The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972) movie poster

director Philip Kaufman
viewed: 02/01/2016

Back in 2007, inspired by Andrew Dominik’s great The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, I jumped down a rabbit hole of the cinematic Jesse James.  At the time, Netflix only carried so many Jesse James movies, but I pushed through all I could get my hands on, really, just trying to complete it.  I did, at the time, go through what I could find readily.

Since that time, more movies have trickled out of the woodwork.  Some new films, but probably just more complete lists of films.  Everything from the 1939 Herny King classic, Jesse James to the atrociously hilarious William “One-Shot” Beaudine flick Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966).

Philip Kaufman’s 1972 revisionist version of the James and Younger gang is quite contrary to most depictions of the famed outlaw.  The story is focused on Cole Younger, played here with great charm by Cliff Robertson.  The Youngers aren’t portrayed as the second fiddles of the gang but the real leaders and more noble hearts of the rebellious raiders.  Jesse James is played by Robert Duvall, and he’s not just a scoundrel but an out-and-out psychopath, killing unnecessarily, taking credit for things he didn’t do, and even shamed as being perhaps not as lustily heterosexual as the others.

This is a real contrast to most depictions, which tend to ennoble the gang, stealing from the banks and railroads that they felt had wronged the common man in their expansion across the States.

Kaufman’s movie is full of weird little things, like a long sequence depicting a baseball game (newfangled fad that it was), the character of the very Scandinavian stock of Northfield, MN, the “wonderments” of a steam plow, and a strange hoodoo treatment by an old lady witch.   These are the elements that give the movie character, and its true charms.

Because overall, the film has a weird character, flipping between PG comedy (those Pinkerton detectives forever on their train car, never catching their prey) and a little more seriousness.  Duvall’s Jesse James is quite unlikable, which I assume is intentional.  Robertson, though, is quite good.

It’s an odd muddle of a film, interesting in context of looking at variant depictions of the historical and yet folkloric characters.

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter

Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. William Beaudine
viewed: 03/13/08

A straggler film on my queue as part of my little Jesse James film series (see: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), Jesse James (1939), I Shot Jesse James (1949), The True Story of Jesse James (1957), The Long Riders (1980), and The Return of Frank James (1940)), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter is a rather obvious digression from the traditions of the Jesse James myth.  But it’s also part of the largesse of the Jesse James myth.  Oddly enough, it was on a double bill with director William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid versus Dracula (1966), which is tempting enough to want to rent for some aspect of closure.

According to Netflix, this film was honored as one of the worst films ever made, the original “Golden Turkey” awards.  Which is indeed odd, because while no one would argue that this was not a pretty bad film, it’s far, far, far from the worst I’ve seen, even of the classic bad low budget flicks.  The film is not without its charm.

Narda Onyx, the titular Frankenstein’s Daughter, who turns out to actually be Frankenstein’s Granddaughter, is both lovely and fairly strong as the vamping scientist, longing to revive her grandfather’s experiments.  There is a wonder to the bizarro combination of the Western and the Horror film, and it’s almost genius.  No, really.  It’s so camp, and low-budget (Beaudine was nick-named “One Shot” for his notoriety for never doing more than one take of a scene), but not so hilarious to have you rolling on the floor, nor so compelling that it’s not occasionally dull.

I guess I liked it, though.

The Return of Frank James

 

The Return of Frank James (1940) movie poster

(1940) dir. Fritz Lang
viewed: 12/03/07

Hollywood has been in the sequel business for a long time.  If it works once, it can work again.  Take for instance, The Return of Frank James, the sequel to the excellent Henry King film, Jesse James (1939), bringing back most of the principal actors and sets, even.  I queued this out of curiosity, since I had seen that it was directed by cinema maestro Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) are two of cinema’s great films.  Actually, I’ve always meant to but have never followed Lang’s work in Hollywood.  So, this seemed like a good starting place.

The narrative of this film diverges significantly from the reality of the post-Jesse story, recounted many a time with many a variation as I have been noting.  In this one, Henry Fonda, reprising his role as Frank, seeks to hunt down and kill the Ford brothers when they escape execution with the governor’s pardon for Jesse’s murder.  Frank has settled down to be a farmer, living a life as he had before the railroad had railroaded them into becoming vengeful outlaws.  And again, Frank only seeks to kill the Fords and get revenge when the system of justice fails.  This is a strong theme in the film.  Frank is a straight-shooter and has never killed anyone (except perhaps in the Civil War).

And through the machinations of the plot, Frank never ends up having to kill anyone either.  His sidekick, a teenage boy who has taken up with him, Clem (played by Jackie Cooper), is a rambunctious kid who wants to make a name for himself.  Frank, on the other hand, wants to settle down.  The law picks up Pinky, his negro pal, and plans to hang him for the crimes that he had nothing to do with, Frank decides to forgo the revenge and put himself at risk to save Pinky.  And it all works out in the end, of course.

