The Law and Jake Wade

Posted on November 26th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Richard Widmark, John Sturges, Robert Taylor by Colin


A brief forum discussion the other day on the critical reputation, or lack of it, of John Sturges prompted me to have another look at one of his films that doesn’t usually come in for a great deal of attention. The Law and Jake Wade (1958) was produced in the middle of the director’s most successful period, and the fact that it’s sandwiched between a number of his other better known movies may be partly responsible for its apparent lesser status. On viewing it again, I think it deserves better; it’s beautifully paced, visually arresting, and has a strong central conflict. It’s also one of those sub-90 minute films that I feel suited Sturges so well. The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape have an epic feel to them, both in terms of casting and running time, and although those two movies feature high among my favourites, I’m still of the opinion that Sturges did his best work when the scale was smaller and the material leaner.

It all starts with a jailbreak, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) riding into a quiet town to set Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark) free. On the surface, it looks like an outlaw doing right by one of his own. As the story progresses though it becomes clear that there’s more to it. Firstly, Wade’s a lawman, a marshal in another town, and a highly respected one at that. Furthermore, there’s a complex history between the two men; they once rode together, initially as brothers in arms and later as partners in crime, before parting on bad terms. The source of antagonism between Wade and Hollister lies in the latter’s belief that his old friend betrayed him and made off with their takings. Wade doesn’t see it that way though - he’d merely grown weary of his lawless existence and, prompted by a tragic event he holds himself responsible for, decided on a clean break. So he buried the loot and forged ahead with a new life. As far as Hollister’s concerned, Wade crossed him, stole his money and ran out. As such, he wants closure (the jailbreak simply wipes off an old debt in his view), namely the money and a reckoning with Wade. To this end, he tracks down Wade, abducts him and his fiancee (Patricia Owens), and uses the woman as leverage to achieve his ends. I’m not giving too much away as all this happens early on in the movie, the bulk of the story being concerned with the long trek to the ghost town where Wade stashed the money. Along the way, we learn more details about both Wade and Hollister and their soured friendship. The background of the two leads, former border raiders in the Civil War who carried on with their mayhem after the surrender, carries some suggestion of the Jesse James story, but that’s as far as the comparison goes. Wade symbolically buried his past with the cash, but Hollister continues to nurse his bitterness and resentment. There’s also a kind of inadequacy needling Hollister, he knows Wade is the better man but he suspects he’s maybe the better gunman too. While he harps on the betrayal that he claims hurt him, what Hollister really yearns for is the opportunity to pit himself against Wade in classic western fashion.

Raking up the past - Richard Widmark & Robert Taylor in The Law and Jake Wade.

Of all John Sturges’ westerns, The Law and Jake Wade comes closest to the look and feel of the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher films. The majority of the action takes place outside in the desert wilderness (including Lone Pine), featuring a small cast of characters whom we get to know and sympathize with. Wade has a murky past and carries around a deep personal pain while his nemesis, Hollister, has a charming quality that belies his own flaws. And then there’s the secondary characters - the gritty woman who can take the hard going, and the henchmen who are a mixture of the dangerous and the personable. Sturges, as I’ve remarked in the past, was something of an artist with the wide lens and this movie, with its heavy reliance on location work, highlights his skill. The outdoors shots with the peaks of the Sierras forming the backdrop create a sense of vast space, while the interiors (especially when the gang is holed up and under siege in the ghost town) emphasise the stifling and tense atmosphere. Moreover, the Comanche raid on the town is a showcase for his action credentials, where shooting, editing and spatial awareness all play a part in ensuring that the scene remains exciting without losing any of its visual coherence. As for the cast, Richard Widmark was very good in these kinds of roles, his manner suggesting a brittle psychology masked by a cynical sense of humour. This type of villain is always much more interesting than pure, one dimensional evil as there’s usually some sneaking sense of admiration that the viewer feels. In a way, it’s helpful to the hero too, by shouldering some of the burden of satisfying the audience it frees up the lead a little. Robert Taylor was maturing nicely by this time and his experience in westerns meant he had acquired an easy confidence within the genre. His take on Wade is a deceptively laid back one, appearing cool and at ease despite the fact he’s working his wits overtime in an effort to find some way of wriggling out of his predicament. The two most notable supporting turns come from Henry Silva and Robert Middleton, the former as a dangerous psychotic and the latter as the one reasonable and humane member of Widmark’s gang - quite a contrast to his terrifying oaf in Wyler’s The Desperate Hours.

