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.

FOUND IN THE CONNECTION (Rattling Loose End #8–Western Heroes and Girl Group Singers)

Last week, as part of a well-organized plan to get in my car and drive a sufficient distance from my front door to allow for clearing the cobwebs of the last six months out of my head, I took a trip to Atlanta. Since I was going somewhere anyway and Atlanta happened to be it, I arranged the timing and destination around a showing of Winchester ’73 at Emory University (and a next-day visit to the Gone With the Wind Museum in Marietta).

The fun parts of the journey–the movie, the museum, the room service breakfast, the long lunch looking out over the square in downtown Marietta–were wonderful and more than made up for nightmare traffic, missed road signs (don’t worry Georgia Highway Department–even though this so rarely happens to me anywhere else I’m still willing to entertain the notion that it’s really just me!), and falling for the old “it’s only a ten minute walk and if you ask anyone over there they can tell right where it is” gag from the otherwise very efficient concierge at the lovely on-campus accommodations.

No problem on that last really. I gave myself thirty minutes, made it in thirty-five, after no less than two wrong turns (it could have been more but the thing about wrong turns is that, after a certain point, it becomes difficult to keep track, not so much of the turns themselves as of the definition of “wrong”), no less than three befuddled looks when I inquired as to the specific whereabouts of White Hall,  frequent consultations to the campus map that was resting in my pocket next to my bi-focals and the realization that, being no longer young, once gentle inclines now represent more than adequate stand-ins for various and sundry Himalayan peaks and if I’m going to attempt them at all I really should carry along coat-of-arms’ bearing standards that can be planted in triumph at the crests.

Still, I made it. Only five minutes late.

Real life college screenings still start with lectures, thank God, and while I was sorry I missed the start of this one, I was glad my back-line defense mechanism (“Well it doesn’t really matter if I’m a little late since I have seen it twenty times!”) didn’t have to kick all the way in.

And like I say, it was worth it.

The big screen really does illuminate.

Anthony Mann had made a number of fine films previously but this was probably his first flat-out, big league masterpiece (I wrote about what I think is his next one here). I was particularly struck by how much stronger and more subtle Shelley Winters’ already fine performance was writ large. But Mann’s magnificent use of sound can’t really be appreciated on a TV screen and, for all the times I’d seen the film, I never realized how much the bullets ricocheting in the rocks during the famous final shootout actually affect the action. Seen–and heard–in proper proportion, every bullet felt like three and the continuous maneuvering of the antagonists, which, however impressive, always felt a little staged to me, suddenly felt completely organic and yoked to real and present danger.

And, oh by the way, it should be a given that a man known for noirs, westerns and epics would be an action master, but, viewed on television screens of varying sizes, this rather obvious fact never washed over me quite as literally as it did when I was (to paraphrase something Robert Mitchum’s wife once supposedly said), the size of somebody’s left nostril. Unlike most of the other directors who can tell you all about how much they love John Ford films, Mann actually learned something!

For all of that, one of the reasons for going away once in a while is to create the circumstances for a homecoming, however modest. And it happened that on the occasion of this particular return, Rhino’s old CD collection Girl Group Greats (been cruising Amazon for years, hoping to find it cheap–at last the day was here!) was waiting for me in the mailbox.

Having just been exposed to the full experience of a film that is, among many other things, an especially fine celebration of the Western Hero, hearing all those yearning young female voices chime in a decade or so later drew a connection I had not previously made.

Now, I’ve argued for a long time that rock and roll and the western are the two great American art forms–that’s why they are the two things this blog is mostly dedicated to. But I don’t do a whole lot of philosophizing about whether or not they are specifically connected on any deep level–and whether any such connection amounts to them being deeply intertwined or (give or take “That’ll be the Day!” linking John Wayne to Buddy Holly) just mutually repellent.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that now either! Not just yet anyway. Perhaps another time.

And I’m not going to put together one of those mash-up videos where various Western Heroes rescue various damsels in distress to a soundtrack of the Angels singing “My Boyfriend’s Back.” (Though if anybody wants to take that idea and run with it, feel free…and if it’s already been done, let me know!)

So I’ll just conclude by pointing out that, until experiencing them in such close and intense proximity, it never occurred to me that the Lola Manners of “You just never know when a girl might need a bullet” fame, and the Jiggs Allbut of “My boyfriend’s back, he’s gonna save my reputation…if I were you I’d take a permanent vacation!” probably would have had plenty of interesting things to say to each other…and leave it at that!

Hey, I knew it would all make sense some day!