John Sturges was a combat-documentarist during WWII and the experience served him well in a post-war Hollywood, where he became known as a very solid director of taut, suspenseful action movies, many of them westerns. Two of these westerns belong to the most popular in history, Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and the Kurosawa adaptation The Magnificent Seven (1960). They're fine movies, but many western fans (and I'm one of them) prefer some of his 'smaller' efforts, such as the Freudian noir-western Backlash (1956), the taut cavalry versus Indians drama Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) or the movie discussed here, The Law and Jake Wade.
It's often said that Sturges was only as good as the scripts he had to work with, but The Law and Jake Wade shows that he could make a (very) good western out of decent, but otherwise unexceptional story material. Robert Taylor is Jake Wade, a reformed outlaw, now a town Marshall. His personal code of honor tells him to save the life of his former partner in crime, Hollister (Richard Widmark), who's about to be hanged in another town. Hollister had saved his life in the bad old days and Wade now considers the score settled, but Hollister has his mind on the loot from their final heist, that was buried by Wade before going straight.
Hollister re-unites with his gang and forces Wade to take them to the place where the money is buried. To make sure Jake cooperates, Hollister also captures the Marshall's bride-to-be (Patricia Owens). The journey leads through Comanche territory to a ghost town in the desert, where Wade has buried the money in the cemetery. Upon their arrival in town, they discover that they were trailed by three Comanche scouts. Hollister kills two of them, but a third one escapes ... and at night, the Indians attack.
The Law and Jake Wade tells a rather familiar western story about former partners now operating on different sides of the law, but Taylor and Widmark are almost ideal opponents and Sturges' direction is both economical and assured, a master class in effective film making. Taylor is a perfect illustration of Sturges' ideas about the western hero as a silent person, a God in his own universe who resolves his issues with his gun (1). No wonder most of the talking is done by the villain, wonderfully played by Widmark, in the style of his landmark performance in Kiss of Death (1947). The supporting actors are very good too, notably Henry Silva, as a sexually frustrated young man with a Freudian father complex and Robert Middleton as the good-natured gang member with a loyalty problem.
We learn that Wade decided to go straight because he (erroneously) thought he had shot a child during their last robbery, but otherwise the script, by William Bowers (based on a novel by Marvin H. Albert) isn't over-explicative; but snippets of dialogue - such as the two men discussing if the other one would do the same thing if the odds were different - inform us about their relationship: they were both part of a Confederate guerilla band during the Civil War and just turned to robbery after the war was over. It transpires that Wade never really liked Hollister but still felt responsible for him, because he realized Hollister was a psychopath. Like some have noticed (2), Holister knows Wade is the better man: "I guess you're talking about something called honor, which is supposed to deep for me to understand." It only seems to make him meaner.
The film is not without flaws; there are a few jarring studio scenes, mainly of the group gathered around the camp fire, and some have criticized the Indian attack for being unrealistic and needlessly clichéd; the Comanche are awfully far away from their homeland and they mainly climb on rooftops or ride through the town street to be picked up by the people inside the ramshackle buildings. But the arrows go "zing" and the spears and tomahawks fly around, plunging into walls right beside people's heads, evoking that old feeling of excitement we experienced when we were watching these cowboy & injuns movies as kids (and reenacted the attack later in the backyard).
The Law and Jake wade wasn't received well when released theatrically, but things started to change when famed western critic Philip French included it in his list of favorite post-war westerns and today it's considered by many to be Sturges' best western. It's also one of my favorites, but I still prefer the equally flawed, but even more suspenseful Escape from Fort Bravo. It will be discussed on the pages very soon.
* (1) In the book Peter Bogdanovich on the Movies, Sturges expressed his views on the genre: "Western characters must not be glamorized. (...) You can't make a Western if it's pretty. (...) Always use a lot of back lighting, and don't let the star talk too much. John Ford, you know, made John Wayne a star by not letting him talk. But the absolute must for a Western is isolation. The man must be God. And you've gotta take issues that can only be resolved by guns."
* (2) Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, p. 104
* (2) Edward Buscombe, 100 Westerns, p. 104