THE LAW AND JAKE WADE: Blu-ray (MGM 1958) Warner Archive
Over the years, the revenge tragedy has been played out a lot of different ways, though perhaps never more ad nauseam than in the Hollywood western. Can anyone think of a single cowboy movie that does not involve some desperado feebly attempting to get even with the proverbial ‘good guy’, only to have his beautiful wickedness buried along with the rest of him in Boot Hill or a reasonable facsimile? And so we come to John Sturges’ The Law and Jake Wade (1958); a set aside and under-considered prime example from this ilk, I suspect the lesser, only because it arrived in the midst of so many shining examples. 1958 is undeniably the last gasp of the establishment having its hurrah; the ‘assembly-line’ mentality of making pictures rapidly coming to an end; the old guard clinging desperately to the past and the engineering gone into a studio-made product being cleaved from its audience by changing times, tastes, the government Consent Decree and too many other variables to be intelligently discussed in brief consideration now. Suffice it to say, The Law and Jake Wade is one of the last examples of a studios’ tight reigns over the creatives toiling under their auspices. I am always critical of those who write about the studio era as though it were micromanaged with a sledgehammer under the tyranny of demigods out to wreck any artistic merit an ‘auteur’ might benevolently bequeath them. Moguls ruled with an iron fist – perhaps. But their way yielded hours of pleasure and some of the finest examples of ‘movie art’ this world has ever – and will likely as ‘ever’ know; cultural artifacts to outlast the system responsible for their creation, and destined for immortality as long as there are men and women to remember and cherish this past with renewed interest into our ever more uncertain future in popular entertainments.
Superbly photographed in Cinemascope and Metrocolor by the versatile Robert Surtees, in California’s starkly beautiful High Sierras, Lone Pine and Death Valley, The Law and Jake Wade also features incredibly nuanced performances from its two male leads: Robert Taylor, long since transgressed on the other side of his once impossibly handsome good looks and seeming appropriately weathered and careworn as the titular title character, and, the ever-as-accomplished Richard Widmark, fading shades of his Tommy Udo screen persona creeping into yet another exceptional turn as the superlative ‘baddie’ of the piece, Clint Hollister. In their misguided youth, Jake and Clint were inseparably evil; robbing banks and killing any law-abiding citizen who stood in their way. Eventually, fate, time and conscience caught up with Jake who, having seen the error of his ways, matured and repented; working like hell to become the Marshal of his small town and a respected pillar of the community besides. Alas, Clint never amended his outlook on life. In fact, the pall from his wicked past has only ripened, turning more rancid with age.
The Law and Jake Wade is a great western for any number of reasons, though chiefly because of the earthy antagonism between Taylor and Widmark in constant flux throughout the movie’s rather scant 88 min. run time. Yes, only 88 min., but so expertly scripted by William Bowers (based on Marvin H. Albert’s novel) and evenly paced by Sturges, it plays like an epic of considerably more girth and merit. Widmark’s is the sustained ‘flashier’ part in the picture. There is definitely something to be said for Widmark’s talent in making the very face of sin so scandalously appealing; a quality for which the actor in real life was a completely unassuming counterpoint. Likely, this curious attractive quality has a lot to do with Widmark’s voice, somehow raspy and cruel, yet with an underpinning of painful, disgruntled integrity. One always senses that under the right circumstances and with just a little creative tweaking, Widmark’s anti-heroes and outright villains could have been as good-natured and communal as the proverbial ‘boy next door’. This makes the revelation of his dastardly and venomous creations all the more poignantly tragic. When Widmark’s Hollister takes his fatal bullet near the end of The Law and Jake Wade, his crumpled glance of surrender is so full of guileless disbelief it fleetingly reveals the sort of average fellow he rather hoped to be in life if fate had dealt him a different hand.
On the flipside here is Robert Taylor. In his youth, Taylor epitomized the thirties matinee idol. No kidding: in films like Camille (1936) and Personal Property (1937) he was one of the most perfectly formed male creatures to ever set foot in front of a movie camera; chiseled yet boyish, sexy though smart, and with a queerly fresh-faced ‘come hither’ way about him to make the ladies swoon on both sides of the screen. Taylor may have lacked Clark Gable’s rawer animal magnetism (no one ever topped Gable in his prime in this department) but he made up this dearth with a perfectly-planed face and frame that leant a competing desirable male beauty as the proverbial beefcake and pin-up. Time, alas, is unforgiving to us all, and in many ways, more so to Taylor, who continued to be typecast as the male ingénue long after his ‘cute factor’ had settled into the doldrums of middle-age; that fateful, inevitable epoch where one must work twice as hard to look half as good. The transition for Taylor might have been smoother had MGM not been so slavishly invested in continuing to promote him as their Numero Uno stud. Taylor’s Jake is decidedly gone beyond this expiration date. Interestingly, Taylor allows us to see this residual sadness, perhaps even abject capitulation he might rekindle something of his former self for the ladies who paid to see Bob Taylor in his prime.
