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Party Girl

Last time, I had a look at a gangster/noir crossover movie, an early example of the emergence of a darker sensibility in crime movies in Hollywood. Let’s jump ahead almost two decades, to the point at which film noir was nearing the end of the classic cycle. Again, the film in question is something of a hybrid, a fusion of styles and influences, but the principal elements remain the gangster story and shadowy world of the dark cinema. A lot of film noir throughout the 1950s featured the involvement of organized crime so Party Girl (1958), despite abandoning the more usual contemporary setting, can be viewed as a continuation of that trend. Having said that, the movie could be classed as a marginal entry – it’s shot in lurid technicolor and at times resembles a hard-boiled variation of the classic studio musical. However, in spite of what sound like stylistic contradictions, Party Girl is categorized by many writers as a genuine film noir, and I guess its themes do have the requisite darkness and ambiguity to qualify it for inclusion.

Chicago in the early 30s – Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor) is a mob lawyer, and a successful one. He’s respected and feared by judges and prosecutors not simply due to his connections but because he’s the top man in his line. Farrell is first glimpsed at a party thrown by crime kingpin Rico Angelo (Lee J Cobb) – actually it’s as much a wake as a party since Rico is laying to rest a broken heart on hearing the news that Jean Harlow, whom he’s adored from afar, is to be wed – and he’s surrounded by a group of city dignitaries hanging onto his every word. One might assume that Farrell has it made, but this is only the silver lining obscuring the cloud. Farrell is almost a cripple, his hip and leg twisted as a result of a youthful escapade gone wrong. It is often the case in movies that physical imperfections are mirrored by deeper psychological scars, and so it is with Tommy Farrell. This man who glides effortlessly through the powerful social milieu in spite of his pronounced limp is emotionally wounded. His beautiful but callous wife left him since she couldn’t overcome her disgust at his physical deformity, and Farrell has been unable to heal that emotional wound. However, his rehabilitation begins at Rico’s party when he agrees to escort home Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse), a dancer and one of the “party girls” hired for the evening. Although the evening ends with a rather gruesome discovery, Farrell and Vicki do make a connection that will blossom despite a few bumpy stretches along the way. The whole movie is principally concerned with Farrell’s rediscovery of his self-respect after years of loathing himself. Running parallel to the developing relationship with Vicki is the thread that follows Farrell’s attempts to distance himself from Rico and the corrupt and violent world he inhabits. Just when it looks like the hero may have achieved the spiritual peace he’s long been seeking, Rico’s machinations and threats haul him back to defend one of his paymaster’s psychotic associates. However, having had a taste of life beyond the cheap neon glamour of the underworld, Farrell is determined to get out for good. The trick is to find a way to protect Vicki, bring down Rico, and save his own skin at the same time.

Nostalgia for certain periods tends to come in waves, and the late 50s saw a resurgence of interest in the old gangster movies. Party Girl tapped into that vibe and director Nicholas ray added his own personal touch to it. Ray only made a handful of noir pictures altogether – all are interesting in their own way, and two (In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground) are pure bred classics. All of Ray’s best movies dealt with those who were in some way removed from the mainstream of society, and Party Girl follows that template. Farrell is superficially a man at the heart of city life. Yet, he’s an outsider in every sense; a lawyer who essentially makes a mockery of the law, an apparent mob insider who is revolted by the crassness and brutality around him, and a man bedeviled by his own sense of inadequacy. Aside from the fact that the mobsters and hoodlums who populate the film are themselves social pariahs, Vicki is another character existing at the periphery of decency. The struggle which Farrell and Vicki undertake to break free of the dark influences that threaten to drag them down is classic Ray material. Another feature common to Ray’s work, and seen in abundance here, is the unrestrained use of color. Party Girl is a riot of technicolor hues that seem to allude to the heightened emotional state of the characters.

