Directed by Edward L. Cahn
Written by John Huston
Westerns are often thought of to be cowboy and indian affairs, outlaws and lawmen. The early films of this marathon have largely proven that to not always be the case, with numerous stories about pioneer settlement, wagon trains and expansion. John Ford’s 3 Bad Men is the exception, and with Law and Order comes a welcome addition to the western storybook of outlaws and lawmen. Not only that, Law and Order features a who’s who of western veterans from Walter Huston to Harry Carey, Walter’s son John Huston and even Andy Devine (who I grew up knowing as the voice of Friar Tuck in Disney’s Robin Hood). Like 3 Bad Men before it, Law and Order touches on the mystique of the outlaw west and shows what the genre is capable of delivering, even if it falls well short of the standard set forth by the master, John Ford.
Although the film uses different names, Law and Order is essentially the story of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone (including a play in the gunfight at the OK Corral – which will have it own entire film later in the marathon). In place of Wyatt Earp is noted lawman and peacekeeper Frame “Saint” Johnson (Walter Huston), whose group of associates (Harry Carey, Raymond Hatton and Russell Hopton) brought law and order to Dodge City. When Johnson and his associates travel into Tombstone, Arizona on a whim, they find a corrupt town controlled by a sheriff in the pocket of local outlaws the Northrup brothers. Having sworn off the badge, Johnson is convinced to once again become a lawman, bringing order to an orderless town.
I was once again excited to get a look into the world of law and order in the Old West, as the more domestic tales of late have become almost a little too comfortable and familiar sights. With Walter Huston in the lead, I was hopeful for a film that would surprise me with its merits, but instead, Law and Order proves to be chock full of potential and yet totally lacking the charisma and promise that could make it a stand out film at this point in the history of the genre. I place much of the blame on director Edward L. Cahn, whose work, I will admit, I am not familiar with. The film, however, suffers from a lack of urgency and a lack of impending dread or drama. Things just unfold in a rather pedestrian manner with no greater aura of mysticism around these “legendary” characters and events.
With that being said, Cahn does incorporate some interesting camera movements and tracking shots which give the film a cooler look than it would have otherwise. The lack of energy is really what dooms the film though. The performances across the board make for interesting interactions and confrontations, but the editing and staging of the scenes makes sure any energy or chemistry there may have been on set are not translated to the finished product. I am sure this story will be told countless time more in the films to come in this marathon, and I look forward to different interpretations, especially with more modern film techniques. 3 Bad Men proved that charisma and atmosphere can be captured in a Western in black and white, early 1930s cinema, but Law and Order fails to follow suit.
I expect this type of story to be done many times again, so perhaps it gets points for doing it first, but I have all the confidence in the world that it will be done much better in future installments of the lawman story. Huston is a willing and capable actor in the role, Carry, Devine, et al. are serviceable supporting characters, but the film lacks any real pop or wow factor, making it an enjoyable, though rather forgettable romp trough the lawlessness of Tombstone. At least it tries to bring up the mysticism of Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. At least it tries by bringing in this great cast. At least it’s far better than Cimarron was. At least I don’t have another Edward L. Cahn film on deck because his direction brought little to the table, leaving Law and Order to feel significantly lacking behind its premise and promise.