REVIEWED BY DAN STUMPF:
MARVIN H. ALBERT – The Law and Jake Wade. Gold Medal #553, paperback original, 1956; Gold Medal #756, 2nd printing, movie tie-in edition, 1958.
THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. MGM, 1958. Robert Taylor, Richard Widmark, Patricia Owens, Robert Middleton, Henry Silva, DeForest Kelley. Screenplay by William Bowers, based on the novel by Marvin H. Albert. Director: John Sturges.
I’ve never been a big fan of Marvin H. Albert, but this ain’t bad. Like all the best Gold Medal originals, it starts with a crackle of mysterious action as Marshal Jake Wade travels to a nearby town to break Ben Swift, a condemned killer, out of jail. The jailbreak is handled with the terse violence one expects in a Gold Medal, and we soon learn that Marshal Wade himself used to ride what they call The Outlaw Trail, and he’s repaying Swift back for saving his life back in those days. Been me, I’d a let him hang, but that wouldn’t have made much of a book, I guess.
It seems Wade hates and fears Swift, who has been trying to find him for more than a year — the result of a misunderstanding over the loot from their last job together, which was last seen in Jake’s possession. Jake buried the loot in a fit of remorse, and has built himself a decent life, as they say in westerns, complete with a career as an upright lawman and a fetching fiancée named Lorna, but none of this makes a damn to Ben, and soon we’re off on a long, punishing ride to recover the loot, with Jake and his bride-to-be the unwilling captives of Ben and his henchmen.
The ensuing action is pretty gripping, what with raiding Comanches, blizzards, rugged mountains, and the ever-present tension as Jake works to maneuver his captors to destruction. But the real emphasis is on the relationships between the characters, as it quickly becomes apparent that our hero won’t get away from these owlhoots until he understands them.
And likewise, he won’t be able to rescue Lorna until she understands him. A nice touch this, and it lifts the story a bit out of the ordinary — as does the climax, when Jake realizes he can’t really escape at all, and calmly waits for his fate to overtake him.
Albert evokes some fine tension by concentrating on the small stuff: the effects of having one’s wrists tied for days on end, the constant attention to keep Jake and Lorna secured and apart, and the careful cat-and-mouse maneuverings of Jake and his captors. But this is primarily a book about the characters, and he does an exemplary job of balancing thought, feeling and action…. plenty of action.
When they filmed this in 1958, MGM and producer William Hawks did well by it: they got director John Sturges, back when he was lean & fast, Robert Surtees to photograph it, and William Bowers to fashion the script. Bowers specialized in comedy-westerns, including Alias Jesse James and The Sheepman, and he even injected some humor into Henry King’s fatalistic The Gunfighter. Here, he imparts a laconic lilt to the proceedings that makes the action scenes somehow more intense and brutal by way of contrast.
The blizzard is omitted, probably for reasons for reasons of economy and expeditious film-making, but they don’t stint on the wide-open scenery and they even provide a highly cinematic ghost town for the Comanche fight, and the final showdown—possibly borrowed from Yellow Sky, but no less exciting for that. And the acting….
The acting is what academics call top-notch, with the performers slipping easily into their parts. Robert Taylor plays the marshal Randolph-Scott-style: tight-lipped and square-jawed, the perfect foil for Richard Widmark’s talkative and brutal bad guy. Patricia Owens (who starred in The Fly that same year) has little to do as the fiancée, but she does it capably. And Widmark’s gang includes Henry Silva, Robert Middleton and DeForest Kelly, who had a nice line in smiling cowboy bad-guys in those pre-Star Trek days.
The only thing that puzzles me is why they changed so many names: Ben Swift becomes “Clint Hollister;” Lorna becomes “Peggy” and Henry Silva’s character, named “Henry” in the book, is now “Rennie.” Most puzzling of all, a major character named “Otero” in Albert’s novel is listed as “Ortero” in the credits.
I guess it’s just one of those unsolved mysteries of The Cinema. Don’t let it spoil the movie.
Editorial Comment: It wasn’t planned; it’s only one of those great cosmic mysteries of the universe called a coincidence. But Jonathan reviewed this same film on this blog exactly one year ago today.