[The following is a contribution to the Nicholas Ray Blog-A-Thon for Tony Dayoub's Cinema Viewfinder.]
Nevertheless, the film does contain its charms, chiefly in the manner with which it presents the iconography of its protagonist. So many of Ray's heroes feel like timeless figures, but James was the first character Ray put on the screen who knew he was an icon. That foreknowledge allows Ray to have fun with the idea of someone who exists as a legend before a man: often, Jesse can interact with people who have no actual image of the man and thus never once suspect that the person to whom they are chatting is really the Jesse James. Even when some of them later learn the man's true identity, the looks on their faces still register mild disbelief. "How could he be Jesse James?" they seem to say. "He was talking to me!"
Structured similarly to Knock on Any Door, Ray's film opens on a shootout that precedes words and contextualizes not merely that burst of violence but the life story of its protagonist through flashbacks. As Jesse (Robert Wagner) and brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) hide out from their disastrous robbery of a bank in Northfield, Minn., they and those close to them reminisce about the boys' formative experiences, from defying vindictive Union crackdowns to join with the Confederate raiders led by William Quantrill to their reinvention as the most famous criminals in America.
Unfortunately, the James story lacks the same social element that made Knock on Any Door more potent. The Reconstruction obviously provides for social commentary, but the embittering, punitive Yankee takeover of Missouri and other states only serves to further jade those who fought for the Confederacy. The film presents Jesse's individualism as a product of Union violence and Confederate ideals, but Ray feels too distracted to point out the ironies of his romanticization as a Robin Hood-esque hero and embodiment of Southern values when he became a murderer and thief. The closest Ray comes is a delightfully wry scene wherein Cole Younger, a member of Jesse's gang, tricks Jesse into paying the expensive mortgage of a penniless old woman, only for Jesse to have the last laugh when he makes sure the woman gets a receipt from the collector, then robs the collector to get his cash back. He enjoys the romanticizing word-of-mouth, and he balances his books. Win-win.
There are a few striking images characteristic of Ray's sense of adventurousness and compositional perfection, even if some of them also reveal the staid indifference running through some of the film. He offers an unexpected take on the cliché of bandits leaping off cliffs into the waters below when an escaping Jesse and Frank actually ride their laden horses off ledges, the sight of the beasts plummeting alongside the outlaws is as outrageously funny as it is even tenser than the usual movie plunges. And yet, as Tony Dayoub tells me, the film's ties to 1939's Jesse James are equally captured here, as Ray recycled the shot from the 40-year-old Henry King film, making the moment both unexpected and somewhat stale.
More indelibly Ray-like is a moment of visual humor late in the film when he visualizes Jesse's post-fiasco decision to go it straight by recasting his Western home as '50s suburbia, his futile attempt at conformity made anachronistic and incongruous with the vicious world he partially symbolized. My favorite shot, though, jazzes up the familiar setpiece of a run across the top of the train by filming Jesse's robbery at twilight, the faint glow of the receding sun casting the bandit in shadow as he darts across the cars. It adds a touch of poetic grace to the brutish antics of James and his men.
Moments like these recall the best and most inventive of Ray, and the film' several shootouts display his competency in large-scale action filmmaking. But the film feels too repetitive, never really exploring Jesse James as lightly pecking at the same joke on Jesse's self-aware icon as he interacts with people who hate him yet have no idea that the man is before them. Like the rodeo star of The Lusty Men, Jesse and his gang don't stop when they fulfill their original goal, committing to their new, dangerous job for the love of fame and money. But The True Story of Jesse James is not nearly as penetrating nor evocative as that film, nor is it nearly as vivid a farewell to the studio system as Party Girl. This is the first (and only) of Ray's 'Scope films to adhere to Fritz Lang's old denunciation of the format as the enhancer only of snakes and funerals: it lacks the energy and impact of Ray's best compositions and is Ray's most rote picture since Flying Leathernecks. Ray always overcame the stilted, melodramatic scripts entrusted to him by placing the power in the imagery, but The True Story of Jesse James marked the rare occasion he failed to infuse his work with the verve that made him the greatest director of the '50s.