The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 2: THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958)

21 Mar

Second in this series is a color still from THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958), an MGM production directed by John Sturges (THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). I only recently recorded the movie off Encore’s Western Channel and re-watched it for the first time in decades.

As you can see, the still shows a nighttime scene shot on a soundstage with studio lighting and an artificial backdrop. The actors are, L-R, Patricia Owens, Richard Widmark, and Robert Taylor.

The actual scene in the film is a very close approximation of the action in the still except that Widmark is not standing straight up as he talks, but leaning back against the rock. (Forgive the VHS quality of the screen grab.)

This scene is not at all typical of the movie, over 90% of which was shot on location at Lone Pine, California and in Death Valley National Park. (Interestingly, the backdrop used in this scene appears to be from Monument Valley rather than from any of the actual locations used in the film.) The beautiful cinematography by Robert Surtees features picturesque scenery in practically every shot. I don’t have this on DVD (although one is available and I must get it), so here are some shots from the Encore Western cablecast (pan-and-scan):

It’s actually a very good, tough western, far better than I’d remembered it. Richard Widmark, who’d started out playing vicious gangsters (KISS OF DEATH, THE STREET WITH NO NAME), but moved quickly into staunch authority figures, usually military men, in films like PANIC IN THE STREETS, HALLS OF MONTEZUMA, DESTINATION GOBI, TAKE THE HIGH GROUND and HELL AND HIGH WATER, returns to his bad guy roots here and plays Clint Hollister, an outlaw who makes captives of his former partner Jake Wade (Taylor), now a lawman, and Wade’s fiancée, Peggy (Owens), demanding that he and his men be taken to the hiding place where Wade had stashed the $20,000 from their last bank job after he’d deserted the rest of the gang. The not-so-magnificent seven travel over rugged western terrain until they get to the ghost town (built on location for the movie, I’m guessing) where the money is buried. A climactic Indian attack levels the playing field somewhat for our hero.

In the scene pictured in the still at the top of this entry, Widmark is discussing the escape attempt by Jake and the woman in the previous scene. This leads into reminiscences of the past relationship of the two men and their joint experiences in the Civil War as part of a unit that raided border towns, a la Colonel Quantrill and his guerrillas who fought for the Confederacy and laid waste to Lawrence, Kansas in one notorious raid. This leads to Jake’s revelation that he’d quit the gang after a boy was killed in a crossfire during a bank robbery, a deed for which Jake blamed himself.

Taylor had been a leading man at MGM for 22 years at this point. He’d started out in the mid-1930s playing callow, often arrogant, male ingénues (CAMILLE, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, THE GORGEOUS HUSSY, to name a few), but did some credible westerns and war movies in the 1940s (BILLY THE KID, BATAAN), before joining the service himself and, by the 1950s, developing some seasoning that served him very well in hard-edged westerns like DEVIL’S DOORWAY, RIDE VAQUERO, and THE LAST HUNT; rugged adventure films like ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT and VALLEY OF THE KINGS; and crime movies like ROGUE COP and PARTY GIRL. As Jake Wade, he portrayed a former outlaw who’d wearied of that life and opted to turn away from it completely. His sense of obligation forces him to free Widmark from a jail cell at the very beginning of the film, to repay the time Widmark had saved him from a lynch mob. It comes as a big surprise to the viewer a couple of scenes later when we learn that Jake’s a lawman. The build-up and revelation are very well handled.

Patricia Owens was an intense redhead with high cheekbones who was quite memorable in the handful of movies I’ve seen her in, in addition to this one: SAYONARA, THE FLY and HELL TO ETERNITY. She’s particularly memorable in the latter film, as an uptight lady reporter during the war who attends a party with some servicemen at the apartment of two Japanese showgirls in Hawaii and they all get wildly drunk.  I give a description of the scene in my IMDB review of HELL TO ETERNITY. In JAKE WADE, Owens plays quite a strong and brave woman, often seeming more concerned for Jake’s safety than her own. She doesn’t waver, even when she learns of his outlaw past.  I found the character quite admirable and a good fit for Jake.

L-R: DeForest Kelley, Henry Silva, Eddie Firestone, Robert Middleton, Patricia Owens, Robert Taylor

Also on hand are the four members of Widmark’s gang: Henry Silva, who often specialized in crazy henchmen in those years (check him out as “Chink” in THE TALL T); DeForest Kelley, who made tons of westerns before taking on the role of Doc “Bones” McCoy in “Star Trek,” and had played Morgan Earp in Sturges’ GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL; Robert Middleton, a heavyset actor who specialized in operatic villains, but is relatively low-key and sympathetic here, the one gang member who doesn’t have a grudge against Wade; and Eddie Firestone, who plays the least distinctive gang member and is an actor I’ve seen in lots of movies but couldn’t tell you who he plays in any of them, except for this one.

Widmark had made a number of westerns by this point, 11 years into his film career. He’d been especially good as the hero of Sturges’ BACKLASH (1956), two years earlier, which had been written by Borden Chase, who probably would have made THE LAW AND JAKE WADE more memorable and given the central relationship between Clint and Jake some more heft, crafting a more emotional connection and greater tension. Just check out the male pairings in other Chase-scripted westerns like RED RIVER, WINCHESTER ’73, BEND OF THE RIVER and VERA CRUZ, to name a few.

John Sturges was one of the leading directors of male action movies in Hollywood by this point, although his greatest achievements, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) were a few years in the future. In 1959, he directed NEVER SO FEW, a World War II adventure starring Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida, but with two future stars of MAGNIFICENT SEVEN and GREAT ESCAPE in its supporting cast–Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson. This is how stars are born.

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3 Responses to “The Art of the Film Still, Pt. 2: THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1958)”

  1. Carl June 5, 2016 at 9:03 AM #

    Thanks for your review and exposure of behind the scenes info, very interesting, divulging answers to all thoughts regarding this western.😀

  2. Martin Hazelgrove (UK) July 15, 2016 at 12:15 PM #

    I love researching movie locations using Google Earth and the movie seems to have been shot mostly around Lone Pine especially in the Alabama Hills location (a commonly used area for the western genre). I also noticed that the deserted town scene was shot near to the edge of the Owens River to the NNE of Lone Pine (from analysing stills from the movie and using Google Earth. Approx. 36°38’10.49″N, 118° 2’54.55″W).

    Worth a 4 x 4 drive into that area location to see if there are any remnants of that fabricated deserted town perhaps!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Richard Widmark Centennial | Brian Camp's Film and Anime Blog - December 24, 2014

    […] his two Sturges westerns in the past: BACKLASH on IMDB and THE LAW AND JAKE WADE in this blog on March 12, 2012. HALLS OF MONTEZUMA is an excellent WWII combat film and the first postwar film to cover the […]

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