The film has an odd attitude toward racism.  The narrative is quite pro-South in that both Frank, the judge, Frank’s lawyer Major Rufus Cobb (the irrascible Henry Hull reprising his role), and even the jury are all Southerners whose perspective on the War was the it was a fight for the Confederacy,…and while not outright politicized, it’s got a subtext of support.  And while the heroic deed that Frank does, of turning himself in to save his negro friend, the African Americans in the film are far more stereotypical in their roles, especially this one scene of an African American maid being scared out of a hotel room when she hears some mysterious “bumping” noises.  There are also a few references to them as “darkies”, which may have still been a commonality at the time, but still does ring on the negative side.  It’s a weird issue with the film.

As for Lang, the film has a few moments of striking shadows and dark compositions (I understand that this was his first color film), but for the most part, and maybe this is due to the goofy script, but this is a pretty standard Western in many respects, featuring characteristics of the genre, while not really lifting above it greatly.  I suspect this is not the best of his American films, and perhaps not his best genre in which to work.

The Long Riders

The Long Riders (1980) movie poster

(1980) dir. Walter Hill
viewed: 11/19/07

This was meant to be the last of my little Jesse James cycle, Walter Hill’s 1980 take on the James gang.  However, I stumbled on a couple others, so I may write about a couple more.  Still, for the goal of looking at the Jesse James story as told by four interesting directors in four wholly different decades, this completes the cycle.  Not that this was comprehensive by any means.

I’d seen The Long Riders back in England years ago and had enjoyed it.  Walter Hill is one of those not-so-well-known but yet pretty darn good directors from the late 1970’s through the 1980’s, whose star has diminished in more recent times.  I’d seen his film The Driver (1978) a couple of years back, which was also quite good.

The best things about The Long Riders are the shootouts and action sequences, the musical score by Ry Cooder, and some of the familial interactions between the actors.  This film was notable because four groups of brothers played the gangs and siblings: James and Stacey Keach play Jesse and Frank James respectively, the Carradine brothers play the Youngers, the Quaids play the Millers, and the Guests (including Christopher Guest) play the Fords.  The film focuses, unsurprisingly on the fraternity of brothers and criminals, but also quite a bit on their romantic interests, loves, girls, whores, and wives.  That is an unfortunate aspect of the film.  Those parts drag significantly and lack charm.

The film is nicely shot, truly a post-Peckinpah Western, with lots of slow-motion bodies flying through the air.  Anyone that gets shot down from a rooftop falls in slow-motion (note: it seems obligitory that anyone shot from a rooftop or high window in any Western has to fall to the ground.)  The film focuses more on the Youngers, it seems, than the James’.  I only note this oddity since the Keach brothers co-produced the film and might have given their characters more intensive screen time.

James Keach as Jesse James is about the most-deadfaced of the portrayals I’ve seen.  Whether he is kind or cruel, his face is impassive and he bears an aspect of the inscrutable or unknowable.  The film’s attitude toward them is typical of the subject matter, sympathizing with what brought them into crime and not with the Pinkertons who ham-fistedly hunt them down, but acknowledging a crossing of the line between good and irredeemable. Also interesting how this film carries some of the era of the Western in the 1970’s but shifts toward a more “pop” sensibility that characterizes films of the 1980’s.

This film, by and far, had the best soundtrack of the bunch.

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.

I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James (1949) movie poster

(1949) dir. Samuel Fuller
viewed: 11/16/07

Director Samuel Fuller’s take on the Jesse James legend is typical of the director, a perspective more on the pathos of James’ killer, Robert Ford, than on the notorious outlaw himself.  Whereas Henry King’s film on James (Jesse James (1939) was a portrait of James’ whole career, Fuller’s film seems more of the source material that inspired Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), focusing on the psychology of Ford, following out his post-assassination career.

John Ireland plays Ford, in a role that I would say has more noir pathos to it than one might expect.  Ford takes Jesse’s life in the classic shot-in-the-back-without-his-guns pose with the intent of marrying the woman that he loves, having been given amnesty for his crime.  He is sore and chagrined at how not only she  treats his crime, but how all of society treats his crime, and his psyche is a tortured one as a result.

There is much in this film that is more directly echoed in Dominik’s film, showing how Ford wound up on stage, re-enacting his notorious deed for people to react to, and most significantly, in the film’s best scene where a traveling troubadour makes the mistake of singing the Jesse James song about the “dirty little coward to shot Mr. Howard”, even having to sweat through it when he realizes that he is singing to Bob Ford himself.  Dominik’s scene seems definitely influenced by this one, if not a portion of homage in it.

