Sunday, June 29, 2008

Jesse James (Henry King, 1939) C/The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940) C+

In a million years I never thought I would be interested in the life and crimes of notorious outlaw Jesse James, but after The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford I'm now somewhat fascinated by his legend and murder. Unfortunately, since both Jesse James and The Return of Frank James are, to varying degrees, completely fictitious. Henry King's Jesse James is a solid, if not particularly interesting, crowd pleaser that gets muddled from the get go. The film can't decide if it wants to portray James as a dashing romantic lead, a Robin Hood-esque good guy or a raving lunatic. Jesse James tries each of these to varying degrees of success but in the end we are no closer to understanding the "real" Jesse James. Tyrone Power, proving here he was only a prettyface, definitely doesn't add anything dramatically to the film. He says his lines and hits the marks, but he doesn't evoke the feelings that Brad Pitt did so well in TAoJJbtCRF. The saddest thing about Jesse James however is the fact that the writers so blatantly changed James' life story to fit the story they wanted to tell. Zee never left Jesse after the birth of their first son; it only happened in Jesse James to heighten the drama and make that reunion scene so bittersweet. If Jesse James is a fudged biopic, then The Return of Frank James is a complete work of fiction because nothing that happens in the film actually happened in real life. I wouldn't have minded if the story was an original story, but it tries to pass itself off as history and that's just wrong. Let it be shouted from the rooftops: Frank James never chased the Ford Brothers after Bob shot Jesse and he did NOT kill Bob Ford, no matter what this film tries to tell you. With that little rant aside, let me just say that, cinematically, The Return of Frank James is a much better film thanks to legendary director Fritz Lang. Where King composed every shot of Jesse James like a pretty 2-D postcard, Lang adds depth, shadows and contrast to make every scene fluid and cinematic. It's not groundbreaking stuff (especially when compared with his Metropolis, M or Fury) but it's passable and a much better film than it would have been without it.

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