Friday, October 12, 2007

The Return of Frank James (1940)

I was no lover of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (neither was Sweeney). But the most interesting part of Andrew Dominik's film was the portion after the titular murder, when Bob Ford became a revered celebrity, and later a hated scoundrel, for what he'd done on that April morning while Jesse was fixing a crooked picture on the wall. Fritz Lang's The Return of Frank James is like a companion piece to that part of the movie from a different perspective. In The Assassination, the part is played by Sam Shepard. In Lang's version, Frank is played by Henry Fonda.

Though I didn't realize it until after I'd watched the film, Fonda had played the role once before, in the popular 1939 film Jesse James directed by Henry King to which this film is a sequel. Obviously you can't very well make a straightforward sequel to Jesse's story, seeing as he ends up dead and all (although the return of Jesse James would make one kick ass zombie film). And so the followup focuses on Frank, and his quest for revenge on the Fords.

Revenge is the key word and a crucial idea, particularly to Lang. I'm no Lang expert — more a better-than-casual fan — but even I was struck by the similarities to a movie like his The Big Heat from 1953. Both movies are driven by men seeking vengeance for the murder of a loved one and both protagonists operate by a moral code demands justice beyond what can be meted out by the judicial system. I wonder if this idea had some special resonance with Lang, who famously fled Nazi Germany to avoid working for its propaganda bureau.

So the movie is interesting to Lang fans, but probably won't be of much use anyone else. Fonda is an iconic a presence in American Westerns as any actor, and he certainly provides onscreen spitting here to rival anyone in history. But I think his genteel demeaner works better in films like My Darling Clementine. Forced to play a far more brutal and dangerous ruffian, there's something unconvincing and incongruous about his performance (Once Upon a Time in the West is still quite a few years off at this point).

The movie feels half-baked and cobbled together in general right down to that tossed-off title; I didn't know it was a sequel when I watched The Return of Frank James but it makes perfect sense in retrospect. The picture had quite a few of the cast back from the original (including a young John Carradine as the coward Bob Ford) and so a plot was no doubt pieced together that could provide the various characters the maximum opportunity for interaction. It certainly wasn't designed for historical accuracy: Frank James gives the character a chance to avenge his brother's death in a way his real life counterpart never got — in reality, as in The Assassination of Jesse James, Ford was killed by an angry stranger not by Frank.

Still, if we think about the movie more than we're supposed to — by considering Lang's authorial imput or examining the way the movie valorizes certain outlaws while condemning others — it's easy enough to get through the running time. I'm glad I saw it, especially since the underrated Fox Movie Channel (the only network that's ever shown Murnau's Sunrise and the John Travolta vehicle Broken Arrow back to back) is also airing Lang's next picture, Western Union (1941), so I can compare the two.


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