Wednesday, October 26, 2016

DVR Diary: LAW AND ORDER (1953)

Seminal crime author W. R. Burnett (Little Caesar, High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle) also wrote westerns. His 1930 novel Saint Johnson is based on the Tombstone legend, starring a fictional analogue for Wyatt Earp, who had only recently died. Universal Pictures turned the novel in to Edward L. Cahn's Law and Order, an early collaboration between star Walter Huston and co-writer John Huston. I've never read Saint Johnson and only dimly remember seeing some of the Cahn film when I was a kid, but my understanding is that Nathan Juran's 1953 film is a remake almost in name only. If the film is remembered it's mainly because Ronald Reagan starred as Frame Johnson, the Earp counterpart. He's actually pretty good as a stone-cold laconic lawman who wants to get away from that life and doesn't care what people think of him for doing so. Having cleaned up Tombstone, Frame decides to move on to Cottonwood, accompanied by brothers Luke (Alex Nicol) and hotheaded Jimmy (Russell Johnson), as well as their own personal undertaker, who sees no future in Tombstone after the Johnsons have annihilated the outlaw element. In Cottonwood Frame just wants to start a ranch and settle down with his girl -- Dorothy Malone's term of endearment for him is "You're big, you're ugly and you're stupid and I happen be in love with you" -- but the Johnson blood is inflamed by the unjust domination of Cottonwood by the Durling brothers, Kurt (Preston Foster) and Frank (Dennis Weaver), and their pet sheriff. Frame tries to keep out of it as long as he can, but when Luke is killed, and while Jimmy flirts dangerously with Frank Durling's sister, Frame enters the fray.

Interestingly, the ultimate showdown isn't between Johnsons and Durlings, but between Frame and Jimmy, who kills Frank Durling when caught with Frank's sister. Frame believes in the rule of law -- and it may alarm Reagan's idolators today to see the great man enforcing an aggressive gun-control policy in Cottonwood -- and so is determined to make sure that Jimmy stands trial -- his girl will testify in his favor so he'd likely get off if he isn't lynched -- but the Durling faction paradoxically breaks him out of jail in order to discredit Frame. Jimmy is a borderline misfit who'd joined a lynch mob himself earlier in the picture. He's turbulent, impulsive and impatient with a yearning for peace on Frame's part that sometimes looks like cowardice to the younger man. It's worth noting here, in light of Russell Johnson's now-total identification with the Professor on Gilligan's Island, that before that show he had become virtually typecast as a heavy on TV westerns. He seemed to project a certain mean weakness of character that here, early in his career but possibly his biggest and best role in movies, is redeemed by a romantic spirit. There's a certain anticlimactic integrity to Law and Order as it retreats from its fratricidal setup. Fugitive Jimmy wounds Frame, who refuses to draw on him, and immediately repents and surrenders to the happy ending awaiting all the surviving Johnsons. The film isn't much more than a B movie, but Juran directs with satisfying efficiency, apart from an overblown brawl between Reagan and Foster's stuntmen, and the film looks good overall. Reagan reportedly didn't think much of the film, probably seeing it as a comedown from his Warner Bros. pictures, but it's a perfectly respectable oater with a decent cast -- young Dennis Weaver is especially nasty --  that suggests that the future President wasn't the best judge of his own work.

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