not enough to honestly share his situation.

As I wrote in a comment after my original review, "It seemed more like she was just someone he knew who had the misfortune to get mixed up in his problem." A stronger, more believable love story would have made a much more compelling film. It's the difference between a good film and something really special; I can't help feeling disappointed over the lost opportunity.

The movie would make an interesting double bill with Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott's similarly plotted THE TALL T (1957), also filmed in the Alabama Hills. THE TALL T is admittedly on the lower end of the Boetticher-Scott films for me because of the "hostage" storyline, but the development of Scott's relationship with Maureen O'Sullivan over the course of the film really makes the movie for me.

A further issue with THE LAW AND JAKE WADE is that the film's superb daytime landscapes stand in stark contrast with the nighttime scenes, very obviously shot on a fake-looking MGM soundstage, seen in the lobby card at the left. A movie entirely filmed on a soundstage can successfully create its own fantasy world -- for instance, MGM's BRIGADOON (1954), which I'll be reviewing soon -- but going back and forth between the realistic and the phony is jarring. Admittedly this does commonly happen in Westerns, and I'm often much more forgiving, but for an "A" film with stars of this caliber, MGM shouldn't have settled for less than the best when it came to production values. (That said, if it was as cold as it looks, perhaps shooting in the Alabama Hills at night was problematic in terms of the temperature.)

THE LAW AND JAKE WADE was directed by John Sturges, who directed other '50s Westerns I've preferred to this one, including ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO (1953) and SADDLE THE WIND (1958). (He also, of course, would go on to direct 1960's classic THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.) By contrast with those films, THE LAW AND JAKE WADE has strong elements and is definitely worth seeing, but on the whole I feel it isn't as successful as other Sturges Westerns in creating a gripping, enjoyable story. (Update: Per the comments below, while Sturges did uncredited work on SADDLE THE WIND, the billed director was Robert Parrish. Many thanks to Blake for the reminder!)

The Warner Archive widescreen Blu-ray is beautiful, showing off the majestic Alabama Hills landscapes as photographed by Robert Surtees. The lone extra is the trailer.

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

May 2020 Update: The Warner Archive is now also reissuing this film on DVD, coming in June 2020.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive Blu-rays may be ordered from the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

Well, I'm pretty sure I'd like to see it because of the stars involved. Sounds like a grade B western with an A budget. Could still be fun. Thanks for the review!

10:59 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

John Sturges may have directed some of the "Saddle the Wind" (retakes?--I'm not sure about this though it's long been known he worked on it) but Robert Parrish was the director of that one, which I like a lot, especially the title song sung by Julie London. That said, I generally like Sturges. I also like Parrish, especially "The Wonderful Country" which is my favorite Western by either director (and also with Julie London).

Unlike you, I have no problem with locations alternating with soundstage exteriors. It's so common in Westerns of this period (and this was the very best period of Westerns!) that it's virtually a given most of the time. Look at this in "The Searchers" sometime and you'll see a work of art created first on location and then in Hollywood with its director creating throughout and so the means of creation (meaning settings) could not be fixed until the film was done and the alternations have a pattern all there own there. Even if there can be jarring moments with this (and there are sometimes), we will hopefully just suspend disbelief and go where a well-realized scene takes us. Reality is what a movie can impose as reality.

I like "The Law and Jake Wade" very much (it comes up a lot in the blogs I follow, it seems), as well as most Sturges Westerns though my favorites are "Last Train from Gun Hill" and "Escape from Fort Bravo." I readily accept Taylor-Owens relationship (hey, it's Patricia Owens after all) even if it isn't treated as richly as Scott and O'Sullivan in "The Tall T" (in another excellent hostage drama "Rawhide" there is no romantic relationship at all between stars Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward--they vanquish the bad guys together and that's it). The characters are all workable here--as usual, I adore Widmark who can play beautifully anywhere in the good guy/bad guy/somewhere in between guy equation. I'd remind you that Robert Taylor himself played one of the most memorable (and darkest if also complex) Western villains in "The Last Hunt" which I hope you'll get to some time, as it's really great--and has plenty of good location/soundstage interplay too.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Stephen! The movie has quite a bit going for it, despite my having some issues with it -- worth checking out.

Best wishes,

1:10 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Blake, great to hear from you! That's a good catch on SADDLE THE WIND -- as I reviewed Sturges' credits I didn't note it said "uncredited." Completely forgot Parrish was the credited director and am updating the post.

