TCMFF: Edward L. Cahn’s ‘Law and Order’ – Tombstone Style

Early Western talkies can be either fascinating or like watching paint dry. Thankfully, the one shown at TCMFF 2016, the Universal picture Law and Order, was of the first variety.

Directed by Edward L. Cahn, Law and Order is based on the novel Saint Johnson by prolific writer W.R. Burnett. However, the film is clearly based on the Wyatt Earp story, just with different names. It is an early Huston family affair, with Walter Huston starring as “Saint” Johnson, a traveling peace officer who doesn’t mind disrupting the peace to save lives. The young John Huston co-wrote the script, giving the film snappy, humorous dialogue that is as exciting to hear as the gun fights are to see.

Film critic Leonard Maltin introduces ‘Law and Order.’ [photo by Daniel S. Levine]
The story picks up with Johnson and his pals, including Harry Carey as a Doc Holliday-type, finding their way to Tombstone, Arizona after completing a clean-up of another town. Even after witnessing a totally corrupt election (Putin could take notes), Johnson thinks he can relax in Tombstone. Obviously, that’s not going to happen and a judge talks him into becoming a Marshall to stop a family pestering the town.

Prior to an exciting, ahead-of-its-time recreation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (or barn in this case), Johnson is faced with Tombstone’s first legal execution. This is another highlight in the 75-minute film, as the convict is played by a young Andy Devine! He’s even billed in the credits! It’s a hilarious preview of his future roles and a respite from the serious events surrounding the film. Walter Brennan is also an unbilled spittoon cleaner.

In his introduction, Leonard Maltin noted that the director, Cahn, isn’t well known at all. After working at Universal – where he did uncredited editing work on All Quiet on the Western Front – he would go on to direct shorts for MGM and later migrated to B-movies. Law and Order is his one directing effort where he got to work with an entire array of fantastic actors and crew, so he took advantage.

Thanks to Cahn and the work of cinematographer Jackson Rose, Law and Order is filled with some of the most memorable images and montages of the festival. Rose created impressive shots, like a devastating image of Huston just at the end of the film. The actor is pictured weary and can’t possibly think of celebrating a ‘victory.’ Throughout the film, the camera moves or is positioned in surprising ways. Rose must have been intent on keeping Law and Order from becoming a stage play in the West.

Editing is also a star here, as Cahn uses quick cuts to show the faces of citizens of Tombstone as violence takes over their town. These images may last less than a second, but the actors’ faces stay with you. They are not stars, but are given the full close-ups provide us with a taste of how the average Tombstone citizen feels about the chaos.

The story of Tombstone and how Wyatt Earp cleaned the town up has been told with much more detail many, many times over, but Law and Order surprisingly still held up. Huston brings a gravitas to the role that others just can’t bring. His performance alone makes this a movie I hope gets out on DVD soon, although Cahn’s directing also makes this one of the rare enjoyable Westerns of the period.

TCM screened a restored 35mm print at the festival.

Follow Movie Mania Madness on Twitter @dsl89.

top image: TCM

5 thoughts on “TCMFF: Edward L. Cahn’s ‘Law and Order’ – Tombstone Style

  1. Hi, Daniel, thanks for the insightful review for those of us who didn’t make it to the Fest!
    So true about some oldies being goodies and others being duds.
    Being an early Talkie, I was wondering if it had much of a music track. Most of the pre-KING KONG(’33) films might have nothing more than a public domain classic playing during the opening credits. If you’re lucky, some cowpoke might be picking at a gitar.
    Those quick-cut close-ups: would you consider them pre-cursors to Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western ECU’s?

    1. I don’t think there was much music in this one. It’s very hard to get music in when the action is fast!
      I hadn’t thought about the Leone connection! I don’t know how he would have seen this movie, but they do predict those close-ups.

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