The character of Jesse James, at least as he is commonly personified in the mythical terms of Robin Hood-esque anti-heroism, seems to be ideal fodder for the thematic proclivities of director Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), Johnny Guitar (1954), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956)). Though not of the same caliber of quality as most of Ray’s greatest works — but closer behind than perhaps it gets credit for — The True Story of Jesse James, made in 1957 starring Robert Wagner in the title role, nevertheless stands as a solid representation of the auteurist notions commonly attributed to Ray. In this film, despite being a remake of (and actually briefly using footage from) Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), we get – stylistically, narratively, and thematically – a bringing together of much that makes Ray’s cinema so special.
The film begins with the bank robbery that would, we find out, be the nail in the coffin of the James brothers’ increasingly reckless and risky crime spree. But it doesn’t take long for the film to move from the ensuing pursuit as primary focus to instead begin the telling of this tale through flashbacks, striving more for a depiction of what brought Jesse, his brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter), and the rest of his family and cohorts to this point. This goal of rationalization and explication is overtly proclaimed by the repeated comments made throughout the film by characters seeking to define, understand, and clarify Jesse’s actions. Who is Jesse James, they ask, what made him? Why does he do what he does? This is what Ray’s picture seeks to uncover.
It certainly doesn’t take the poetic, self-consciously stylish approach to Jesse’s life as Andrew Dominik did in the immensely underrated and magnificent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), nor does it reach for the psychological depths (at least not consistently) as Samuel Fulller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949), which actually focuses more considerably on Ford. However, what it does do is find a comfortable middle ground amid these two other great films dealing with the same topic. We get at once an almost journalistic recalling of Jesse’s life – as the opening titles tell us, a factual narrative of what really occurred is the picture’s aim – yet a majority of what we see is subjectively told through flashbacks, how the characters remember things happening. So, like Jesse James the legend, Ray’s film too falls between what supposedly really happened and what others personally said happened.
As noted, a considerable portion of the film is devoted to uncovering what made Jesse do what he did. It seems that this particular take on his life finds three main motivations: pure and simple badness, the Civil War, and authority, specifically older authoritative figures. Not only does this again fall in line with much of Ray’s work in the way it seeks to explain its characters (see James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, James Mason in Bigger Than Life, and Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in They Live By Night as examples), but it also looks back to these and other previous films in some of its very explanations.
Beginning with the idea of the war as catalyst, Jesse’s mother, played by Agnes Moorehead, blames the battle and the “yankees.” She points to the northern, oppressive domination over their southern lifestyle as a reason behind Jesse’s actions and mentality. This is echoed later in the film when Jesse and Frank round up their posse and discuss how the intimidating northerners have made them all suffer and how robbing the banks wouldn’t be too bad anyway since they would only be full off northern money. The war waged on their territory threatened not only their land and way of life, but also their “southern pride.” Like Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar, this sense of pride is enough of a justification for resistance, for taking a stand against the imposing forces. Jesse and the others feel threatened and abused and aggressively act out accordingly. In addition, this sense of disillusionment and bewilderment with the world they gradually find themselves in harks back to Ray’s noirs and their post-war opportunists, schemers, and lost souls.
The town pastor, Rev. Jethro Bailey (John Carradine), looks to the influences of evil, of the devil himself, as the origin of Jesse’s deeds. Perhaps, he seems to suggest, Jesse has simply become a bad man. In one of the most dazzling sections of the film, Bailey recalls how, just hours after Jesse and wife Zee’s baptism, James begins his life of crime. We see though, as Zee and Jesse’s mother combat, that this conversion was actually instigated by northern sympathizers attacking the James home and killing a friend and less by Satan. This nighttime attack sequence is one of the film’s finest, using its primary technical features (color, sound, the mobile camera, and Cinemascope) to produce a gorgeously shot, haunting assault on the James household. The intense use of color (something Ray was certainly a master of) and sound in particular (here actually, it’s the lack of sound – sharp gunfire puncturing the otherwise silent scene: no score, no natural sounds, no voices) create a vivid moment of confusion, panic, and action, all dramatized by a play with light and shadow.
The third main suggestion for Jesse’s exploits comes from sequences and dialogue that point towards a general dislike and distrust for authority: commanding northern soldiers, adults, law officers, etc. Of course, Rebel Without a Cause springs instantly to mind here, and the comparison is not at all far off. Jesse is very much a youthful character, and given the close production proximity of Ray’s most famous picture (though most think of it as Dean’s most famous picture), its clear that he still has something to say on the matter of the older, authoritarian impact on the freewheeling, young. Like so many rebellious teenager films from the 1950s (Brando’s The Wild One in 1953 as just one example), Ray here presents the outlaw hero as one who is bucking the system and confronting the establishment as much as anything else.
