Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Infamous & Elusive: The True Story of Jesse James
The following is my contribution to the Nicholas Ray blogathon, hosted by Tony Dayoub at Cinema Viewfinder.
Nicholas Ray’s examination of notorious outlaw Jesse James opens with a bang. The setting is Northfield, Minnesota, circa 1876, and the James Gang is in the midst of the proverbial One Last Job. From an initial shot of a tranquil thoroughfare, the action announces itself with the sound of offscreen gunfire and the sight of a Northfield citizen scrambling for safety crying, “It’s a hold-up!” Over the next frenzied minute, the gunfire seems to come from all angles – from men on horseback and balconies – the editing deliberately amplifying the chaos through rapid shifts in perspective. As Jesse and his brother Frank ride out of town, the shootout ends as suddenly as it began, but the intensity of the opening doesn’t cease. In the next scene we find an agitated lawman giving orders to the town’s telegraph operator. “Tell ‘em to round up every man with a gun and head them off,” the sheriff barks, not yet knowing who he's after. It’s then that another man informs the sheriff that one of the robbers was named Jesse. “Tell ‘em it was the James boys,” the sheriff says, turning back to the telegraph operator with even more urgency than before. “Tell ‘em he’s 400 miles from his own stamping grounds. Tell ‘em it’s a chance of a lifetime to get Jesse James!” In this opening pre-credits sequence, through the excitement of the gunfight, the intensity of the sheriff’s orders and the wide-eyed interest of on-looking townfolk, Ray conveys that Jesse James is more than an outlaw. He’s a celebrity and the subject of fascination. And he’s as elusive as a ghost.
So just who was Jesse James? As the title suggest, that’s what the rest of 1957’s The True Story of Jesse James is all about. But from the outset it’s clear that there will be no simple answer to that question. Prior to the gunfight, a title card suggests that James was both a symbol of and a product of the Civil War – a “curious mixture” of good and evil. The screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and Walter Newman revisits Jesse’s life through the perspectives of those who knew him, or only thought they did, both confronting and entertaining the various myths about the man. Ray’s means of transitioning in and out of these recollections is corny at best – dissolves to and from pink-hued clouds meant to mark the leap back in time and suggest the fogginess of memory – but the Rashomon-esque narrative design adds multidimensionality to what is a fairly flat performance by Robert Wagner as Jesse (more on that in a bit). In the eyes of his mother, Jesse is the victim of crimes perpetrated against him by northerners. In the eyes of his wife, Jesse is a committed family man who acts ruthlessly only out of devotion. In the eyes of the public, Jesse is the action-figure of pulp adventure stories, whether playing Robin Hood or wearing the black hat. To his own brother, Frank (Jeffrey Hunter), Jesse is a man who loses perspective and control, letting his violent streak drive his ambitions. In our eyes, watching the flashbacks leading up to the Northfield hold-up and the present-tense shots of Jesse on the run, he’s all of these things. And yet for all his mysteriousness and complexity, Jesse isn’t very compelling.
In Ray’s film, Jesse isn’t ambiguous so much as he’s indistinct. He’s the focal point of the story, and he appears in most of the scenes, and yet he blends into the background with surprising regularity. Most of the blame can be stuck on Wagner, who simply isn’t as dynamic as numerous of Ray’s other leading men, from Humphrey Bogart (In a Lonely Place) to James Dean (Rebel Without a Cause) to Charlton Heston (55 Days at Peking), no matter how often Wagner scowls with madness or tilts his head with arrogance. But Ray doesn’t do Wagner many favors. The True Story of Jesse James is practically void of close-ups or other singles that might evoke Jesse’s stature, and thus Jesse is often lost within Ray’s detailed CinemaScope compositions. Case in point: In the scene in which Jesse first urges his friends to help him rob a bank, and in doing so establishes the James Gang itself and him as its leader, Wagner is placed at the far left edge of the frame, where he is partially obscured by the wide shoulders of Alan Hale Jr’s Cole Youger in the foreground, and he’s dressed in a gray sweater that makes him blend in with the shadows of the barn where the scene takes place. Based on the composition alone, Jesse appears smaller than and subservient to his brother Frank, who sits closer to the camera and at the center of the shot (and wears a more striking red shirt). And yet the dialogue makes it clear that the scene is about Jesse’s emergence and influence. It’s a visual and tonal contradiction.
Curiously, despite numerous tantrums and physical threats throughout the picture, Jesse will never be a more charismatic and imposing presence than at the point his reign comes to an end. There’s a tremendous scene near the finale in which Jesse finds his son and daughter playing outside, with brother standing over sister, pinning her down with a toy gun. “I shot her,” the boy says, “we’re playing Jesse James.” As Jesse gathers his daughter off the ground, Wagner flashes an expression of bewilderment, as if Jesse is shocked and saddened to find that his notorious legend has crept up onto the steps of his own household and into his son’s imagination. Together, the three of them then head back toward their tranquil home through a white picket fence, a perfect portrait of domesticity, even getting a friendly hello from a passer-by, who calls Jesse by his alias, Mr. Howard. It’s through this scene that Ray best summarizes his titular character’s contradictory identities: notorious killer outlaw Jesse James at one end, and clean-cut family man Mr. Howard at the other.
Is the “real” man lost in the middle, or is Jesse bipolar? If Ray has an opinion, he never makes it explicit. But he does repeatedly suggest that the diverging opinions of Jesse are each accurate in their own way. It’s notable that inside the James/Howard home there are two framed embroideries on the wall: one reads “Home Sweet Home,” the other “Hard Work Spells Success.” It’s this second framed embroidery that Jesse is reaching for on the wall when, as in the beginning of the film, a peaceful tableau is shattered by the sound of offscreen gunfire, this time as Robert Ford shoots Jesse from behind with his own gun, and Jesse proves unable to elude the legend that he worked so hard to establish. The True Story of Jesse James doesn’t rank among Ray’s best pictures, but by showing a man struggling to survive a war he’s waging against himself, it does remind of them.