The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940)

by Douglas Buck April 4, 2020 4 minutes (925 words) HD Streaming

With brothers Ford, cowardly Bob and Charles (John Carradine, the lean mean man of a most resonant voice, legendary patriarch of the Carradine clan, and the relatively unexceptional Charles Tannen, being just a coupla of the returning actor folk from director Henry King’s fantastic and lavish box office smash Jesse James from the year before) having been granted immediate pardons after conviction of the murder of Jesse James, James’ sibling Frank (Henry Fonda, also returning, for a second go-round with the brutally dictatorial director Lang, who apparently didn’t manage to beat Fonda up enough in their first film together, the stunningly brilliant early noir-ish social drama You Only Live Once) decides to come out of hiding for some good ol’ fashioned, bullet-ridden revenge against not just the Ford brothers, but the corrupt big business railroad men who hired ‘em to kill Jesse in the first place, then used their influence to get them off from serving any time for the crime.

Following Frank, and his naïve and eager protégé Clem (Jackie Cooper) as they horseback around in (rare at the time) beautiful technicolor, across evocative rural landscapes and into some impressively constructed Western towns, with a fairly exciting shoot-out or two, there’s a real sense of trying to replicate the flavor of Jesse James (naturally, as it was a big box office success)… and Lang’s sequel does accomplish that in those aesthetic respects… it’s also a decent enough of a tale (with Fonda in the lead, you can’t go too wrong), veering miles away from the truth as it apparently does (Frank never went after the Fords or sought vengeance for his brother’s murder at their hands… though the shamelessly opportunistic Fords did make a bundle entirely fictionalizing their shooting of Jesse – with their theatrical recounting turning themselves into chivalrous heroes, naturally — on-stage around the country, which is in the movie – in a well done, quasi-meta sequence (where, while in the middle of performing, Bob notices the looming presence of Frank silently watching from the rafters, heaves a prop at him in terror, causing a panic in the theater). And, thankfully, the film’s heart remains relatively aligned with the working-class, recognizing the righteousness of Frank’s cause against the duplicitous and amoral business elites (seen as the real villains of the piece, as was the case in “Jesse”). All good.

The returning performers keep a nice continuity to the proceedings; for instance, Henry Hull — an actor who I hadn’t much cared for the in the less remembered original Universal werewolf movie, Werewolf of London of 1935 – but plays perfectly within the character actor ensemble of both ‘James’ entries, as the obstinate and defiant Major Rufus Cobb, the town editor and long-time friend of the James family.

The comedown from the majesty of Jesse James is in the more pedestrian elements that weren’t bothered with in King’s film. Gene Tierney’s female reporter trying to prove her independence from her rich daddy who owns the paper, a girl who Frank dupes to plug info from (while also clearly having a hankerin’ for her as well) is the sort of inorganic shooed-in romantic interest that often kills many a Hollywood film (though in this case, it was surprising to find it never fully culminating – I read after that the only reason it didn’t was the studio was afraid they may get sued by Frank James’ estate for entirely fabricating this relationship, a decision which actually works in favor of the film – it makes Tierney’s reporter walking away from a man she is clearly smitten with actually come across as a feminist move of independence, rather than just the precious, brattier attitude she displayed with her pops). Also, there’s some really wonky humor interspersed about that falls a bit flat…. again, not game-ending stuff… but when you compare it against the regal, near pitch-perfect mythical power of the previous film… Lang’s film suffers the comparison (even if isn’t all his fault, as the screenplay isn’t quite as adept either).

Where “Jesse” had some absolutely stunning action moments — some of the best I’ve seen in a Hollywood western from that time — Lang’s film surprisingly doesn’t really attempt much on that level, other than some fast paced horseback chase sequences that were effective enough, but kinda standard (I’m sure even by that point).

Don’t get me wrong. The Return of Frank James, with its superlative cast and impressive technicolor cinematography, is a solid vengeance opus, straight off the ensemble-line of old Hollywood (and I don’t mean that as a criticism… Hollywood’s dream manufacturing plant was incredibly effective, for better or worse, run by studio heads who understood both cinema and entertainment), with a nicely progressive underlying heart (and the audiences agreed, obviously, as it also did well in ticket sales… granting Lang one of his few Hollywood hits, ironically considering it’s nowhere near what are rightly considered his greatest films of his American period, which were all box office bombs – or maybe not ironically, as how often that’s the case in the mixing of art and commerce). It’s even a nice continuation and companion piece to the first film.

I guess it’s just… after seeing the classic majesty of King’s _Jesse James_… and also familiarizing myself up close with the cinematic brilliance that Lang was capable of… I don’t know… I hoped for a bit more…

The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang, 1940)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

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