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11 July 2016

"Law and Order" -- At What Cost?


-- See them all!

Something happens in this film that you will never see anywhere else. The protagonist, famed lawman and former U.S. Marshall Frame “Saint” Johnson (Walter Huston), known as “the killingest peace officer that ever lived,” has just become Marshall of the lawless frontier town of Tombstone. He takes charge of the jail, and one of his first acts is to rescue a young man, Johnny Kinsman, from a lynch mob. Johnny, very affectingly played by a very young Andy Devine, admits his guilt, and is swiftly but legally tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. He is pathetically proud to be in the hands of such a famous lawman, but terrified of dying. To comfort him somewhat, Johnson tells him that everyone will remember his name, because his will be the first legal execution in the Territory. Johnny begs Johnson to perform the hanging himself.

When the time comes, Johnson does just that, steadfastly guiding him to the hanging tree, where a rope dangles and a wagon awaits. Then, after Johnny, in his last words, thanks him again, Johnson gives the word to release the horses. The support is pulled from beneath Johnny’s feet, and he is hanged. The crowd of onlookers, which was noisy a moment ago, now is hushed. You, the viewer, don’t actually see the body, but you almost think you do, because the camera focuses on the suddenly appalled faces. This is the closest I’ve seen to seeing an execution onscreen.

Giving the word for Johnny's execution
Law and Order is a crisp, brutal, uncompromising pre-code Western, conspicuously lacking in whitewash. The script, by Richard Schayer, Tom Reed (a prolific dialog specialist of early sound), and the 26-year-old John Huston, was adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett (who wrote an astonishing number of novels that were turned into successful crime/action movies, including Little Caesar, Dr. Socrates. Nobody Lives Forever, Dark Command, High Sierra, and The Asphalt Jungle). John Huston is credited with the adaptation and dialog, and so was able to deliver a script that was a gift to his father, the great actor Walter Huston.

Walter Huston appeared onstage for the first time in 1902, at the age of 19; thirty years later, in 1932, he had achieved a unique kind of stardom, as combination character actor and leading man. Normal rules of stardom didn’t apply to him; despite being in his fifties, Huston was a box office draw, with his name above the title, as well as being a highly respected actor who always received positive reviews. His son John, after a pretty adventurous youth, landed in Hollywood and began writing screenplays. He showed a deep understanding of story structure and character, right from the start, and all of his screenplays show unusual depth. Scenes and dialog highlight the social context, reveal character, and move the story along, all at once.
Waltre Huston and Andy Devine

Burnett’s original novel is a fictionalized re-telling of the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral, a true incident in the career of iconic lawman Wyatt Earp. But at this time it was not famous, in fact it had been  brought to public attention for the first time in a recent popular history, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake, published in 1931. Burnett changed all the names and, to streamline the drama, reduced the number of participants.

We first see famed lawman Frame Johnson (Huston), his brother Luther (Russell Hopton), and their crony Fred Brandt (Harry Carey), approaching the frontier town of Tombstone. Johnson is tired and grave; his brother is a somewhat loose canon, with gambling and drinking his priorities; Brandt is quiet but tightly wound. One look at their tanned, seamed faces, their well-worn clothes, dusty boots, and well-used firearms, and you can see that they have seen plenty of violent action and most likely will again. The town itself seems to be in a state of permanent  uproar, with cowboys racing up and down the street whooping and firing their guns in the air, and there’s an election for sheriff coming up with the campaigners providing free booze to their supporters. There’s not a “good woman” to be seen anywhere.
Freshening up

They take a room in The Golden Girl, the local saloon, which seems to supply drinking and card-playing round the clock. In keeping with the frank representation of what life in the West was really like, there follows a priceless scene of the three tough, trail hardened men sharing one pitcher of water and one towel to freshen up, including a brief polish of the boots with the towel. They also check the none-too-clean mattress for bedbugs. Brandt pins up a poster of the actress he idolizes, Lotta Starling (based on the real star of the 1880’s, Lotta Crabtree), which he carries everywhere. and they’re home. There’s a disturbance downstairs in the bar, and Johnson observes the Northrup brothers taking an active part. He, Luther, and Brandt withdraw, however, deciding not to get involved.