The chemistry between Widmark and Taylor here is toxically bromantic; Hollister’s repeated torture of his one-time cohort, now almost settled into quaint domesticity with the winsome Peggy (Patricia Owens, of 1958’s The Fly fame) fairly reeks of a homoerotic love affair turned stale. Hollister thought Jake was his ‘partner’ – either in life or a life of crime. Having been thrown for the proverbial ‘girl next door’, the ex is now out for bitter revenge; also, to reclaim the $20,000 Jake buried from their penultimate robbery after he decided to ‘go straight’. Even more telling is Jake’s glacial reluctance to reveal virtually any part of his former self to the girl he supposedly wants to marry, despite her willingness to listen, even absolve him of his sins. No, there is something deeper, more darkly sinister about the hypnotic sway Hollister has over Jake. And his chronic goading to get Jake to reveal parceled off increments of their checkered past increasingly translates into a far more subversive exposure than anyone, even Jake, and much less Peggy, is willing to acknowledge. Oh say it isn’t so, Jake. Leave us something of our childhood impressions of manly men, solitarily trudging across these wide open spaces, to remember as the great civilizing factor of the American West!
Herein, we doff our caps to the picture’s excellent supporting cast: De Forest Kelley’s steely-eyed Wexler, and, Henry Silva’s as cool, if moderately more psychotic Rennie, Eddie Firestone’s weak-kneed Burke, and, perhaps best of all, Robert Middleton’s compassionate and portly, Ortero; the one man who implicitly knows Hollister is no good down to his core, and is willing to gamble on Jake pulling them all out of a very sticky situation; an Comanche ambush in a remote and desolate ghost town. We lost ‘big’ Bob Middleton (born Samuel G. Messer) much too soon, dead at the age of 66 from congestive heart failure in 1977. His Ortero proves the lone compassionate voice in this motley band of brothers. One senses a kindred spirit here, very much aligned with Jake’s desire to break free from the invisible shackles of an imperfect past. Middleton’s booming baritone is driven down to low sustained octaves, offering us flashes of his more affecting take on the brutish mountain man or corrupt, cigar-chomping fat cat he was oft’ typecast. It’s the nuanced empathy here that kicks Middleton’s performance into a higher gear; distinguishes it from the rest of the group with unanticipated dollops of humility and honor, commodities not readily explored by the others, or even in general within the western milieu of brazen banditos.
After some stunning location photography underneath the main titles, The Law and Jake Wade wastes no time. We witness ex-Confederate soldier and highwayman-turned-marshal, Jake Wade ride into the sleepy outpost of Morganville to perform a daring jail break at dawn of his former partner in crime, Clint Hollister. After more than a year’s absence, it seems Jake has had an attack of conscience. The town’s sheriff intends to hang Hollister for a more recent spate of crimes. But Jake recalls too well how, under similar circumstances, Hollister came to his rescue; the two robbing a bank for $20,000 both men agreed to split at some later date. Instead, Jake turned legit, burying the money in the desert and leaving Hollister to fend for himself. Having reformed since, Jake erroneously believes springing his ex will square their friendship for good; an idiotic notion. Hollister’s promise to Jake is less than teeming with gratitude. After beating the sheriff senseless and wounding two townsmen who attempt to foil his escape, Hollister vows to never let Jake have a moment’s relaxation from this point forward. It does not take long for Hollister to fulfill this threat. Despite Jake’s best efforts to double and triple back, covering his tracks while making a pit stop to visit his beloved fiancée Peggy, Hollister sends one of his more capable scouts, Rennie, on ahead.
Jakes pleads with Peggy to pull up stakes and relocation somewhere more obscurely. She resists. After all, Peggy wants a home and stability, and a life free from want and fear; commodities Jake cannot provide. Returning to his outpost as Marshal, Jake is ambushed and knocked unconscious by Rennie, awakening some time later to find Hollister and the rest of his posse standing over him with Peggy already their hostage. Now, Hollister makes Jake a promise; to kill him after he has led them to the $20,000. Peggy? She may still get out of this one alive. But who knows? A strange woman in a strange land, surrounded by men of questionable character who haven’t seen a woman in quite some time; it doesn’t make for a very quaint bedtime story. And neither are the yarns Hollister spins during their nightly respites; regaling Peggy with her beloved’s former life as a bank robber who, during one of their heists, actually murdered a teenage boy. Jake is demoralized. And although Peggy’s naïve impressions of Jake as a heroic figure of the ole west have been bludgeoned by the truth her fidelity to the man remains unbowed.
