Sunday, July 11, 2010


Future U.S. President Ronald Reagan plays a no-nonsense, tough-as-leather peace officer in former art director Nathan Juran's third film as a director, "Law and Order" (*** out of ****), based on "High Sierra" writer W.R. Burnett's novel "Saint Johnson." "Interlude" scribe Inez Cocke adapted Burnett's novel and John and Gwen Bagni along with D.D. Beauchamp fashioned the formula screenplay that espouses status quo 'law and order' values. In other words, "Law and Order" is a good Republican western. Comparisons between Reagan's protagonist, Frame Johnson, and the legendary Wyatt Earp are inevitable. Like Wyatt Earp, Frame Johnson has acquired a reputation as a fearless, invincible lawman. Just as inevitably, the time comes for the dedicated lawman to shed the badge and settle down. Foolishly, Frame struggles to do that very thing because he has grown tired of being a "hired killer" with a badge. Nevertheless, trouble always seems to reach out and ruin him. Dorothy Malone is cast as his pretty leading lady and she knows how to wear lipstick. Interestingly enough, she owns a saloon bar and deals cards. At one point, a prospective buyer observes that running a saloon is not job for a woman. Back in 1953 as well as the time period of this western, which is set in 1882, this opinion wouldn't seem out of place. Today, it brims with sexism. Nevertheless, the Malone character informs the buyer that her father left her the saloon. After all, she observes, she can neither teach nor sew, so what option was left to her?

Sharp-shooting Sheriff Frame Johnson (Ronald Reagan of "Desperate Journey") pursues the Durango Kid (Wally Cassell of "Salute to the Marines") on horseback across a broiling desert as this durable, 80-minute, full frame, Technicolor oater opens. Frame catches up with the Kid when the outlaw has his hands off his six-gun and wrapped around his canteen. Frame blasts the canteen out of Durango's hands and two struggle in a brief fistfight before Frame claps on the handicuffs. Back in Tombstone, Frame thwarts the locals from lynching Durango. Things look rather tough for Frame because his youngest brother, Jimmy Johnson (Russell Johnson of TV's "Gilligan's Island"), is among them. Frame wounds one man to discourage the lynch mob and orders Jimmy inside. Frame informs his other brother, Luther 'Lute' Johnson (Alex Nicol of "The Red Ball Express"), that they are leaving town. Afterward, he tells his girlfriend, Jeanie (Oscar winner Dorothy Malone of "Written on the Wind"), that he has turned in his marshal's badge and is heading for Cottonwood to settle on a ranch. She wants to join him, but Frame suggests that she stick around Tombstone until he has the ranch fixed up.

No sooner than Frame, Lute, Jimmy, and their undertaker pal, Denver Cahoon (Chubby Johnson of "Sam Whiskey") have arrived in Cottonwood than they encounter trouble in the person of town boss, Kurt Durling (Preston Foster of "Kansas City Confidential"), who remembers Frame with considerable animosity from Abilene. Frame shot Durling in the hand and the wound turned Durling's right hand into useless flesh. Durling and his clan were cattle rustlers. Since Abilene, Durling and his two sons, Frank (Dennis Weaver of TV's "Gunsmoke") and Bart (Don Gordon of "Bullitt"), have moved to Cottonwood where he runs the town with the help of a no-account sheriff, Fin Elder (Barry Kelly of "Buchanan Rides Alone"), and his word is law. Burt opposes Frame briefly at the saloon/hotel when he tries to kill Johnny Benton (Don Garner of "FBI Girl") and Frame prevents him. Later, Bart dies after Johnny kills him. Frame protects Johnny from Frank and his gun hands. Judge Williams represents the town fathers and he implores Frame to pin on the badge. Frame refuses to serve as their sheriff, and his opinion doesn't change when his brothers and he discover the hanged body of Johnny Benton on the trail. Although Frame doesn't accept the offer as sheriff, Lute steps forward to take on those duties.

The devious Durlings make sure that Lute is out on wild goose chases while they conduct business as usual. Meaning, the Durlings are rustling cattle in one spot while Lute investigates something else. Eventually, one of the town fathers, Dixon (Thomas Browne Henry of "Hoodlum Empire") observes, "While you're chasing rainbows, they're rustling cattle." Judge Williams (Richard Garrick of "Riding Shotgun") defends Lute. He points out that the Durlings try "to confuse you, run you ragged an send off in every direction." Lute seeks Frame's help, but Frame turns him down. Frame and Denver are trying to finish the repairs on the ranch before Jeanie shows up. One evening, Lute restrains a drunken cowboy, Jed (Jack Kelly of TV's "Maverick"), from blasting the lights out of a chandelier. Lute disarms Jed, but Frank prods him into a duel. Just as Lute lets Frank draw, Kurt knocks over a chair at his table. The falling chair distracts Lute and Frank nails him in the stomach. Lute doesn't die before Frame rides into town. "I'm sorry, Frame," Lute mutters before he dies, "I guess I just wasn't as good as you." Later, Jimmy gets plastered in the bar and sets out to kill Frank. Denver smashes a whiskey bottle over Jimmy's head and Frame locks him up to cool off.

Frame dictates the terms of his employment as sheriff. He demands that Judge Williams and the town fathers pass an ordinance making it illegal to tote firearms in the city limits. Predictably, Dixon is appalled at such a request. "No guns? We'll be the laughing stock of the west." Later, he says with resignation in his voice. "I just hope we haven't legalized murder." Word of Sheriff Johnson's death reaches Jeanie and she thinks that Frame has bitten the dust. A gambler in her saloon informs her that Lute took the bullet, but Frame has stepped into his boots. Jeanie sells the saloon and heads to Cottonwood to be with Frame. "You're big, ugly, and stupid," she describes Frame, "but I love you." Originally, Jeanie had sworn to not marry Frame because she feared that he would die in the line of duty. She has changed her mind, however, and now supports Frame completely. Matters grow complicated when Jimmy spots Frank's sister one day while he is riding fence. They fall in love and Frank warns him to stay away from his sister. Eventually, Frank catches Jimmy with Maria ( Ruth Hampton of "# Abbott and Costello Go to Mars") and they shoot it out. Kurt, Sheriff Elder and Jed witness the shooting and claim that Jimmy committed murder. Frame arrests Jimmy when he shows up at Frame's ranch and tells him about the gunfight. Frame locks Jimmy up, but Jed releases him after he clobbers Denver unconscious. Kurt Durling is hoping that Jimmy's jailbreak will compel Judge Williams to take Frame's badge.

The only weakness of "Law and Order" is the Preston Foster villain. Indeed, he is slimy and unsympathetic, but he never actually kills anybody in cold blood. He leaves the killings to his two lame-brained, hot-tempered brothers who he constantly berates for not using their heads. The knock-down, drag-out fistfight between the villain and the hero on the Cottonwood main street ranks as a pretty vigorous affair. At least twice the chief villain tries to kill Frame with a pitchfork and an axe. In both cases, the implements that Foster wields actually do stick into or chop the wood