Jesse James [1939]

The best thing about this take on the celebrated Missouri outlaw is Nicholas Ray's dynamic use of CinemaScope, a format that left most mid-'50s directors flatfooted. Ray composes his action in slashing diagonals, over multi-leveled ground, with sectors of the wide screen defined by frames-within-the-frame and different qualities of light and color. Which is to say, he continues the radical experimentation of his 1955 James Dean classic Rebel Without a Cause while attempting to develop a fresh, contemporary perspective on another violent young protagonist who's an outsider in his own society. Nunnally Johnson's script for 20th Century-Fox's 1939 Jesse James is credited as source material, but Ray opted for a tortuous, balladlike flashback structure--beginning with the James-Younger gang's ruinous raid on Northfield, Minnesota, 400 miles from their Missouri stomping ground--that aims to deconstruct the outlaw's populist legend. "Jesse James" is an elusive subject; the Minnesota posse never sets eyes on him in the jagged first reel of the movie. How much of an Old West "Robin Hood" was he? And how murderously vengeful was his criminal career as he struck back against the railroads and their cold-blooded police force, the Pinkerton (here, "Remington") agency, and Union-sympathizer neighbors who hated this former member of the wartime guerrilla band, Quantrill's Raiders? However radical the director's intentions, his movie runs afoul of studio recutting and an underwhelming cast of Fox contract players. Jeffrey Hunter (recently loaned out to play Ethan Edwards' companion in The Searchers) comes off best as Jesse's thoughtful brother Frank (a pattern that holds true for Henry Fonda in Jesse James and Stacy Keach in The Long Riders). But Ray was stymied by Robert Wagner as Jesse--in the phrase of Ray biographer Bernard Eisenschitz, a player "expressive of nothing but Californian physical culture." (James Dean being dead, Ray's first choice for Jesse was ... Elvis Presley!) --Richard T. Jameson

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