Even though I’m a great admirer of his work in general, I think it’s fair to say Robert Taylor gave an excellent performance as Farrell. As he aged, and his looks took on more character, he did some first-rate work in westerns, and the same can be said about his noir pictures. He brought a dour toughness to his role as the tortured lawyer, and worked well with Charisse. For her own part, Charisse adopted the right kind of world-weary air that befits a woman who has spent her time dodging unwanted passes and living off dubious handouts in seedy nightclubs. She was of course an immensely talented dancer, one of the greats, and the movie features a couple of set piece numbers designed to show off her moves. With the club setting, and her character’s profession, these sequences are blended seamlessly into the narrative. They may capture the look and feel of a musical yet they never have that jarring, artificial sense that such movies frequently evoke. The other big hitter in the cast was Lee J Cobb. This was an actor who could explode out of the screen at times, his inherent power always in danger of turning into bombast. In Party Girl, Ray managed to get the right kind of balance from Cobb for the most part. Sure there are instances where he drifts awfully close to scenery chewing, but there are some quietly effective moments too – his chat with Taylor where he blackmails the lawyer into cooperating under the threat of disfiguring his girlfriend is all the more chilling due to Cobb’s restraint. The supporting cast was headed up by the ever reliable John Ireland as Cobb’s slimy and dangerous right hand man. Also featured were Kent Smith – despite his long and varied career, I’ll always associate him with one of his earliest roles in Val Lewton & Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People – as the straight arrow prosecutor, and a manic Corey Allen as the unbalanced hood Cookie La Motte.

For a long time, Party Girl wasn’t the easiest movie to see. However, it has been released on DVD in France and Spain and as a MOD disc via the Warner Archive in the US. I have the old French Warner Brothers DVD which is pretty good. The film is presented in anamorphic scope and the print used for the transfer seems in good shape. There’s plenty of clarity, the colors are strong and quite vibrant, and damage (if there is any) is so slight I can’t say I noticed. There are no extra features on the disc – subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu. The blending of styles and genres just about works in the movie, drawing in elements of melodrama, the musical and a crime tale to create a fairly unique film noir. Aside from a trio of good performances, what holds the whole thing together is the direction of Nicholas Ray. In the hands of a lesser director, the disparate elements could well have pulled the movie apart. As it stands, Party Girl remains one of Ray’s interesting experiments which I feel more or less succeeds. Of course much of this depends on how one reacts to Ray as a filmmaker; as such, it’s another of those films that I’d cautiously recommend.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2013 in 1950s, Film Noir, Nicholas Ray, Robert Taylor

 

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Johnny Guitar

“You know, some men got the craving for gold and silver. Others need lots of land, with herds of cattle. And then there’s those that got the weakness for whiskey, and for women. When you boil it all down, what does a man really need? Just a smoke and a cup of coffee.”

So says the eponymous hero of Johnny Guitar (1954) Nicholas Ray’s overwrought, subversive western. This is a simple philosophy, espoused by a deceptively simple man. And yet, the film itself is rich, complex and fascinating, both visually and thematically. Over the years, it’s come to be regarded as a cult item, a film so loaded with allegory and subtext that it positively demands analysis. For all that though, it’s a difficult film to try to analyse; there’s so much going on, both on and below the surface, that it’s hard to do it justice. I’ve toyed around with the idea of featuring this movie for a long time now and kept putting it off for one reason or another. However, after a recent viewing, I’ve decided to finally have a go at presenting my take on one of the most startling westerns to come out of the 50s, or any other decade for that matter.