Sticking with the Rebel Without a Cause comparison, and also recalling Bigger Than Life, Ray draws attention to notions of domesticity with this film as well, and the sense of supposed normalcy that goes along with it. After renting a house, Jesse and wife Zee (Hope Lange) discuss what they’re going to do with it, their family, and the town they now live in. Idealistically, they strive to be immersed inside the community, while conversely, perhaps impossibly, living outside the law. This conflicting existence is abruptly cut short when Jesse announces that he must leave for another job. It seems that while they may buy into the illusion of a settled down home and place in the neighborhood, Jesse’s chosen field will forever disrupt their hopes for a “normal” life.
Aside from the previously mentioned nighttime attack, The True Story of Jesse James is full of typical Ray flourishes in terms of style. Making complete use of the widescreen frame (again, something he does extraordinarily well), Ray composes a majority of his shots not only packing the frame from all sides with details, more often than not significant ones, but also adding a dimensional depth to his compositions. Having characters or objects placed prominently to one side or one section of the image foreground, in close-up, Ray also draws attention to what may be going on behind said character or object, sometimes much further in the background, highlighting it in the open, unoccupied widescreen space. It’s this combination of depth and the horizontal that makes for some very striking and realistic images. A line of individuals can stretch all the way across the frame, while their surroundings are simultaneously given due prominence. Added to this is Ray’s use of the tracking shot, further emphasizing the horizontal constriction of the film. When Frank brings a wounded Jesse to a family member’s house (where Zee is introduced) Ray again combines beautifully the horizontal with depth of field by tracking along their wagon while, at the same time, moving in on the fallen Jesse. Effectively utilizing smoke, light, and camera angle as well, Ray at one point films a nighttime train robbery quite masterly, causing a nightmarish sense of hypnotic pandemonium.
The film also has its moments of humor. Jesse is asked what line of work he’s in and he responds that its banking and railroads. And later, much amusement is had (by the audience and by Jesse and Frank) when the brothers attend the trial of a captured gang member. Using aliases and thus unknown to those around them (no one has seen their faces) they speak openly and confidently to the prosecutor and, later, the detective assigned to their capture, neither of whom have any idea who they’re actually talking with.
Played by Wagner, Jesse here (like Brad Pitt playing him in Dominik’s film) is an attractive figure, a further element of the Jesse James myth. It’s important that if he is to be likable he is also to be handsome. At first, it does seem like Jesse gets into bank robbing with the best of intentions. It’s just going to be this once; he doesn’t want to make a career out of it; it’s for his family, his home. But this doesn’t last. In a self-destructive manner not totally unlike Bogart in In a Lonely Place or Mason in Bigger Than Life, Jesse abandons whatever positive ideals he may have had and heads down the path to his downfall, to loneliness and violence. Near the end, Jesse is a man obsessed, blind to dangers. He’s quick to kill anyone who wrongs him in any way. And, in contrast to not making a career out of bank robbing, he refers to their crimes as “our business.” Jesse seems to himself have bought into the Jesse James myth. This is comically made clear when, after gang member Cole offers some money to a poor elderly lady who gave them food and temporary shelter, Jesse, following his reading of outlandish published tales about himself, gives her $600 dollars, enough to pay off her entire mortgage and encourage the tales of his good nature and kindness. Once the man from the bank has collected the funds, however, Jesse immediately robs him.
After attempting to rob a bank in Minnesota, out of their normal territory and under paranoid circumstances, everything begins to go wrong. The town where the bank is located is remarkably united, everyone seeming to pitch in by blocking the gang’s escape and firing at them, killing most. This is in opposition to the tragic disunity that has developed within the gang. Jesse’s paranoia, his frenzied behavior and heedlessness, is one of the film’s most prominent psychological developments (this rivaled by the end of the film when Jesse realizes that even his own children have succumbed to the fable of Jesse James, his son and daughter playing with a wooden gun, the former “shooting down” the latter causing her to cry).
Finally though, it’s the betrayal of a friend that leads to Jesse’s demise. His being shot in the back by Robert Ford is well known and well documented – in western stories and films – and this picture is no different in its presentation. Ford, initially introduced in this movie off-handedly yet ominously as “Robbie,” is weasely and instantly suspicious (this no doubt aided by our established knowledge of his role in the story). Once shot and lying on the floor, the crowd that gathers is a testament to Jesse’s fame. Ford runs down the road proclaiming that he just shot Jesse James; the crowd runs the other way, toward Jesse. One character earlier commented that when the public doesn’t need Jesse James that will be his end; this was clearly not yet the case. Indeed, on their way out of Jesse’s house they steal miscellaneous objects of memorabilia.
There is much to admire in this typically neglected Nicholas Ray film; many of the hallmarks of his formal and stylistic affinities are present, even if the general story told has been recounted frequently. Working in a genre that revels in the use of the widescreen and color, Ray's The True Story of Jesse James is a more than solid production. If this is indeed how Ray saw the life of Jesse James, if this is how he imagines the scenes and actions that comprised Jesse’s existence to be, then it’s impossible to imagine them ever presented any other way than in the medium of cinema, with rich colors and expansive Cinemascope.