Director Nicholas Ray, fresh from the bold genre reinvention of Johnny Guitar (1954), the box-office success of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and the critical acclaim of Bigger Than Life (1956), owed another film to Twentieth Century Fox production head Buddy Adler before he could tackle a couple of personal Europe-based filmmaking endeavors he eagerly anticipated. The most promising project among those Adler proposed, however, was a remake of a previous studio success that exhibitors thought would lasso audiences: another version of the Tyrone Power/Henry Fonda Jesse James (1939, directed by Henry King) with up-and-coming new talents. Ray reluctantly agreed, as long as he could do it his way, with a purposeful psychological approach and a less jingoistic and more historically flavorful execution. His first choice as Jesse, the new musical phenomenon named Elvis Presley, was already in house at Fox, shooting his supporting-role film debut in the Civil War-era Western Love Me Tender (1956), but the studio and the holder of Presley’s screen acting contract, Hal Wallis, ultimately thwarted that desire. But the film moved ahead anyway, to be ultimately titled The True Story of Jesse James (1957), and infused with the renegade spirit of both its director and its legendary title character.
In reinventing Nunnally Johnson’s original 1939 script, screenwriter Walter Newman, whose previous credits included two confrontational classics, Ace in the Hole (1951, directed by Billy Wilder) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955, directed by Otto Preminger), was determined, like Ray, to portray the anti- in antihero. He told film historian Rui Nogueira: “Both Nick and I were psychoanalytically oriented, and in doing research were struck by the fact that Jesse was unmistakably self-destructive. His exploits were increasingly more hazardous, and – surely it was unconscious on his part – he kept making disastrous mistakes. For example, he gave the man who killed him the gun with which it was done, as a gift – like an invitation to murder him. And to make it easier, he turned his back on the man to straighten a ‘God Bless Our Home’ chromo on the wall. We thought that was a novel angle of attack for the story. Then, in telling the story, we moved back and forth through time – the way people did later in other films. This was Nick’s concept.” Using the disastrous Great Northfield, Minnesota, Bank Robbery of September 7, 1876, as a bookending device, Ray and Newman weave a compelling chronicle of how the Confederate-leaning hothead Jesse (Robert Wagner) and thoughtful older brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) embrace their criminal careers as a result of post-Civil War injustices visited on the James Family by Union-leaning community forces. In Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, biographer/film historian Bernard Eisenschitz, notes: “As with so many of his other films, this one opens in violence, filling the entire Cinemascope screen. In shots carefully predesigned but devoid of any pictorial affectation, marksmen appear on balconies, wagons are dragged across the street. The scene describes a collective action, with no protagonist as yet singled out. The sheriff is a local citizen, Hillstrom (John Doucette), one of several names with a Scandinavian ring in the film. The confusion in the little town is conveyed through unexpected movement, like the scene where Hillstrom is bombarded with additional information as he sends out his report in the telegraph office, and when someone mentions the name of the James Brothers, the frame opens out to take in the street outside (and the Credits). Towards the end, the Northfield bank raid – this same gun battle in the street – and the gang’s escape are shown in a sequence which repeats some of the same images, but this time adopts the viewpoint of the raiders: a tactic rarely employed other than in Citizen Kane, The Barefoot Contessa [a Twilight Time title] and…[Ray’s own 1949] A Woman’s Secret. This second sequence goes even further in its majestic depiction of violence, showing the town as L-shaped (rather than the single straight street of tradition), and culminating in Frank and Jesse leaping on horseback through a storefront window. That this shot, like the twin leap on horseback made by the brothers into a river and the nocturnal attack on a train, should in fact be images from Henry King’s film blown up into Cinemascope, in no way diminishes their aptness. The jumps through the window and into the river echo the mirror relationship between the two brothers, while the raid on the train turns into something very different from King’s good-humored, Robin Hood-ish holdup.”
Inevitably, studio interference would derail this truer approach to the James myth from achieving truest status, but in the way it shapes its emphases and themes, the film earns high marks. In the view of The Motion Picture Guide’s Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross, “Ray’s pacing builds some good excitement, and as a Western alone the film works nicely. But there are deeper things going on, some not entirely successfully worked out, though it’s still strong stuff. The feeling of rebellion and impending doom isn’t quite as heady as in Ray’s classic Rebel Without a Cause but on a lesser intellectual plane these themes are present throughout the story.” The New York Times’ Howard Thompson agreed that Ray “has admirably utilized his sprawling cast, the Cinemascope expanse and the very color itself. His keen-eyed staging imbues an obvious tale with a handsome, dynamic spaciousness and sweep that are often thrilling to watch.” Also starring Hope Lange, Agnes Moorehead, Alan Hale Jr. and John Carradine (the Robert Ford of the 1939 original, now playing a revivalist preacher), The True Story of Jesse James, featuring Fox Movietone Newsreels and an Isolated Music Track of Leigh Harline’s score, invites you to scope out the truth of Ray’s vision when it rides into town November 20 on TT hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday November 7.