The action opens with a bang, literally. Johnny Logan (Sterling Hayden) – although using the pseudonym Johnny Guitar – rides along the base of a hill which the railroad company are in the process of blasting away. As he tops a ridge, his attention is drawn by the sounds of more violent activity; down below, a stagecoach robbery is taking place. Johnny merely watches passively, turning his mount away and continuing on his journey. His destination is an isolated saloon and gambling house, standing alone in the Arizona wastelands. He arrives right in the middle of a ferocious dust storm, the desert winds whipping the red earth up into a furious maelstrom. As he bursts through the doors of the saloon, he finds himself in a curiously still and peaceful world. But this is a brooding, intense stillness, like that found at the eye of the storm. In truth, that’s where we are, right at the centre of a devastating and destructive emotional storm that’s about to sweep across the screen and lay waste to all in its path. This incongruous establishment is run by the equally unusual Vienna (Joan Crawford), a gun-toting woman in jeans and boots who, in the words of one of her employees, thinks like a man and acts like a man. It’s clear enough that Johnny and Vienna have a history, and it’s later revealed that they were once lovers before he abandoned her. However, things have changed now that Vienna’s in trouble and in need of protection: she’s built her saloon in anticipation of the arrival of the railroad and the business it will bring in tow, but elements in the neighbouring town are hell-bent on ensuring that won’t happen. Vienna’s chief rival is Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), a repressed and frustrated spinster, backed up by the blustering and bullying McIvers (Ward Bond). Superficially, this opposition is based on a desire to prevent the railroad moving in and the hordes of new settler it must surely bring. In reality though, there’s an entirely different desire driving Emma on; it’s a potent and unpleasant mix of jealousy and hatred, jealousy of Vienna and the passions she’s capable of stirring and hatred of her own emotional vulnerability. Radically, from the point of view of the classic western, it’s these two women who are the active protagonists at the heart of the drama. It’s the actions and reactions of Vienna and Emma which power the narrative and shape events. And ultimately, in a complete reversal of the conventions of the genre, it will all come down to a face-off between two determined and driven women.

Nicholas Ray made some pretty good films, but I reckon he was responsible for three great ones: In a Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life and Johnny Guitar. These movies are markedly different in terms of genre and theme, but they do all share an emotional intensity and feature obsessive lead characters. Johnny Guitar is the most self-consciously stylized, and therefore probably the most misunderstood, of the three. Ray wasn’t aiming for any kind of realism, rather he deliberately played up the heightened sense of unreality (what the critics usually refer to as the baroque aspects) to complement the fantastic nature of the story and characterization. With Harry Stradling operating the camera, Ray used the interiors, especially the main set of Vienna’s place where the back wall seems to be hewn from the living rock, to create an otherworldly feeling. A similar effect is achieved through the use of colour, particularly when it comes to the costumes. Vienna always appears in strong primary colours (scarlets, greens, yellows and whites) and contrasts sharply with the subdued tones of those around her. This is most notable in the case of Emma, who appears in all but one scene clad in funeral black, where the drabness of her dress emphasises not only her pinched and cruel features but also marks her out as the visual antithesis of Vienna. The men in the film all appear in softer, less striking colours too, which serves to draw attention both to the softness of their character and to the subsidiary roles they play. Aside from the skewed representations of gender, Ray and writer Philip Yordan take a swipe at the McCarthyite politics of the time. The posse led by Emma gradually morphs into an implacable panel of self-appointed judges, contemptuous of the rule of law, using betrayal and deceit as a means to punish guilty and innocent alike. The masterstroke here was the ironic casting of Ward Bond (a prime mover in the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals) as Emma’s chief ally.

This leads me to the casting in general, an area where I can’t honestly find any fault. Joan Crawford is hardly a figure one would normally associate with the western, and Johnny Guitar represents one of her few forays into the genre. Crawford’s career can be roughly divided into three phases: her siren/starlet years up to the end of the 30s, her reinvention of herself as a noir/melodrama heroine in the 40s, and finally as a fixture of schlock horror pictures in the 60s. This movie came towards the end of her second phase, and it forms a kind of bridge between the tough post-Mildred Pierce roles and the gallery of grotesques still to come. While the western environment may seem an odd place to find Crawford, the feeling of otherness she brings is entirely appropriate in context. In addition, the years had hardened her looks and seen them take on that almost masculine aspect that fits the role of Vienna; I can’t think of another actress of the period who could have been plausibly been cast in the part. As Emma, Mercedes McCambridge was another ideal choice. She possessed the shrillness of voice and sharpness of features to perfectly embody a woman barely in control of the raging and conflicting emotions boiling away within her. I think it’s fair to say that no other actress has thus far managed to quite nail the corrosive, consumptive effects of twisted and repressed sexuality to such terrifying effect. Sterling Hayden in the title role, as the only man who displays anything approaching strength or dignity, made good use of both his physical presence and craggy face to impose himself upon all those around him. However, there’s more than just muscle and machismo to his playing; the scene where he and Crawford mull over their past reveals a sensitivity and shows him to be a fully rounded character, perhaps the only one in the film. Scott Brady as The Dancing Kid was the figure at the heart of Vienna and Emma’s rivalry, an essentially feminine role, and he gets across the kind of inherent weakness demanded. His cocksure confidence is basically a front to mask his essential impotence – he’s no match for Hayden’s easy assurance when the chips are down. Among Brady’s sidekicks, Ernest Borgnine remains the most memorable. His performance as the untrustworthy blowhard can be viewed as something of a dry run for a similar part in Bad Day at Black Rock.

