Disillusioned with Hollywood, by 1957 Nicholas Ray was ready to head to Europe where he would go on to make the brilliant Bitter Victory. But before he could leave America behind, he had to make one more film for 20th Century Fox. The studio suggested a remake of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939).
The ‘True Story’ of the title is less a statement of historical accuracy than one of narrative form – the biopic. The life of Jesse James (Robert Wagner) is told in flashback (signified by clouds of pink smoke added by the studio against Ray’s wishes) with multiple points of view. The disastrous Northfield Minnesota raid is shown twice, once from the point of view of the townsfolk and later from the James Gang’s. Every character, it seems, has an opinion. A newspaperman, in a scene reminiscent of Citizen Kane, wonders what could be the ‘key’ to Jesse James. In the eyes of his dying mother and his wife Zee Jesse can do no wrong. To others he is simply a robber and a murderer. In the dime novel gang member Cole Younger reads aloud, he is a folk hero, a Robin Hood. That book inspires Jesse’s famous moment of philanthropy: he gives $600 to a poor woman, only to steal it back from her bailiff. The ‘true story’ is a deliberately muddled one with Ray refusing to iron out any ambiguities.
The ‘key’ to Jesse James in this film is perhaps that he is ‘the Nicholas Ray hero’. A character that is pretty much the same (often thought to be based on Ray himself) whether he is Jim Stark (Rebel Without a Cause), Jesse James or Jesus Christ (King of Kings was famously nicknamed ‘I was a Teenage Jesus’). The cult of James Dean is perhaps really the cult of the Ray hero (it owes little to his great performance as the balding oil baron in Giant). Had Robert Wagner died in a car crash and James Dean gone on to make Hart to Hart many a teenage bedroom wall may have featured a different face. Jim Stark’s adolescent anguish is shared by the young Jesse even though, unlike the typical Ray hero, Jesse is surrounded by a loving family, his wife, his Ma and most importantly his brother Frank. The legendary outlaw is of course a doomed character – his death is a famous one waiting to happen. Pictures hang on the wall ominously. He destroys the possibility of an amnesty with a revenge killing and eventually even pushes his brother away. It is only when this death-wish subsides that he renounces his life of crime and hands his guns to Bob and Charlie Ford – the consequences of which are sung in the folk ballad at the end. Through these characters Ray explores the great American conflict between individualism and a conformist society. It is Jesse’s entrepreneurial spirit that makes him and destroys him.
The film bears all the hallmarks of a classic 50s Western – De-Luxe color, Cinemascope, day-for-night filters and Brylcreem quiffs. Although the studio interference caused the director to dismiss the film, it is a worthy addition to the Ray canon, reinforcing his reputation as a Hollywood auteur who turned any studio assignment into a thoughtful and personal work of art.