Hollister has Jake’s hands tied behind his back, causing him to take a tumble off his horse several times during their solitary trek across the stark tundra. At one point, Wexler implores Hollister to reconsider untying Jake so he can hang on to his saddle. As Hollister might have suspected, this is all the opportunity Jake needs to stage a daring – but ultimately failed – escape; taking a tumbled down a sand dune into a steep ravine. Recapturing his arch nemesis, Hollister and his men bluff their way past a cavalry patrol whose sergeant (Henry Willis) for warns of Comanche attacks. Hollister and his men proceed with caution, arriving at an all but forgotten and thoroughly abandoned outpost in the middle of nowhere. Hollister is eager to search for the money. But Jake stalls, pointing out an Indian scout followed them. Hollister uses a rifle to pick off this tracker, only to be informed by Jake of two more, since ridden hard and fast to alert the rest of their tribe of the white man’s intrusion into their territory. Infuriated, but realizing they will be overrun should the remaining scouts make it back to their base camp, Hollister makes chase across the wilderness, ordering the rest of his gang to remain vigilant in their observations. With Hollister out of the way, Jakes plots to win back the respect of his gang. Everyone takes refuge inside an abandoned saloon.
Unbeknownst to anyone, the Comanche have already quietly infiltrated the outer peripheries of the town. As night falls Jakes pleads with Ortero, the most empathetic of the bunch, to protect Peggy and find some way to get her back to the town of Cold Water. Ortero agrees. Alas, the Comanche now launch a full-scale attack on the village, picking off Burke without much effort. Both Peggy and Jake narrowly avoid being scalped. Rennie nervously suggests they abandoned their plans of recovering the money, lest they wind up dead first and therefore unable to spend it. Into their midst, Hollister unexpectedly returns. Now the Comanche launch another assault. Peggy frees Jake from his ropes and together with Hollister and Ortero they manage to fend off the attack. At the break of dawn, Hollister demands to know the whereabouts of the money. Jake informs him he buried it in the cemetery at the top of the hill. Forcing Jake to dig up the loot, Hollister is nevertheless unprepared when Jake recovers not only the money, still in its saddlebag, but also a loaded revolver he hid in anticipation of just such an ambush. Although he suspects the gun will not fire, Hollister is quite unwilling to take any chances. Holding Hollister at gunpoint, Jake instructs Ortero to take Peggy away so he and his rival can settle their differences like men. After their horses have departed, Jake gives Hollister back his gun and the two proceed to stalk each other in a game of cunning that ends with Jake shooting Hollister dead. Ortero and Peggy return; presumably, everyone much wiser for their terrible adventure.
The Law and Jake Wade is a superior western. If it somehow fails to enter our collective consciousness with all the staying power of movies like The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) or True Grit (1969), it certainly isn’t for lack of trying. Director, John Sturges, whose film credits are as impressive as the man himself, infuses this rather straight-forward mano a mano revenge tragedy with an underlay of personal accountability. Our ‘hero’ – Jake Wade – is neither perfect nor impervious to the prospect of paying for his past transgressions. And yet, we sense in him all the angst of a solitary investigator into life’s more broadly misperceived truths. Jake is not a wanderer, cleaved from the six guns and saddlebags of those many dusty frontier loners put forth by John Wayne. He is a man in search of belonging to someone and something better than himself. The antithesis of his quest for inner peace is Richard Widmark’s insidious Clint Hollister; the past incarnated as the proverbial millstone about Jake’s neck. Jake will never be rid of his past until he is untethered from Hollister. And yet, to put a period to his arch nemesis without provocation would damn his conscience to a perennial reminder of yet another transgression against life itself. Recognizing the error of his ways has not made Jake soft. But it has made him mindful of the possibility there may be a point of no return in this life, and, if one exists beyond Boot Hill, where atonement and eternal enlightenment are destined never to run parallel courses. In the final analysis, The Law and Jake Wade carries on the traditions of great Hollywood western while ever so subtly advancing it beyond the proverbial good guys vs. the bad, and cowboys vs. the Indians scenarios. Understated, and sadly underrated, The Law and Jake Wade is deserving of renewed respect.
We tip our hats to the Warner Archive (WAC) for a very fine 1080p Blu-ray, mastered in 2K with a massive amount of color correction applied to improve upon the woeful vinegar syndrome inherent in virtually all movies shot on Eastmancolor stock from this vintage. Previous movies suffering from the same color density issues released via WAC have not fared as well. But WAC and MPI, its in-house motion picture imaging facility, have proven their investment in time and money worthy of the results. The Cinemascope image now reveals an impressive amount of color accuracy and razor-sharpness always inherent in Oscar-winner Robert Surtees’ cinematography. Various archival sources were used for this restoration, along with extensive cleanup applied to eradicate dust, scratches and age-related artifacts. On display: some impressive and occasionally eye-popping colors, accurate flesh tones and indigenous film grain. While no one could ever confuse the muted tones of Eastman with vintage Technicolor, on this occasion there remains enough richness and fine detail to satisfy the eye. WAC has mastered The Law and Jake Wade on a BD-25. Given the film’s scant 88 min. and dearth of extra features, it works. The movies’ original mono has been preserved as DTS 2.0 mono. Regrettably, the original magnetic tracks were no longer salvageable, leaving WAC to pursue their remastering efforts from surviving opticals with all the inherent shortcomings one might expect. The audio is clean and clear, although anything but dynamic. There are NO extras. Bottom line: a western worthy of our renewed respect and consideration. WAC’s remastering efforts are first rate, working with second-best surviving elements. Overall, a winner!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)