To date the best DVD release of Johnny Guitar is the version available throughout continental Europe via Paramount. I have the French DVD and it’s a very pleasing transfer, a vast improvement on the UK release by Universal. There’s no noticeable damage to the print, sharpness is acceptable and, crucially for such a film, the colour is well rendered. Subtitles are not a problem, a range of languages are available and can be disabled on the original soundtrack via the setup screen. There are no extra features at all offered. The title will shortly be made available in the US by Olive Films on both DVD and Blu-ray, as a result of that company licensing the Republic catalogue, and I would imagine the same print will be used as a source. If so, it should look pretty good in high definition. Johnny Guitar is one of those movies that viewers are likely to either love or loathe; it’s too heady a cocktail to elicit a lukewarm response. I count myself among the former, and it’s a film I never tire of revisiting. This article I’ve written really only scratches the surface of what’s on offer and tries to give a flavour of this very rich concoction – I haven’t even gone into the resemblances the plot bears to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, or the matter of the expansion of the railroad and the clash between progress and tradition. Like all the best pieces of cinema, Johnny Guitar reveals new things on each viewing. I’d say it’s a must for any serious western fan.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Sterling Hayden, Westerns

 

Born to Be Bad

Poster

Strange how a title can prove misleading, isn’t it? Then again, it’s not always just the title. Take Born to Be Bad (1950) – directed by Nicholas Ray, photographed by Nicholas Musuraca, starring Robert Ryan and appearing in a few noir lists. When you bear all that in mind it’s not unreasonable, I think, to expect to see a good solid noir picture, maybe even a neglected gem. However, appearances are all too often deceptive and that’s certainly the case with this one. I’ll grant that the plot follows a noirish theme and strays towards that elusive dark style at times, but it never quite gets there and remains rooted firmly in melodramatic territory – and soapy melodramatics at that.

The story concerns Christabel (Joan Fontaine) and her determined climb to the top of the social ladder. We first see her after her arrival at the apartment of Donna (Joan Leslie), one of her wealthy uncle’s employees, who’s about to throw a party. Christabel is to attend business school with a view to later working in the uncle’s publishing firm. The first impression we get is of a shy, socially naive woman who’s slightly overwhelmed by the sophisticated and opulent world she’s suddenly arrived in. This feeling is further heightened when she encounters the cocksure and worldly Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan), an author who’s recently returned from China. This initial meeting sets the tone for the subsequent relationship between those two characters; Bradley all wisecracks and confidence and Christabel holding him off, but not too far off. The apparent innocence of Christabel is nothing but a sham to facilitate her own scheming though. From the moment she comes across her new flatmate’s wealthy and patrician fiance Curtis Carey (Zachary Scott) she gradually reveals her true nature (to the audience at least) as she sets her sights on displacing Donna and ensuring her own comfortable future. There are no surprises in the way the plot develops and it’s this predictability that weakens the movie most. While the story has an inherently noir theme it can’t escape being a study of social manners and hypocrisy, and all the cliches that involves. It’s also not helped by the light tone that seems to pervade it, with the jokey, mocking ending doing nothing to dispel that.

Tough love - Joan Fontaine and Robert Ryan in Born to Be Bad.