The US DVD of The Law and Jake Wade from Warners isn’t really all that it could be. The image, despite being anamorphic scope, is just too soft and short on detail. It’s not exactly what I’d term a bad transfer but it ought to look better, and the stunning scenery and camerawork on view deserves something better and sharper. The only extra offered is the theatrical trailer - this movie was issued in the Western Classics box shortly before the Archive programme took off and points towards the pared down releases that Warners were moving towards. As such, I now tend to think I should be grateful this film got as good a release as it did, considering how many fine Robert Taylor movies have been shunted into the MOD line. I really like this film; it features good work from both Widmark and Taylor, has a tight script, an even and serious tone, and (thanks to both Sturges and cameraman Robert Surtees) looks wonderful. An easy recommendation, and a strong candidate for reassessment.

As an aside, this blog is 4 years old today. So, a big thank you to all those whose comments, visits and kindness over the years has contributed to its development.

24 Responses to 'The Law and Jake Wade'

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  1. le0pard13 said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 12:20 am

    Another of your wonderful western film reviews, Colin. I’ve not seen this one, but given that it is a John Sturges, Robert Taylor, and Richard Widmark collaboration, it’s one I’m definitely putting in the Netflix queue.

    And a hearty congratulations on this superb blog of yours, my friend. In four years you’ve racked up some tremendous work. Many thanks.

  2. chris khoo said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 7:25 am

    very underrated western n still enjoyable n refreshing till today since i saw it when i was a little boy.

  3. Livius said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    Cheers guys.

    Michael - you need to check this one out. For one reason or another it’s one of Sturges’ lesser known movies yet, conversely, it’s also among his stronger efforts. A bit like Aldrich, Sturges is a director whose work has been somewhat neglected and is due for a critical re-evaluation.

  4. Dafydd Jones said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I’ve always thought very highly of “…Jake Wade”. Widmark’s performance (as always) is perfectly conceived. I love the way he constantly uses Wade’s first name at the end of almost every comment he makes to him. The air of friendly familiarity it projects and constant talk of old times intending to disguise the sense of betrayal he feels. (”Remember when we was gonna go see the Swiss Alps Jake?”.) He makes even relatively inconsequential lines of dialogue sound quietly menacing and therefore memorable. For instance, when he learns of Wade having buried the saddle bags, very slowly and carefully, he says - “Now that seems a peculiar thing for you to do Jake. Whatever come over you to do a thing like that?” I think that westerns were at their height in this period.
    As you say, it is indeed a pity that dedication to picture quality had started to slide at Warners by the time the Western Classics box appeared…but, on the whole, agree that the DVD is OK.
    Thanks for the review Colin and a (slightly late) happy birthday to the blog.

  5. Livius said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    You know Dafydd, on reflection, I should have mentioned something about the dialogue when I was writing this. Thanks for reminding me. It may not be quite up there with the dryly memorable stuff that someone like Burt Kennedy could knock out but it’s still pretty good.
    I especially like the little exchange at the climax, when Wade and Hollister set off alone to finally square things up. Taylor tosses Widmark’s gun as far as he can and the latter indignantly snaps, “I was gonna hand you yours.”
    To which Taylor smoothly deadpans, “Well, you like me a lot better than I like you.” A priceless little moment.

    Sturges was known for coaxing the best out of actors and, with two classy performers like Taylor and Widmark at his disposal, in this movie all the right notes are struck.

  6. Bruce Lander said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 3:15 pm

    Here in UK we are lucky enough to see this quite frequently on Film 4 channel and it always looks great.
    The original story was a novel of the same name by Clair Huffaker and Sturges kept quite faithful to the book ( he just succumbed to changing Widmarks character’s name to a more attractive one - funny but in the War Wagon based on Huffakers novel “Badman” the John Wayne character name changes from Jack Tawlin in the book to Taw Jackson in the film - Vanity !)
    Still the movie is terrific and stands well up there in the 50’s Western pantheon.

  7. Livius said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Cheers Bruce. However, I’ll have to correct you on one point. Although Huffaker did provide the inspiration for a number of fine westerns, this one came from Marvin H. Albert who also penned the novels that were the basis of Bullet for a Badman and Duel at Diablo.

  8. Bruce Lander said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 7:20 pm

    Thanks for that correction Livius - I was too quick on the draw - you are of course 100% right it was Albert,
    he also wrote the novel used for Rough Night In Jericho

  9. Livius said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 7:40 pm

    Speaking of Rough Night in Jericho, that’s yet another movie I have sitting on my shelves that I haven’t gotten around to watching!

  10. Dafydd Jones said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Don’t waste another minute Colin! “Rough Night In Jericho” is a tremendously entertaining western. It has one of the roughest fight scenes I’ve seen in a western (between George Peppard and Slim Pickens).

  11. Livius said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Just been talking about Dino elsewhere, so I hope to give it a spin sooner rather than later.