The next day a deputation from the law-abiding citizens of the town, including the local district judge, asks Johnson to a meeting to ask him to become a Deputy Marshall and clean up the town.  At first he refuses, saying that he’s tired of killing, and wishes nothing more than to retire. But one of the town elders slyly informs him that Luke Northrup had a bet on Johnson not taking the job. Apparently there is a history between the Northrups and Johnson, because this spurs him to accept the job.

Things seem to go along pretty well at first, until Johnson decides to outlaw guns on the streets of Tombstone. Rumors begin to circulate that Johnson actually wants to take over the town, and run it for his own profit. And to top it off, Brandt, who has been spending pretty much every day gambling, gets into a fight with a drunken cowboy who defaced his beloved poster — not with a piece of chalk, but with the point of a bullet. Unfortunately, the cowboy works for the Northrups, who are furious when Johnson refuses to arrest Brandt. From this point things deteriorate badly, and Luke Northrup, the head of the clan, loses no opportunity to needle Johnson, nor to complain about him to everyone he meets. Eventually, the “upright” citizens withdraw their support, and ask Johnson to resign, believing the story Northrup has been telling about Johnson's quest for domination, Angered, Johnson says he and his deputies will give up their guns, too.

Then one night as Brandt is staggering home after a late night of gambling and drinking, he walks right into an ambush — he is cornered,with no chance to defend himself, because he, like the other law-abiding citizens, has given up his gun within the town limits. He manages to reach The Golden Girl, and is carried upstairs, where his friends watch him die. Huston is tremendous here; Johnson is racked with pain and guilt over Brandt's death. If only he hadn't let them talk him into just one more job, if only the three of them had just kept on going and never stopped  in Tombstone, if only he hadn't insisted that Brandt give up his guns -- all these decisions make him responsible for his friend's death.

Harry Carey and Walter Huston

In a despairing fury, Johnson, blaming himself, grabs his guns and calls out the Northrups, swearing that there will be a reckoning. The Northrups have been waiting for this; thinking they have finally shaken Johnson's nerve, they lure Luther, Johnson, and their ally known as “Deadwood” (Raymond Hatton) to the local stable, which was later to be called the O.K. Corral. You see Johnson stalking down the middle of the street, a six-gun in each hand, his face hard and determined, but entirely unafraid. In a few minutes, with remarkable cross-cutting, shots seem to be flying in every direction. The noise and smoke are overwhelming.
An iconic moment heading for the O.K. Corral

And at the end, nearly everyone is dead. Frame Johnson’s brother, Luther, his friend, Deadwood, and his enemies, two out of the three Northrup brothers. No one speaks. Johnson, looking stunned and exhausted, gets on his horse and leaves Tombstone for good, saying bitterly that the price for “law and order” is too high.

There is no happy ending here, except in the sense that the protagonist survives. He has proved that his skills are intact, and his reputation deserved -- but proving these things one more time has cost him everything he cared about.

There is no sex in Law and Order, except for Brandt's rather pathetic devotion to a woman in a poster. And although it seems very violent, most of the violence is implied; Johnson is said to have killed 35 men as a "peace officer" but you don't see him do it. What makes it a pre-code classic is it's attitude -- evil goes unpunished, and good goes unrewarded, contrary to the dictates of the Hays Office. The law has not been served; the only person legally tried, convicted, and executed was the relatively innocent Johnny Kinsman. Bad guys died, certainly, but they were killed in the heat of vengeance, not with the measured consent of the community. In fact,  it's pretty hard to draw the line between right and wrong in this movie. And that was something the censorship board couldn't stand.

NOTE: There is a complete version available on Youtube, but it it very poor quality; however, a good print has been shown on TCM, and it's well worth looking out for it.

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