Nicholas Ray’s directing career was highly unpredictable and could veer wildly from the brilliant to the mediocre. It’s hard to believe that this sudsy concoction came from the same man who produced dark masterpieces like In a Lonely Place and On Dangerous Ground. Of course, Howard Hughes’ notorious tampering may have had something to do with the flat and apathetic feel that Ray’s work here inspires. When the plot is a humdrum affair then you look to the visuals to add some life but neither Ray nor Musuraca manage to create anything especially memorable and I caught myself checking out the counter a couple of times while watching, never a good sign. The casting is generally good, although I have to admit I’ve never been a particular fan of Ms Fontaine’s work outside of Rebecca and Suspicion, her two collaborations with Hitchcock. I wouldn’t say I dislike her performances as such, but I’d rarely seek out a film due to her presence – that innocent vulnerability she projected could be used to good effect but it’s also a characteristic that tends to be restrictive. In Born to Be Bad the kind of duality the role calls for isn’t altogether successful as Fontaine’s “bad girl” moments are never entirely convincing. Joan Leslie, on the other hand, is much better as the spurned Donna. She brings a far more believable quality to her playing, and her growing suspicion of Christabel’s motives progresses naturally. Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott were both handed fairly typical parts for them, and they do all that’s asked satisfactorily. Ryan has that familiar swagger that suggests something hidden deeper inside, but his character doesn’t get the chance to develop much and kind of tails off as the picture goes on. Scott got the better written role and thus his Curtis Carey comes across as more rounded, although Ryan delivers the best of some fairly ripe dialogue. 

The French DVD from Montparnasse is quite typical of their RKO titles, a little soft and thick in places but generally clean and I wasn’t aware of any damage to the print. As with all their releases the subs aren’t forced on the English track and extras are non-existent, apart from the usual introduction. I can’t say I got much pleasure from this movie; there are some nice performances but that’s about it as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I went in expecting something different – correction, I did go in expecting something different – and the film I got fell short. If you’re after an undiscovered noir then this isn’t the place to look, but if you want some social melodrama with a touch of darkness it may just fit the bill.

 
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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Robert Ryan

 

55 Days at Peking

Poster

I generally steer clear of writing about huge sprawling epics on this blog, but that’s not to say I don’t like them. As it happens I’m extremely fond of such films and often feel that it’s a near impossible task to do them justice in a relatively short write up. When I was growing up the Samuel Bronston movies were always a source of marvellous entertainment to me, and represented some of the most spectacular scenes ever put on film. So, when I realised this would be my hundredth post here I thought maybe it was time to turn my attention for once to a genuinely big film. I could have chosen El Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire but opted instead for one of the so-called lesser Bronston’s, 55 Days at Peking (1963).

The action takes place in the summer of 1900, during the latter stages of the Boxer Rebellion, when the foreign legations in Peking came under siege. Without wanting to get mired in historical detail, it seems safe to say that the Boxers found their roots in a sense of unease over the growing foreign influence in China. At the time this influence was most apparent in the area of religion, with Christianity usurping the local variety. The movie opens with a brief voiceover narration to the accompaniment of a cacophony of national anthems assaulting the eardrums. After a little more exposition in the Forbidden City, the camera cuts to the arrival of a column of dusty and weary US marines. At their head is the swaggering figure of Major Lewis (Charlton Heston), no mean feat while still on horseback. That the situation in China is spiralling out of control is immediately obvious when we see an English priest, strapped to a water wheel, being slowly tortured to death. Lewis’ attempts to buy the priest fail and the only thing he and his men accomplish is the killing of a Boxer. From here events move inexorably towards the inevitable crisis. Despite the best efforts of the British minister, Sir Arthur Robertson (David Niven), a state of war is fast approaching. In the midst of the mounting chaos Lewis finds himself drawn into a romance with a Russian aristocrat of dubious reputation (Ava Gardner). This slow build up occupies the first half of the film and it is quite heavy going. However, there are some visually impressive set pieces, such as the confrontation with a Boxer “theatrical” group during the Queen’s birthday celebrations, to keep it from becoming totally bogged down.