There is a definite hamminess to the dialogue and acting, a much lower budget affair, but an efficient and interesting approach to the content.  One would hardly expect less from Fuller, really.

As so often is the case in Westerns, they tend to reflect their era significantly.  And as I mentioned before, there is a definite post-war noirishness to the psychic crisis of Ford, whose rejection from his lover and the world turns him bitter and morally strangled.  It’s an interesting comparison point with Dominik’s film, perhaps because they both share that focal point of the assassination’s aftermath on Ford, but I reckon that it’s also a bit deeper.

For Fuller, however, James is nothing special.  He’s played with stiffness and a lack of canniness that none of the other films seem to see in him.  Fuller is more interested in Ford, and this is Ford’s movie.

Jesse James

Jesse James (1939) movie poster

(1939) dir. Henry King
viewed: 11/14/07

After having seen Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), I have decided to go on a little Jesse James jag.  The legend is the question in Dominik’s film, the making and construct of legend of an outlaw hero, the story that became such pop culture fodder for more than 100 years after his death.  And it’s true, there are a ton of Jesse James movies made, more toward the beginning of the 20th Century, but steadily, each decade would take a new crack at the legend.  So, I’ve queued up a bunch of Jesse James movies, from different decades and each from a significant director.

Jesse James is not the first Hollywood version of the James legend by far, but it seemed as good a starting place as any.  Directed by Henry King, not one the heavyweights of American auteurist theory, but a very solid, genre-spanning director, whose The Gunfighter (1950) was one of the first Westerns to really stand out for me, seemed like a significant enough figure to run the film.  Here, we have Tyrone Power as Jesse and Henry Fonda as Frank James, with John Carradine as Robert Ford, and even Randolph Scott thrown in as Mashall Will Wright.  A solid cast up and down.  And the movie is a pretty top-notch affair all around.

King shoots some excellent action sequences, particularly of the train robbery that got the James gang going, with Jesse racing up on horseback, jumping onto the train, peering into the windows, ultimately climbing to the top to head up to the engine.  There is a fantastic shot of Jesse James striding across the train in mostly silhuoette as the train charges forward.  There is also an apparently tragic action shot of a horse and stuntman leaping 90 feet into the water in a rugged escape from justice.  When I saw the shot, I thought that there was no way the horse survived that.  Apparently, that was true.  This film was sadly noted to be the one that brought the attention of the SPCA and the protection that animals would not be harmed in the production of movies.

The narrative is one of legend-making.  There is a newspaperman, Major Rufus Cobb, whose editiorializing makes for some amusing sequences, who drums up the public persona and public take on James.  He also eulogizes Jesse as his funeral, evoking legend and decrying his cowardly killer.  “The ‘goldarnedest’ cuss that ever…”  I wish that I could quote it directly.  The film already has a high self-awareness of the mythmaking and the mixed character of James, both as justified hero, a Robin Hood of sorts against the ruthlessness of the Transcontinental Railroad, and also as a fairly vicious killer.  King doesn’t try to show James to be that bad of a guy, though they do allude to his ruthlessness.

Still, after watching The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, seeing aspects of the narrative played out to the “T”, the disarming of Jesse and the defenseless pose he died in, straightening a picture of the wall with his back turned toward his killer, somehow is still very emotionally evocative.  Surprisingly so.

Jesse James is indeed a solid Western, with excellent comedic bit parts, striking action, and a lively and solid cast.  I have to say that it was even better than I was expecting on a number of levels.  The poignancy of the mythologizing eulogy reads the grave marker for James in Kearney, MO, “Devoted Husband and Father, Jesse Woodson James, Sept. 5, 1847, Murdered Apr. 8, 1882, by a traitor and coward whose name is not worthy to appear here.”  This is the irony of Robert Ford that Dominik ponders in his film.  The legend is well-established already.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Andrew Dominik
viewed: 10/30/07 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Panned pretty hard by numerous critics for being long and slow, Andrew Dominik’s film whose title kind of says it all in terms of its basic narrative, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, still attracted me.  Particularly after reading the review in the San Francisco Chronicle in which critic Peter Hartlaub threw out that “fans of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995)” would like this film where 10 to 1 other filmgoers would hate it, I felt titilated only because I guess that I fell into that 10% fraction.  It’s not that I like slow movies or ponderous ones, but quite recently I felt pretty aggrevated that I missed seeing David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) for fear of sitting through some long slog in the theater for a film that had received decidedly mixed reviews.  It’s the Western aspect too that attracted me, this dying genre.

In preparation, I’d quite recently seen Dominik’s earlier film, Chopper (2001), which was actually also quite interestingly a fictionalized recap of the career of a noted criminal who was, similarly to Jesse James, also a mythologized, mythologizing figure in the media.  Dominik seems particularly interested in this theme.  The Assassination of Jesse James is also deeply about the mythologizing of individuals, both criminals and would-be heroes (as in the case of the Jesse James wannabe of Robert Ford).  This common element is in no ways accidental.  In fact, it is by many means the primary aspect of the narrative.