  12. Toby said,

    on November 28th, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Congrats on the anniversary. Hope you have many more — for selfish reasons if no other.

    Also, congrats on another terrific post.

  13. Bruce Lander said,

    on November 28th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    another funny thing about “Rough Night In Jericho” Marvin Albert wrote it under the pen name Al Conroy with the title “The Man In Black”, after the movie was released a movie tie-in paperback was re-written and issued by another writer using the movie title and following the film version rather than the original. As Daffydd says it is a pretty good movie with some very brutal fights while Dean Martin gives a terrific villainous performance

  14. Livius said,

    on November 28th, 2011 at 9:40 pm

    Toby, thanks for good wishes. And don’t worry, I’m not planning on winding this thing up any time soon.

    Bruce, thanks for backing up the recomendation for Rough Night in Jericho. The praise for the movie has moved it closer to the top of my soon-to-watch pile.

  15. TonyG said,

    on November 29th, 2011 at 5:52 pm

    Excellent blog, keep up the good work. Regarding Sturges, I also think that his shorter movies worked better, though I never gave it much thought until reading your post. Two movies were top of mind: “Hour of the Gun” at 100 really good minutes, and “Magnificent Seven” at 128 minutes, of which some drag - I love the movie, but have always wondered why it doesn’t move “faster”.

  16. Livius said,

    on November 29th, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Pretty much all Sturges’ best work in the 50s consisted of brisk, pacy and trimmed down movies. By the 60s he started to do bigger pictures and, gradually, the quality slipped a little. There was still good stuff in there but it just didn’t have the same urgency about it.

  17. John Hodson said,

    on November 29th, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    If you consider that Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai weighed in at nearly three and a half hours (and doesn’t seem bloated at that, in any way), Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven looks rather trim by comparison, but I know what TonyG is getting at. In fact, without Bernstein’s wonderful driving score it could possibly appear to drag a tad more in parts.

    It took me a while to get The Law and Jake Wade; it seemed like an inferior relation to Man of The West. I still prefer Mann’s film, but I like Sturges’ much more than on first viewing.

    BTW, it’s shown in genuine hi-def (not an upscale) on Film4 HD and very nice it looks too, so for them that wants it, there’s hope of a Blu-ray presentation down the line.

    Well done Colin.

  18. Livius said,

    on November 29th, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    This is a movie that ought to look great in HD and a Blu-ray that did it justice would be very welcome. I don’t think it’s terrible or anything in its current DVD form, but there’s certainly room for improvement.

    John, since you’ve brought up Man of the West, I actually found that one a difficult film to get into the first time I saw it. There were parts that worked very well for me, but others (Lee J Cobb’s performance is one that springs to mind) simply didn’t hit the spot.
    However, it is a movie that I find improves significantly with repeated viewings, and I reckon it probably represents Mann at his best. It’s an exceedingly dark and complex work that’s practically a distillation of all the themes and motifs the director touched on in his career.

  19. John Hodson said,

    on November 29th, 2011 at 10:40 pm

    Cobb plays a roaring grotesque; he’s the very definition, his interplay with Cooper is magnificent. Wonderful film - the German BD looks pretty decent too.

  20. Livius said,

    on November 30th, 2011 at 9:12 am

    Yeah, I’ve seen the screencaps of the German BD and thought they looked good. I’ll probably have to pick this one up at some point.

  21. chris khoo said,

    on November 30th, 2011 at 11:12 am

    i found man of the west rather moody but not bad.
    the following are some of the underated westerns:
    1) the proud ones (ryan)
    2) hang them high (eastwood)
    3) drum beat (ladd)
    4) canyon river (montgomery)
    5) the bounty hunter (scott)
    6) the last wagon (widmark)
    7) the comancheros (wayne)

  22. Livius said,

    on November 30th, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Nice selection Chris. Although, to be honest, I’m not at all fond of Hang ‘Em High; there’s something about the general look of the movie that doesn’t appeal. There is a fine cast, but Ted Post’s direction has too much of the TV movie vibe for my liking.

  23. Laura said,

    on December 11th, 2011 at 9:52 am

    This movie sounds terrific! Two of my favorite actors and one of my favorite locations all in the same film. :) I have the Westerns Classics set but simply hadn’t gotten to this film yet. I’ll be bumping it up a little higher in the mile-high “to be watched” stack!

    Belated congratulations on your recent blog anniversary!! I enjoyed your blog very much and wish you many years of continued blogging success.

    Best wishes,

  24. Livius said,

    on December 11th, 2011 at 11:45 am

    Thank you Laura.
    The Western Classics set has some excellent movies in it, four out of six are quality stuff. This one and The Stalking Moon are the pick of the bunch, and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.

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