It’s only with the murder of the German envoy that things start to heat up on the screen. This is the point where the real action and spectacle take centre stage. Lewis’ romance starts to fade into the background as all attention is focused on the ever more desperate attempts to defend the foreign compound from wave after wave of attacks from the fanatical Boxers. It’s these marvellously choreographed scenes of pitched battles along the ramparts that really breathe life into the movie. The maniacal determination of the Chinese to breach the foreign defences forces the besieged men to come up with ever more ingenious ways to repel them. When the Boxers wheel a massive tower laden with explosives up to the perimeter, and proceed to bombard the exposed compound below, there’s a wonderful scene wherein a French priest (Harry Andrews) with a suspiciously strong Irish brogue supervises the construction of an improvised mortar to lob fireballs back at them. While this all sounds slightly deranged on paper it’s filmed and performed with enough style and conviction to remain gripping and tense throughout. Even though the seemingly endless assaults and counterattacks make for great cinema in themselves, there’s also a well filmed sequence of a night time raid on the Chinese arsenal which concludes with a magnificent and explosive payoff. The only false note is having the British minister tool up and join the raiding party on their sortie – although I’m guessing it was done to give David Niven the chance to get away from pottering fretfully around his study.

Take my hand - Charlton Heston in 55 Days at Peking

One of the pleasures of watching the epic movies from this era is the knowledge that the sheer scale of the production wasn’t anything but real. Nowadays, in the age of CGI, the thought of something as financially prohibitive as building a full size replica of the besieged compound and filling it with literally thousands of swarming extras would be enough to give the average studio executive palpitations, if not an outright seizure. However, the fact that what you see on the screen in a movie like this is real and has actual physical mass adds something indefinable, a quality that’s now been lost. Somehow the very knowledge that you can now create pretty much any image imaginable on screen rubs away a little of the magic for me. To all intents and purposes 55 Days at Peking was Nicholas Ray’s last film, having walked away leaving it incomplete after one argument too many with Bronston he suffered a heart attack. It’s not his best work by any means and I don’t believe he was ideally suited to these kinds of large scale productions. Still, the striking use of colour throughout does seem to bear his hallmark. As far as the performers are concerned it’s Heston’s film all the way. Chuck was in the middle of that purple patch that would last another decade and he stamps his authority all over this picture. Though to be fair, while the film doesn’t develop his character to any meaningful degree it does offer ample opportunity for the kind of iconic posing only he could pull off convincingly. David Niven’s quiet, gentlemanly dignity is a welcome contrast (his casual flicking aside of the kneeling cushion when summoned before the Dowager Empress is a beautifully understated moment), and he even manages to make some fairly trite dialogue sound credible by adopting just the right amount of earnestness – a true professional. Ava Gardner was nearing the end of her days as a leading lady at this point and her performance is adequate but nothing more. I understand that she didn’t get along particularly well with Heston (they certainly don’t have a lot of on screen chemistry) so that may be part of the problem. Finally, a word about Dimitri Tiomkin’s score; his style is not to everyone’s taste and he’s sometimes criticised for being excessively bombastic, but I like it a lot and think it’s perfectly suited to this kind of larger than life movie.

55 Days at Peking is available on DVD from a number of sources worldwide, and the edition I have is one I picked up in Greece years ago. It was released on the PCV label and it’s got a fine anamorphic scope transfer that doesn’t suffer from any major damage or colour fading. The image is progressive and doesn’t look to me like it’s been manipulated excessively. I’ve had a look at the screencaps on the Beaver’s site and I’m fairly confident that my copy looks a good deal stronger than the Japanese one featured there. It’s R2 PAL, of course, and runs at 156 minutes including the overture, intermission, entre’acte and exit music. It’s a shame that reports of poor sales seem to have halted further releases in R1 of the Miriam Collection since the Bronston titles already out in that line are probably the best on the market. This is a movie that’s been neglected in more ways than one over the years and critics have rarely had many positive things to say about it. It is probably overlong and could use a little trimming in the first half, the use of Caucasian actors in the major Chinese roles is possibly a source of annoyance for some, but I still enjoy the movie immensely. Perhaps the fact that it’s a throwback to that vanished era of large scale, no holds barred filmmaking adds to its charm for me. I recommend it if you can get your hands on a decent copy.

