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Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, has been laying low, living as a farmer and taking care of Clem, the son of one of the members of the James gang. He gets word that Jesse was killed by Bob and Charlie Ford, he hoped that the law would deal with them but when he learns that the railroad man whom he and Jesse terrorized contracted them to kill Jesse and helped them get off, he goes after them. Clem whom he told to remain on the farm goes with him and when it's impossible for him to do so, Frank has no choice to let him tag along. Now in order to cover their tracks they start telling people that Frank James is dead and that they saw it. Eleanor Stone, a female reporter, who wants to write about it interviews them and they are both taken with each other. But eventually she learns who Frank is from the Pinkerton detective who is tracking them but doesn't turn them in. But eventually Frank learns that his farm hand, Pinky has been arrested as his accomplice and is about to be hung. ... Written by
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Maj. Rufus Cobb:
Now read it back to me, Roy.
"If we are ever going to have law and order in this part of the country, we got to take vipers like those Fords and that slimy railroad detective Runyon and shoot 'em down like dogs."
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A pale, watery excuse for a western, but with lots of great archetypes
The Return of Frank James (1940)
The Western is back, as of 1939 when four big ones were released, including John Ford's "Stagecoach" with John Wayne, which has lasting critical acclaim, and also "Jesse James" which was the fourth largest moneymaker for that blockbuster year. Maybe it was the war breaking out in Europe, or just a realization that if you lifted a Western from its usual B-movie status the public would respond. Henry Fonda starred as Frank James in that one, and so this is really a sequel with the same chronology and feel as the first one. It is clearly A-list movie material with genuine Technicolor, a year after "Jesse James," "The Wizard of Oz," and "Gone with the Wind" had all made clear Technicolor was no passing gimmick.
Frank James is now out to seek the killers of the more famous outlaw. The fact we are rooting for the renegade through his surviving brother is slightly odd--the anti-hero or negative stereotype as protagonist wasn't really respectable (or possible) until the 1960s, full fledged. Jesse James was a brave Civil War guerrilla fighter but he became an uncommonly violent criminal and murderer after the war. Frank James was probably as ruthless and bad (he was part of the same gang), but after the death of Jesse he escaped prison (in real life) and lived into the Twentieth Century.
In this movie, Frank is not portrayed as a bad person. He just wants his brother's killers dead. And Henry Fonda is a kind of low key, determined fellow throughout. We naturally run into the standard assortment of types that are almost required in period Westerns--drunks and sheriffs and pretty girls out of place in this rough manly world. And there are shoot outs and a court trial and so on.
Of all people to approach this genre, and in color, you'd least expect Fritz Lang, the recent émigré with "Metropolis" and "M" and "Fury" all in his portfolio. He gets rising star Henry Fonda in the loner lead for this sequel, naturally, and Fonda is the meat of it, really terrific (in an echo, actually, of the loner lead in John Ford's "Grapes of Wrath" in the same year). And then there's Gene Tierney playing a pseudo-reporter in her very first film role, showing early on that she is mostly a pretty face, but a decent actress at least. There are other great character actors (like John Carradine, fresh off of "Stagecoach" as well as "Jesse James") but specially notable (to me) is the African-American farm hand Ernest Whitman, who has to suffer from some awful stereotyping, but who is malleable and likable (and turns a verbal mistake into a catchy little song without a hitch).
I love Lang's movies, even his weaker ones, and I really think he didn't quite "get" what a Western was about the way Ford did in the same period. It becomes something like a Hollywood drama that happens to be set in this post Civil War place west of the Mississippi. The stereotypes and archetypes are in play, but he misses the combination of grit and certitude that is part of the scene. Even Fonda comes across as slightly underplayed, a rather nice fellow who just happens to be out for blood.
The photography is strong and vivid even though trapped to some extent on being "pretty" because of the rich color and beautiful scenery and by the bright lights so often used to blast the scenes for the tri-pack film. And then there is the ridiculous plasticity of the facts--most of what happens in the movie didn't happen at all in real life. Everyone is really just cashing in on the folk hero status of this killer, and on the success of "Jesse James" the movie the year before.
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