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.

LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS ALBUM COVERS (Paean #8: The Rolling Stones–Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), US, 1966)

hightides2

The Stones are everywhere this primary season. Closing Donald Trump’s road show is the least of it. I woke up one day this week and somebody (I think it was MSNBC but don’t hold me to it, I’ve been going to sleep with the TV on a lot and sometimes the waking and dreaming are hard enough to keep track of without getting all technical about purely three dimensional details), was using the opening and closing tracks of Exile on Main Street for bumper music.

The next evening it was “Miss You.” Maybe on C-Span or Fox. Again, I lost track.

Tomorrow, who knows?

But does anybody still want to take a look at the set of problems facing us and the choice of candidates who will lead us boldly into the future and still argue Satan’s not, as one of the minor prophets had it, laughing with delight?

The cover of the first hits package released by the Laughing One’s favorite band, the first and last to stake their claim so entirely on being that before anything else that they were that (say from roughly 1965 to 1972) or nothing (say, ever since), was a kind of perfect statement all on its own.

It said most of what there was to say without any reference at all to the great full page photos that came with the original vinyl package or the stripped down assault of the actual music:

“We may have been born clodhoppers but we’ve now made every deal that needs to be made and we’re here to burn down your cornfield and there’s nothing you can do about it!

Tom Wolfe’s famous epigram (“The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town.” yaddah, yaddah, yaddah) didn’t cover the half of it. The Stones were more like agents from the future we’re now living in than the James boys fresh off their break from Captain Quantrill. Not undercover mind you–what could possibly be more obvious than that picture up there–just messengers.

That’s what I always liked about them, once I started working my way backward through rock and roll history from the late seventies and turned this one up on one of my first trips to the panhandle’s only record Co-op (say 1979 or 80).

They were were so refreshingly up-front. Hey, it’s 1966 and things seem a little nervy. But it’s about to get way-y-y-y-y worse. Soon you’ll be stumbling around in the dark and become so lost that most of you will live to see P.T. Barnum rise from the grave and storm the gates. And you can bet he’ll use us for exit music!

As a collection covering a period that had its share of musical rough patches, High Tide is just about perfect. It contextualizes both the half-successful “As Tears Go By” (which was a big hit despite Mick Jagger’s bound-to-be-awkward attempt at faking sentimentality), and their version of “Not Fade Away,” where Jagger sounds even clumsier chasing Buddy Holly than he did chasing Howlin’ Wolf on High Tide‘s UK-version cover of “Little Red Rooster”–by the sixties, it was much odder to sound like you’d never seen a Cadilllac than like you’d never seen a rooster.

Context is everything, too. Those two neither-here-nor-there tracks are the only side trips on an otherwise perfect collection and they don’t really take you so far from the rubber-burning highway they were running down at full speed that they amount to anything more than bathroom breaks.

Here, better than anywhere else, you can understand why Nik Cohn thought it would be perfect for the Stones to die-before-thirty in a plane crash.

That they spent the next six years mounting ever higher is still shocking.

And it’s even more shocking that the mounting was all in the music.

Purely image-wise, they never beat that photo.

Come on, how could they?

They stuck Brian Jones up front, like nobody could possibly imagine he belonged anywhere else.

They stood on rocks.

At low tide.

They stared down every other bunch of punks who ever posed for an album cover and  made it clear that all the others would be both inevitably compared to them…and found wanting.

Whatever deal you think you made with the Laughing One, they seemed to say, you can walk away from it. We can’t. Because we’ve cancelled all the bets. Ours and yours.

Brian Jones was dead within three years. The rest were pod people within five years after that. We live in the world left behind.

Kinda’ sucks for us.

But, boy, while it lasted….