The film is based on a novel (that I haven’t read) by Robert Benson, and follows an oft-told tale of the title’s description, scripted many times in magazines, books, films, and literature, and this very fact, its oft-toldness is what Dominik is interested in.  He doesn’t seek “the truth” per se, meaning the most valid knowledge that can be extracted from historical elements, but rather is satisfied with yet another “mythologizing” piece.  I say this because both Chopper and this film are not meant to be some definitive word on the subject matter.  Chopper even states quite clearly that it is a fictionalized telling of things, as this film is based on a novel, not a non-fictional recount, one could glean similar approaches.  Again, one that is clearly deliniating itself from non-fiction or documentation with some objectivity implied.

The Assassination of Jesse James follows the character of Robert Ford, James’ eventual killer, from his introduction to James and his gang by way of their final train robbery, an eager though not well-liked and begrudgingingly accepted member of the gang for this one adventure.  Ford had been since childhood, obsessed with the image and stories of Jesse James as reported and aggrandized by the media of the time, magazines and books that created the living legend in his own time and existence.  So Ford’s dream come true is lived out on the night after the robbery, hanging out with his idol, living his childhood fantasy.

Ford is in no ways disappointed with the reality of the myth.  He utterly idealizes and idolizes James, but Ford’s general demeanor, a tone of childish pretense barely covering his broad and deep insecurities and snippiness, makes him an ill-liked figure in anyone’s company, and he becomes an object of teasing and derision (one that as the youngest of three brothers and at least one sister he has experienced all his life) and is ultimately tossed aside.

James, well-cast in Brad Pitt, suggests the easy coolness that has made him a site of mythologizing, one who has long lived his own legend and enjoyed it, but who also, at the age of 34 is world-weary and growingly paranoid, and unsure of how to transition into any other life.  Aware of his myth, but not in control of it, one might say.

As the narrative follows out, in its slow pace (it’s true), the film maintains a slow-burning intensity that really stems from the handling of the characters, developing a growing, almost sickening dread of what is yet to come.  Casey Affleck is excellent as Robert Ford, and the cast in general are quite good.  James’ charm and aspects of goodness are not eclipsed but highly mitigated by his own violence and propensity for ruthlessness and brutality, from beating an innocent child to nearly killing an innocent and honest train clerk.  Dominik portrays his moral duality and yet his qualities as a family man in such a way that his impending death is a heavy and hard thing to wait for.

For Ford, who is driven to this role of assassin by opportunisism and revenge for being slighted and ridiculed, this murder is heinous, killing a friend with a gun that James had given him in James’ own house with his family merely rooms away with James’ back to him in a clearly unprotected stance.  James has a sense of his impending doom and seems to allow the situation to present itself intentionally, but Ford takes the shot and quickly skedaddles down to the telegraph office, already bragging about his deed.

The film follows Ford’s life after this incident, a self-mythologizer extroirdinaire, replaying the event on stage hundreds of times, making a name for himself as a hero and a bringer of justice.  But Ford’s attempts at legend-making backfire ultimately after a few years, as the legend of Jesse James continues to grow in contrast to Ford’s largely cowardly act, and ultimately makes him a pariah.  His own legend, his own myth can be found in this film’s title.

The film ultimately allows for Ford to find some redemption, in acceptance of his act and a maturity that he reaches in understanding his cowardliness and exploitation of his own one time idol beyond idolatry and into his true relationship and friendship with James.  And the poetic justice, the assassination of Robert Ford, by some would-be loser also trying to make a name for himself, offers some true sense of epiphany and almost redemption for Ford in the very end.

I don’t know that I can glean ultimately what Dominik is stating in these films definitively, but rather that it is a fascinating notion, not simply the public’s fascination and idolatry of popular criminals who evolve into legends, but also their own place in that story-telling, in adding to the myth, living the myth, co-scribing the myth both in their actions and in their self-promotion (even in simply story-telling).  It’s a very interesting thing, and truly what I have taken away from this film, which I found to be very compelling, though not really in the same way that Terrence Malick or Jim Jarmusch’s films struck me.

I’m actually quite fired up to watch a short list of other films about the same story, some of which I have seen before, but each of which comes from a different decade in the 20th century and are directed by notable directors.  So, soon, you should see these films showing up here: Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), Nicholas Ray’s The True Story of Jesse James (1957), and Walter Hill’s The Long Riders (1980).  The legend of Jesse James truly is one of the largest myths and realities of the American West.  Dominik’s film, among many of its qualities, is a fascinating meditation on the story and the ways in which that story have become the legend that it has.