The True Story of Jesse James

The True Story of Jesse James (1957) movie poster

(1957) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 11/17/07

It’s been quoted, though I can’t say how accurately, that Jean-Luc Godard once said “Nicholas Ray is cinema”.  And as I became interested in film studies as a path in graduate school, one of the first books I read was a semi-critical overview of Ray’s life and work.  Several of his films are amazing, genre-spanning, especially his first film, They Live By Night (1949), but definitely several others including In a Lonely Place (1950) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).  And while I’ve never gotten around to seeing all of Ray’s films, they are all in essence, in my queue.

So, when traipsing down this Jesse James path of films, I quickly added Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James.

It’s strikingly disappointing.  The film suffers from a number of key problems, largest of which is the narrative structure, which includes a number of significant flashbacks, with billowing colored clouds and the strumming of a harp (which eventually became such a stereotype in film and television that it’s a hugely campy thing now).  The structure also feels sloppy and lazy, without giving good sense of the story’s main goal.  Unlike Samuel Fuller’s noirish I Shot Jesse James (1949), this film is much more cut from the cloth of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), telling a sympathetic life-spanning scope of James’ career.

“Cut from the same cloth” as King’s film is quite the apt and clear truth.  The film actually uses the primary action sequences from King’s film directly.  I’d noted how the sequences of the horses plummeting off the cliff and the climbing onto the moving train shots were striking in King’s film.  Well, they’re striking here too.  There are three significant action sequences lifted directly from that far superior film.

Ray doesn’t do or add a lot to this story.  Robert Wagner as Jesse James is a bit of a petulant teenager, typical of Ray’s family melodrama work, and the ideal “straight” life that he seeks is very 1950’s: a home in the center of town, 2.5 kids, the nuclear family, the American dream.  Wagner’s James is the least likeable of the portrayals that I’ve seen thusfar, lacking much sympathy or even appealing for his handsome charm and leadership.

The film’s best bit might be Alan Hale, Jr. (yes, the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island) as Cole Younger, a large, wiser character who participates in their crimes.

It’s also interesting to note that the film no longer makes the railroad the enemy, as in King’s Jesse James, but rather the crimes of the Union soldiers in post-Civil War Missouri as the instigators that drew James out of farming and into a life of crime for revenge.  Is this the “True Story”?  Whatever it is, this is clearly not Ray’s best work.

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