 

The True Story of Jesse James

Titles

Almost twenty years after scoring a hit with Jesse James Fox tried to repeat their success in 1957. With a screenplay based on and crediting Nunnally Johnson’s 1939 effort, the studio tagged ‘The True Story’ onto the title and director Nicholas Ray was handed the task of trying to offer a fresh perspective on this oft-told tale. So, does this one actually tell the true story? Well, not exactly since the time-line is more than a bit suspect, although it does get quite a few things right which the earlier version didn’t. 

The film pitches the viewer straight into the action as it opens during the raid on the Northfield bank. After the dramatic escape of Jesse (Robert Wagner) and brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) the film proceeds to narrate events via a series of flashbacks which lead up to the climactic and doomed heist. The True Story of Jesse James, as I said, manages to correct a few of the errors of the earlier version. In this film the James gang are, more accurately, shown to be driven towards a life of crime as a result of the conditions that prevailed after the Civil War. The treatment of the other characters is also a good deal closer to reality. The 1939 film had the James home being bombed by railroad agents, resulting in the death of Jesse’s mother. Nicholas Ray’s movie has the attack being carried out by Pinkerton men (referred to here as Remington agents) and causing not the death of the old woman but the loss of her arm – again this is pretty much as it happened. It is no bad thing either that the Younger brothers are actually portrayed here, although the emphasis on them is slight. 

Jesse James (Robert Wagner) shooting his way out of Northfield.

The biggest weakness of the movie lies in the casting, and particularly that of the lead. While earlier incarnations showed Jesse James as a lovable rogue (Tyrone Power) or a saintly, avuncular type (Reed Hadley), here he has evolved into more of a trigger-happy glory seeker. The trouble is that Robert Wagner just doesn’t have the necessary edge or grit to carry this off successfully. Although he does give a pleasant enough performance he is simply too lightweight. Jeffrey Hunter, on the other hand, is excellent as Frank; so much so that it seems a pity he wasn’t given the lead. Agnes Moorehead adds some class as the mother but her scenes are few. Even though Alan Hale’s Cole Younger is played mostly for comic relief it lends a touch of realism to see the character appear and be shown as a figure of some influence within the gang. John Carradine turns up again (how many  movies did this man make?), not as Bob Ford but as the preacher who baptises Jesse.

While I generally enjoyed this movie there were a few things that did get up my nose. These mostly involved the inclusion of footage from the 1939 Henry King film. The train robbery sequence blends in fairly seamlessly but another example proved especially distracting to me. During the well filmed Northfield raid, as the lead flies and men are falling all around, Frank and Jesse take the time to ride into an alley and divest themselves of their long dusters. Why, you might well ask, would two men caught in a firefight pause to do this? Well, the answer is that we’re about to see recycled footage of Power and Fonda riding through a plate glass window and later jumping their horses off a cliff – and our heroes hadn’t been wearing dusters in the ’39 film! Now those scenes were great the first time round but it smacks of a certain cheapness to wheel them out here again. Another problem I had was at the end of the film. You know that Bob Ford is going to shoot Jesse as he stands on a chair to straighten that picture. Well, here Ford gives it to him in the back of the head at point blank range – and instead of dropping to the floor like a sack of potatoes, Jesse swivels around to glare reproachfully at his assassin before succumbing to his wound. Bah!  

The True Story of Jesse James is available on DVD from Fox in R1 and Optimum in R2. I watched the R1 and the presentation of this scope film is excellent with no major faults worth mentioning. I can’t comment on the quality of the R2 disc but I would imagine that it has been cut by the BBFC for the aforementioned scene of the jump off the cliff – I understand one of the animals was killed during the filming of that stunt. So, despite some quibbles, I would say this is not a bad movie – just not a great one.

 
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Posted by on March 4, 2008 in 1950s, Nicholas Ray, Robert Wagner, Westerns

 
 
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