The Law and Jake Wade: a review

It has been some time since I reviewed a classic film. So I thought I would talk about a favourite western starring a favourite actor of mine, Richard Widmark.

The Law and Jake Wade stars Robert Taylor in the title role as a town Marshall with a dark past.  This past comes back to haunt him in the form of Richard Widmark’s character Clint Hollister.  I don’t want to spoil anything further because I really liked the way this story unfolded and I risk spoiling the climactic showdown. The titular “good guy” Jake had a dark past that he tried to escape when he relocated and built a new life as a town Marshall. When his past caught up to him, his instinct was to leave town again. That he was in love with Peggy, a local woman complicated matters.

 

The location filming is simply gorgeous. I also liked the way this film touched upon the arbitrary rules of society, which often vary, in times of war and peace.  Other themes included loyalty in love and friendship, as well as reinventing oneself.

I really enjoyed this film’s dialogue. The verbal sparring between the two adversaries was top notch, for any film, regardless of genre or era.  The character development was good too. The deft screenplay successfully integrated the back stories, avoiding clumsy expository narrative. I liked the way Patricia Owens’ character Peggy resisted Jake’s out of the blue request that they leave town to make a new life. That she refused to blindly follow, could smell something fishy and insisted on knowing the truth was a progressive way to introduce a female character. Considering the film was released in 1958, very progressive. Sadly such depiction cannot be taken for granted, even in a modern film. As for the hero and his adversary, these 2 men were obviously very close once. We saw the villain anticipate the hero’s moves as if he was pulling the strings. The climactic showdown was still fun to watch, even after many previous viewings.

Of course I am biased, but Richard Widmark was truly electric as the villain and managed to raise evoke sympathy. His distress regarding the abandonment by Robert Taylor’s character was palpable. Some would even say their relationship was beyond bromantic. Widmark stole scenes effortlessly.  Widmark remains an under appreciated classic Hollywood actor. I am not alone in trying to rectify this. That he managed to avoid typecasting and transitioned successfully to heroic roles was a testament to his talent.

 

So if you are curious about classic westerns off the beaten path, this film is worth hunting down. It is available on DVD and iTunes. It has beautiful scenery, great dialogue (Widmark gets most of the best lines), and as an added bonus to any Trekkies out there, young DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy/Bones). He plays a member of the Widmark’s gang. This is 1 of 2 times that he starred with Widmark. The other time was in Warlock, another great film that I blogged about.

Some of my favorite quotes from this film are:

Widmark to the hot head of his outlaw gang “Sonny, I can see we ain’t gonna have you round long enough to get tired of your company.”

Widmark again (to the same guy, after his foolish act of shooting at coyotes – in Indian country no less – in response to the feeble excuse “I didn’t stop to think”) “We’ll chisel that on your tombstone”

Taylor to Widmark “Well, you like me more than I like you”

Warlock (1959), Outstanding Western with an Odd Title

Warlock (1959) is one of my favorite westerns.  Unfortunately it shares a title with a horror/fantasy film made 30 years later. It has a stunning cast that includes Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn and Dorothy Malone. And for fans of 60’s TV shows it also has DeForest Kelley (Dr. McCoy/Star Trek) and Frank Gorshin (The Riddler/Batman) in supporting roles.

Widmark plays the role of Johnny Gannon.  He and his brother (Frank Gorshin, an ideal choice as there is a resemblance) ride with a lawless gang who like to shoot-up the town of Warlock between stints of cattle rustling and other such endeavors.

frank_gorshin_riddler1 brothers? 

This leaves the town terrorized and frightened and unable to attract a deputy sheriff.  So the citizens of Warlock decide to hire a notorious gunfighter named Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda), at the bargain price of $400 a month.  By law, a sheriff’s deputy only earns a tenth of that sum.  So technically and according to the sheriff, Blaisedell, the appointed Marshall is a vigilante- gun-for- hire, operating outside of the law on behest of the townsfolk of Warlock.  Unfortunately, said sheriff is counties away and of no immediate everyday use. There seems to be no takers at the paltry sum offered to a deputy, so what else can the town of Warlock do?

So Blaisedell comes to town with his good friend Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn), who happens to have a club foot, but is also a pretty quick draw.  They are clearly a package deal and settle into town by opening up their gambling saloon and intimidating the unruly gang.  The story gets complicated when Widmark’s character, Gannon, decides to break ties with the gang and turn over a new leaf. As soon as he accepts the position as the town’s deputy, he finds himself caught between his former gang buddies and Blaisedell, with little support of the citizens. Further complications arise when Lily Dollar (Dorothy Malone) comes to town in search of Blaisedell.  She is an old flame of Morgan’s (Quinn) and is back with a vengeance. This adds an interesting subplot the helps flesh out the main characters by adding another dimension to the story. I am not going to give any more plot points away, as I do not want to risk spoiler territory.  Suffice it to say, the conflict between Gannon (the law) and Blaisedell (the vigilante), in addition to the resolution of the Morgan, Blaisedell and Lily affair, play out with great tension, action and drama.

I thought all the main roles were well acted.  I especially liked Widmark’s low-key performance of a man with a very troubled past who is looking for redemption.  It is the kind of role he excels at.  There is a great performance by  DeForest Kelley as Curly, one of the more likeable members of the outlaw gang.  He does a great job providing comic relief and steals many scenes.  I like the way the story unfolds with surprises along the way. Henry Fonda is very capable in the thankless role of the stoic gun fighter; it is the least dynamic of any of the male leads.

Anthony Quinn’s villainous portrayal of Morgan suggests more than just a close friendship with Henry Fonda’s Blaisedell by reinforcing homosexual stereotypes (flamboyant clothes, preoccupation with interior decor, hostility toward women who pose a threat to the status quo of their relationship).  Some of the final scenes make me wonder if perhaps Blaisedell is just too afraid of society’s wrath to reciprocate feelings that he dared not acknowledge.  Of course, this is all subtext; anything explicit about such themes would have been impossible in 1959. Certainly this is all in the eye of the viewer; but I have read online that the director (Edward Dmytryk) was surprised when critics of the time commented on the perceived homosexuality of Morgan (I am not the only one to think so).  It was not intentional, in his mind.  Or maybe he did not see it but the screenwriter did.  Some people get quite hostile at the notion that Morgan’s character might be gay. To paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, not that there is anything wrong with that. I find it an interesting interpretation of a fictional character.

I really enjoyed this Western. The themes are more complex than average; it has no clear hero, no clear villain and it left me thinking, long after I finished watching it for the countless time. My biggest complaint is the title. I wish the town had a different, less supernatural sounding name. The title seems so incongruous to the story.

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