Friday, February 3, 2012

The Law and Jake Wade

We conclude our week of looking at movies that have fallen through the cracks with The Law and Jake Wade (1958), a champion Western from director John Sturges (Gunfight at the OK Corral).
A quick side note before heading West – initially I had promised to write about Nijinsky, a sumptuous biopic from 1980 directed by Herb Ross and starring Alan Bates, but in pulling out my (very) worn VHS copy, I find that the quality has deteriorated so that I would not really be able to provide a fair reassessment of the film.  The good news is this – a quick look online indicates that Nijinsky will finally make its way to DVD and Blu-Ray at the end of this month.  Movie lovers and balletomanes stand at the ready, a more formal reassessment is at hand.
And so, instead, on the trail with The Law and Jake Wade – proving once again that we are nothing if not eclectic.  Jake Wade is certainly no masterpiece, but it is a remarkable example of the technical mastery and competence that were once the  watchwords of American movie making.  It could stand as a textbook course on construction, timing, casting and production.
The film starts running (literally) in its opening minutes.  Robert Taylor steps into the local jail and frees prisoner Richard Widmark.  Once outside of town, Widmark wonders where some long-missing stolen money is; Taylor announces that his days as a bad man are over and that the money is buried away – out of reach for them both.  Taylor got Widmark out of jail to repay his debt to him, but it ends there.
Taylor returns to his town alone and it’s then that we learn he has actually become a lawman.  He visits his fiancée (Patricia Owens) and, later that night, Widmark tracks down our hero with the aide of some slimy associates, including Henry Silva and DeForst Kelley (yes, Dr. McCoy from Star Trek). 
Widmark and the gang kidnap Owens, and use her to force Taylor to go with them once more into the desert and find the stolen money: an easy task, if you can avoid being massacred by a war party of rampaging Comanches…
Where to begin?  Robert Taylor (1911-1969) started his career in the 1930s, famous for his extraordinary beauty and perfect profile.  Time, however, was not particularly kind to Taylor, and a scant 20 years later he is a leathery, craggy leading man.  This works perfectly here, as his badman-turned-lawman is easily someone who has seen too much and is haunted by the memories.  His stoic delivery and honest line readings make for a believable performance, and it is clear why he was a dependable star for so many years.  Sadly, this is close to the twilight of his career, despite his relative youth.  He will transition to television, hosting Death Valley Days until his death from lung cancer.
Patricia Owens (1925-2000), always a second tier leading lady, shines in a thankless part.  Where so many Western heroines simper (or nag) with varying degrees of believability, one readily believes that Owens is heroic in her own right and more than a match for a group of old west hardcases.
The gang, most particularly DeForest Kelley (1920-1999), are the quintessential sidewinders of western lore.  Kelley made a minor career of playing old west weaklings, back-stabbers, sneaks and cheap gunman before being corralled into outer space.  His best performances remain his villains.
The real standout, however, is Richard Widmark (1914-2008), as the clearly psychotic ringleader.  Widmark’s oeuvre is an interesting one: he initially shot into stardom playing a psychopathic gangster in Kiss of Death.  From then on until his final film roles in the 1990s, Widmark was one of the few major stars to comfortably shift between heroes and villains.  Though his heroic performances were always credible, it is perhaps as badmen and nutcases that he excelled.  Here, Widmark is completely without control – shooting without provocation, taking wild and desperate chances, and seemingly untouched by life or death, including his own.  He is a dangerous man indeed.
The film was shot on location in the snowcapped Sierras, also utilizing an authentic ghost town.  John Sturges (1910-1992) directed a host of classic westerns, including The Last Train From Gun Hill (1959), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and the overrated Hour of the Gun (1967).
The Law and Jake Wade is a masterpiece of concision – the opening scene details Taylor breaking Widmark out of prison, and from then on, the plot unwinds like a well-made watch.  In its 86 minute running time there is not a wasted moment, a superfluous gesture or an unnecessary plot point.  Anyone wanting to know how to plot effectively could learn from this film.
It also has a layer of complexity that is there beneath the surface, but certainly not ambiguous.  Widmark has a special animus for Owens and is hurt by Taylor, clearly this passion transcends the want of stolen money and is the result of sexual jealousy.  In the 1950s ‘adult westerns’ usually meant ‘gay subtext,’ and like Warlock and Gunfight at the OK Corral, Jake Wade follows suit.
The Law and Jake Wade is a type of film that we no longer have the knack of making.  It’s smart without pretention, action-packed without being frenetic, honest without being ironic.  It’s an artifact from an era that made movies for adults (in the truest sense of the words), and considered us intelligent enough to enjoy levels of ambiguity and complexity.
For some odd reason, The Law and Jake Wade has fallen off the radar.  This is amazing to me because it is such a taut, compelling and satisfying film – easily accessible on DVD.  It also has one of Widmark’s finest performances, and perhaps Taylors best latter one.  It is highly recommended to anyone who likes westerns or simply deft movie-making.
In many ways the 1950s was the Golden Age of movie westerns.  Readers interested in this era are urged to visit the blog 50 Westerns From the 50s, by film historian and writer Toby Roan.  You can find it here:  Toby is writing a book on westerns from that era and his blog is always fun and insightful.

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