THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (I Watch Westerns: Take Nine)

The Law and Jake Wade (1958)
D. John Sturges

(Mild spoilers concerning film’s first ten minutes included)

The Law and Jake Wade begins with Robert Taylor’s Jake Wade riding alone into the deserted streets of a two-horse town just after dawn. Five minutes later, he’s broken Richard Widmark’s Clint Hollister out of jail.

They aren’t about to ride off on an adventure together. And they aren’t exactly friends. Wade owes Hollister a debt of honor. That’s all.

The complicating factor is that Wade also knows the whereabouts of twenty thousand dollars that he doesn’t care about. Hollister knows Wade knows. It’s his twenty thousand dollars. And he wants it very badly.

Wade, for reasons that never need overt explanation because they emerge from the story the way such things should, like a photograph from emulsion, doesn’t want him to have it.

It’s what you might call a conflict. Its resolution makes for one of the tightest plots you’ll find anywhere.

By the time Hollister kidnaps Wade and his girl (that’s about five more minutes in), he’s rounded up his and Wade’s old gang. From there, with cross-tracking aplenty, the story runs on three rails: the feud between Wade and Hollister, now centered around the implicit threat to Wade’s fiance (Patricia Owens, whose preternatural softness creates a startling contrast with the harsh men and harsher landscapes–the effect of her separateness doubled by her being the only woman who appears on-screen, where, like everyone but Wade and Hollister, she has one name, which might as well be “Peggy” as anything else); the journey to the gold (complicated by not only Wade’s reticence, but the presence of both cavalry and Comanches) and, most tellingly, a study in a William Quantrill-style psychopath’s hold on his command of a dwindling outlaw band.

The band consists of four additional men–all register strongly, delivering nuanced portraits of men caught between fear of their leader and the incrementally conflicting urge to survive. They’re types you recognize, but rendered indelible: Henry Silva’s Rennie as The Kid, currying favor with the leader’s authority one minute, itching to challenge it the next; DeForest Kelley’s Wexler, consumed by grievances that may burn all the deeper for being ill-defined; Eddie Firestone’s Burke, a weak-willed Robert Ford type, in the process of losing his last illusions; and, foremost among them, Robert Middleton’s Ortero, in a beautifully shaded performance as a second lieutenant caught between his respective loyalties to feuding commanders.

Those loyalties have been forged in a hot fire–the guerrilla warfare exemplified by Quantrill and Bill Anderson in the Civil War’s most vicious theater–a life Wade has ridden away from and the others are caught in for good, whether or not they ever reach the gold.

It’s the gradual dawning of that recognition–the present dangers merging with the underlying desperation of lives headed for violent death in any case–that lifts The Law and Jake Wade into the very highest echelon of fifties’ westerns, which is the highest echelon there is.

Well that and Sturges’ always crisp direction being delivered at the business end of a razor-sharp script by William Bowers. Sturges was a peerless action director and The Law and Jake Wade contains some of his tersest sequences. Despite being considerably shorter, the final shootout between Widmark and Taylor rivals the one between James Stewart and Stephen McNally at the end of Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. There’s no higher praise than that. And it follows on other startling sequences: Wade and Peggy’s sudden leap to freedom over a sand cliff; a brutal Indian attack highlighted by Sturges’ unique ability to put danger straight in the audience’s face, to experience it as his characters do; sometimes, just the way Sturges catches Widmark’s feline style of movement like no other director.

All this adds up to a story that winds tighter and tighter–and doesn’t disperse its basic tension on repeated viewings. In good stories, lives are at stake; in great ones, souls are at stake. Souls were never put more consistently to the test than in the top-drawer westerns made between 1946 and 1962. The stakes here are more personal, less civilizational, than in the era’s best known, definitive westerns. But they’re just as real and just as intense.

And the great theme–the one we’ve since neglected at our civilizational peril–remains the same. You can shove it under the rug–let it be handled by special forces ops, for instance, whose usefulness to the presiding Overlords of any given age has a spiritual affinity with the likes of Quantrill we’ve decided is best left unexamined–but it always crawls back out.

Sooner or later, you have to kill the bad man….

Because if you don’t, he’ll kill you.

2 thoughts on “THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (I Watch Westerns: Take Nine)

  1. That’s fine, heartfelt bit of writing on a fine film. I love Sturges’ work in the 50s, the films are so often beautifully structured, paced and shot that it’s puzzling his reputation isn’t stronger today.

    • I wonder if The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape are such iconic “crowd-pleasers” that folks have overlooked how strong his filmography really is? (And perhaps have taken for granted how good those two films are to begin with…as though any good director could have done them, which I think is very far from the truth.) It is a bit dispiriting to find films as good as this one and Escape from Fort Bravo, especially, so little discussed….I guess we’ll just have to keep doing our bit to correct that!

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