Rising to fame in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Richard Widmark made a name for himself for one big reason. Anybody can play the angelic good guy, but what about the devilish, laughing at death bad guy? From his screen debut in Kiss of Death as a psychotic killer, Widmark was typecast to a certain point early in his career as the villain. Why not really? He was the perfect bad guy. In the late 1950s though, he started to get more offers for leading roles, the good guys instead.
One of the last true villains Widmark played -- he took on some characters that lived in that gray area between good and bad -- was in 1958's The Law and Jake Wade. In this John Sturges western, Widmark isn't required to go crazy villain on the viewer, but just enough to be both charming and intimidating at the same time. Okay, maybe a little crazy, but not too much. Sturges is right in his comfort zone with this western and makes the most of a small-scale and most likely small budget in this above average western. With Widmark and a strong cast around him, 'Jake Wade' is better than it should have been.
After years of living on the outlaw trail, Jake Wade (Robert Taylor) has become a respectable marshal in a small New Mexico town -- apparently he formed a new identity. But before he can marry his sweetheart, Peggy (Patricia Owens), Wade feels he has one thing he has to do. He rides to a town several days ride away and busts out Clint Hollister (Widmark), his old partner, who's rotting away in a jail cell awaiting sentencing. Wade gets him out and sets him free, claiming they're even now. A few days pass though and Hollister shows up with his gang. He's not done with his old partner yet, wanting Wade to lead them to the $20,000 he hid years before after a robbery. Hollister kidnaps Peggy to force Wade to go along so they set off into the wilderness to get the money back.
As far as westerns go, this is pretty typical of many 1950s entries, but it handles everything so well it's elevated above so many others. Sturges keeps the story tight at under 90 minutes and the cast comes in at just eight key characters with little else to distract from the story at hand. As a director, he specialized in 'guy movies' where large casts of tough guy actors worked together and dealt with ideas of loyalty, honor, and betrayal. Some of those ideas were used to an even better point a year later in The Magnificent Seven. It's to the point, entertaining, and improves all the way to an exciting finale.
The only part that lags a bit is the midsection as Hollinger's gang -- with kidnappees -- head out into the desert to the spot where Wade buried $20,000 in cash years before. What makes this part tolerable is Widmark's part here in several campfire dialogue scenes as he explains the history he has with Wade. It's scenes like that brimming with tension and testosterone that make the middle portions anything but boring. Of course, there are too many long shots of riders on the horizon with the California locations in the background.
Widmark is the main reason I'd recommend this western, but the rest of the cast is nothing to sneeze at. Taylor is solid if not spectacular as Jake Wade, a outlaw turned peace officer trying to put his violent past behind him. Midway through the movie it looks like Taylor realizes he's being overshadowed by Widmark's villain and saves his energy for the finale. Wise choice, Rob, wise choice. Owens looks worried and screams when needed as her character requires little else. Hollister's gang includes Rennie (Henry Silva), Wexler (DeForest Kelley), Ortero (Robert Middleton) and Burke (Eddie Firestone), Silva as the nutty gunfighter and Middleton as the wavering bandit standing out from the rest in strong parts.
Sturges saves his best for last here as the gang reaches the sand-swept, windy ghost town where the money is buried. Arriving about the same time as the gang? A Comanche war party looking for scalps. Sturges and cinematographer Robert Surtees do an incredible job of filming this ghost town as if it was in the middle of a vast empty. This feeling of being trapped in a wide open space makes the shootout a great sequence as the Comanches close in. This ending would have been good on its own, but then we've got the inevitable Wade vs. Hollister showdown which doesn't disappoint either. An empty town and two men looking for revenge is always a good combination in a western. Solid ending to an overall above average western.
The Law and Jake Wade <----TCM trailer (1959): ***/****