Glad to have you share your thoughts -- the movie has enough going for it I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from seeing it, despite my dissatisfactions, and since my take seems to be in the minority among my Western pals others may find their thoughts on the movie closer to yours.

RAWHIDE, which I revisited at last year's Lone Pine Festival, might be my favorite "hostage" themed Western -- although I (perhaps wishfully) read more into the development of Power and Hayward's relationship and possible future together. It's definitely subtle and open to interpretation.

I love the casts of THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY and THE LAST HUNT and will definitely be getting to them at some point -- I admit I've pushed off THE LAST HUNT just because I know Taylor plays such a dark character!

Delighted to hear from you and get your thoughts on this film.

Best wishes,

1:10 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

I looked at your review of "Rawhide"--have Power and Hayward fallen in love for real at the end? One kind of hopes they would and feels (because it is Power and Hayward playing these characters) that they would, but I don't have a memory of that as being anything we really know. We thought it might be possible, maybe ("wishfully" is probably a good word for this), somewhere things could easily go after the fadeout. But the end, is, you know, the end. Anyway, I want to get back to this one.

When you do get closer to "The Last Hunt" remember that Taylor was surely glad to have that role--a career high for him and one of which he had reason to be very proud. In any event, Stewart Granger plays the hero and is just as great--initially conflicted but finally deeply moving so you can root for him. The relationship between the two men is complex, the kind of thing I tend to like. I was thinking about this after revisiting the Western "Warlock" last night--another one I find very absorbing.

2:27 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

I really like this one, Sturges is one of my favourite directors, Widmark is terrific here, Taylor is (for my taste) just the right foil for Widmark's more showy part, and the rest of the cast I enjoyed too. Plus that final shootout is exciting.

I second the suggestion for The Last Hunt, one of Taylor's great performances.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I'd love to know what you think if you revisit RAWHIDE, Blake. Although there aren't overt romantic scenes, I felt that the family unit Power and Hayward formed with her orphaned niece became very real; I felt they developed genuine strong feelings for one another during the ordeal, which was underscored when I revisited the movie last year. (Also, I'm definitely one for thinking about "What happened next" after the ending -- I think the best movies invite that kind of conjecture.) Let me know what you think when you get back to that one.

It would be good to revisit Taylor and Granger's ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT alongside THE LAST HUNT, as it's another film where the two men have a complex relationship (to say the least!). I last saw ALL THE BROTHERS quite a while back, before I was blogging, and remember it as flawed but entertaining; I particularly liked the Rozsa score, the use of Technicolor, and the presence of Ann Blyth. Perhaps I'll try to review the Warner Archive copies of both films at a future date.

Best wishes,

3:02 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Kristina! I agree, the action sequences in this film are well staged, and the contrast of Taylor and Widmark's very different personalities and characters is a big part of what works for me in this movie.

(Like RAWHIDE, discussed above, this movie definitely leaves me wondering what happened next for both Jake and Peggy!)

Thanks also for the encouragement on THE LAST HUNT, Kristina! Taylor certainly made so many good films, especially in the '50s -- surely he must be one of Hollywood's most successful yet underrated actors.

Best wishes,

3:06 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Yes, ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT had Taylor as the hero and Granger as his more morally checkered brother (though not really a villain like Taylor plays in THE LAST HUNT). It is, as you say, entertaining (I've seen it multiple times) though not on the same level as the later movie. Of course, Miklos Rozsa is almost invariably an asset.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I really like "JAKE WADE". It certainly works for me and, as you say, Laura, Widmark and Taylor are a terrific foil for each other.

I also need to dig out "RAWHIDE" for a re-watch; it's been too many years. I will bear in mind your thoughts about 'what happened next' when I do.

You and I are, I know, great fans of Robert Taylor so I would love to see your writing on "THE LAST HUNT" when you get to it, as others have suggested. I don't think you will find it an easy watch, on several fronts,but it is a rich and rewarding film that shows what a fine and underrated actor Taylor was. Granger underplays beautifully too.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for all the great feedback, Jerry, including THE LAST HUNT. I've written down a reminder note on that title. :) As you say, I'm a big Taylor fan so I need to see it!

I'd love if you and others let me know what you think about the Power-Hayward relationship in RAWHIDE! Between the Power-Hayward teamwork in the film and Hayward being a pretty tough lady in that, I find it a much less "stressful" watch -- despite the fact that there's a baby in danger which is often a "no watch" for me LOL. Really like that one a lot.

Best wishes,

5:25 PM  

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