Tuesday, November 4, 2008


The John Sturges western "The Law and Jake Wade" (*** out of ****) is a solidly made, entertaining 1950's era oater that stands out as one of the earliest 'take-me-to-the-buried-treasure' plots. Indeed, Robert Taylor is rather wooden as Jake Wade, but after all, Taylor is the hero and Wade is a lawman who represents the status quo. Richard Widmark said in an interview that he thought the movie was bad but he enjoyed the character of villainous Clint Hollister. The cast is uniformly excellent,especially De Forest Kelly with his Southern drawl and Henry Silva as the crazed kid Rennie. Aside from one obvious studio bound scene around a night camp fire, this western was filmed in the rugged outdoors at Lone Pine, California, and in Death Valley.

"The Law and Jake Wade" opens traditionally with a lone horseman riding through scenic terrain until he enters a clapboard western town and reins up in front of a marshal's office. Quietly, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor of "Quo Vadis") dismounts and walks into the office and thrusts the muzzle of a shotgun into the lawman's back. Clint Hollister (Richard Widmark of "Kiss of Death") is lounging in the calaboose when he spots Jake with a shotgun in the marshal's back. "Well, who'd have thought," he marvels as his old friend forces the lawman to unlock the cell. Hollister complains about the terrible food that he has been served and slugs the lawman, knocking him out cold. As he is buckling on his gun belt, two deputies walk in unexpectedly, and he cuts loose on them with lead. Jake Wade, who has been trying to get them both out of town with the least amount of commotion, knocks the gun out of Clint's hand. They ride out with the townspeople firing shots at them. As it turns out, Jake and Clint once rode together as partners in crime. Their lawless days came to an end when Jake thought that he had gunned down an innocent child during a daylight robbery. Jake took the loot from the robbery and never looked back. Indeed, he rode away and buried the money and then created a new life for himself. Now, he serves as a lawman himself with a prospective bride-to-be, Peggy (Patricia Owens of "Seven Women from Hell"), awaiting marriage. Jake rides with Clint for a ways then decides to split up. Clint is happy to see Jake but he feels betrayed by Jake's stashing the loot and leaving the gang. Jake explains to Clint that he saved his old outlaw buddy from a date with the noose because Clint had rescued him from being hanged in the old days. Clint wants to shoot it out now with Jake, but Jake refuses to give him a gun.

When Jake returns to town, he spots a suspicious cowboy, Rennie (Henry Silva of "Sergeants Three"), loitering on front street. Later, Jake dresses up in his best suit and rents a buggy to visit Peggy. They quarrel because Jake wants her to move with him away somewhere else. Peggy doesn't want to leave and storms away from a dinner table. Jake rides back to town and an inquisitive Rennie visits him at the jail. Something about Rennie spooks Jake, and he slugs the kid without warning. Before he realizes it, another old friend Ortero (Robert Middleton of "Cattle King") pulls a derringer on him. It seems that Jake's deputy had locked up Ortero for sleeping off a drunk in the gutter, but he forget to frisk him. The rest of Clint's gang arrive, including Wexler (De Forest Kelly of "Star Trek"). Wexler isn't too happy with Jake either for pulling out on them and taking the money. Jake explains that he took the money, buried it, and refused to look back. Clint wants Jake to take them to where he buried the loot. Initially, Jake says no until Clint takes Peggy hostage, and Jake has to lead them to the loot.

"Bad Day at Black Rock" director John Sturges doesn't waste a moment in this character-driven epic. Everybody has that tough leathery look and these are no-nonsense characters. No sooner have they left for the badlands where the loot is buried than they learn that the Indians are on the warpath, adding to their woes. Jake tries to escape at one point, but Clint is just too sly for him. Eventually, when they reach the ramshackle ghost town where Jake buried the money, we learn he stashed it in the local cemetery, anticipating a similar burial of stolen gold in Sergio Leone's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

Three-time Oscar winning lenser Robert Surtees of "PT-109" and "Thirty Seconds over Tokyo" photographed this western in widescreen and it looks terrific! Some of the long shots will just blow your mind, but then anybody who watches Sturges' westerns will know that the director loved to shoot really long, long shots. Ferris Webster, another Sturges' favorite, edited "The Law and Jake Wade." The screenplay by William Bowers of "Support Your Local Sheriff" provides some flavorful dialogue. Widmark excels as the villain. The last shoot-out seems to prematurely end, still "The Law and Jake Wade" ranks as one of those memorable, widescreen western from the 195os. Okay, "The Law and Jake Wade" isn't the greatest western ever made, but it is competently-down, suspenseful and a wonderful way to burn 86 minutes.

An excellent book to peruse if you are interested in John Sturges, his life, and his films is Glen Lovell's top-notch biography on Sturges entitled "Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges." Mr. Lovell spent 10 years writing and researching this seminal text about Sturges.

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