02 June 2011

"Law and Order" - Universal Western Collection

Law and Order
Starring: Ronald Reagan, Dorothy Malone, Preston Foster, Alex Nicol and introducing Ruth Hampton
Screenplay by John and Gwen Bagni and D.D. Beauchamp
From a Story by William R.Burnett
Directed by Nathan Juran
DVD Release Date: 6 May 2003
List Price: $14.98
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I bought this a while back at Walmart for $5 and held onto it until this month's DVD Talk Historical Appreciation Challenge (which I am hosting this year).  I've never seen Ronald Reagan perform as an actor, and this being his centennial I thought now was as good a time as any to get around to it.  I tried hard to focus on the performance without placing it in the context of the Reagan legacy, but of course that's impossible.  More on that later.

Law and Order is actually the third film adaptation of William J. Burnett's novel, "Saint" Johnson, and interestingly this is the only one of the three for which Burnett himself had not worked on the screenplay.  The story is fairly simplistic and unpredictable: Frame Johnson is a famed lawman looking to settle down and wed the woman he loves, but runs afoul the thuggish Durning family that has overrun the town of Cottonwood, Arizona.  Escalating offenses test Frame's reluctance to once again wear a badge, until he's left with no choice.  In short, a conventional lawman Western movie.

The dialog is quick and alternates between perfunctory and fun, and the pace is brisk which generally works in the film's favor.  The chief exception to this is the "Romeo and Juliet" romance between Frame's brother Jimmy and Maria Durning.  They've scarcely said, "Hello" to one another before exchanging impassioned kisses and declarations of devotions, and that subplot just feels too contrived to invest in it (though the allure of Ruth Hampton as Maria makes Jimmy's motivations seem quite reasonable!).

Ultimately, it's Reagan's earnestness that rescues a generic story.  Frame Johnson doesn't grow; he's the exact same man at the end that he was at the beginning.  It's the world that changes, not Frame.  One of the most frequent characterizations of Reagan from those who knew and worked with him is that he was a man without guile, and I think we see that aspect of his personality on display here.  Other actors might have been tempted to try to infuse Frame with the appearance of inner turmoil in various scenes; Reagan quite comfortably holds pat from start to finish, relying entirely on the cumulative film to make his performance as Frame Johnson shine.  To call Law and Order simplistic is as accurate as it is generous.  Fans of sophisticated storytelling will likely dismiss this as little more than a generic, paint-by-numbers effort.

The most interesting portion of the film for me came when Frame's solution to the widespread violence of the Durning and their allies is to ask for an ordinance banning firearms in town.  When an irate citizen protests and demands to know what the people of Cottonwood are supposed to do to defend themselves, Frame authoritatively retorts that that's for the law to do.  Obviously, Frame Johnson was simply a character played by Ronald Reagan, but it's still fascinating to witness the exchange (along with several other egregious infractions of law, including shooting a guy in a mob approaching the local jail).

Universal did a fine job with the transfer; it looks and sounds terrific.  Sadly, the only bonus feature is a theatrical trailer.  Given the predictable nature of the film, it's hard to make the claim that the trailer spoils anything, but I would still recommend first time viewers watch the film first.

Would I have enjoyed it without the presence of Reagan?  I don't know the answer to that, but I can tell you this much: I likely would never have watched it if not for his presence, and the part of me that wanted to see the 40th President of the United States in a Western felt rewarded by the 80 minute investment.

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