The True Story of Jesse James
The idea, or so it seems, was that in Ray was a director with a feel for the young rebel who courts trouble (They Live by Night, Rebel Without a Cause) and, indeed, after initially rejecting it, became excited to do it because he had Elvis Presley in mind for the lead. Instead, Fox went with two of their contract players, Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter as Jesse and Frank James, respectively.
Robert Wagner and Jeffrey Hunter both do capable jobs in their roles (although Hunter comes off best) but Wagner gives off little charisma and the shirtless scenes and ever-present pompadour, despite taking place in the 19th century, signal the studio is just trying to sell a contract player as the next big sex symbol. Presley would have had the same shirtless scenes and an even more impressive pompadour but, according to Bernard Eisenschitz in his biography, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Ray knew Presley really was a "farmer's son, a country boy swept by circumstance into the limelight" and felt he could have brought a more personal touch to the role than Wagner who, according to Eisenschitz, was "expressive of nothing more than California physical culture."
Nonetheless, Wagner succeeds in creating in Jesse James a self-centered, glamour boy outlaw, in love with his own press and fully in belief of it. Presley probably wouldn't have had the nerve to make the character come off as so egotistical and smug and thus, in a roundabout way, Wagner turned out to be better for the role than anyone previously expected. And any lack of star charisma worked for him too! It made the character of James appear even more undeserving of his vanity and smug demeanor. Nicholas Ray accepted Wagner in the role and plowed ahead.
Robert Wagner, however, wasn't nearly as pleased with Ray as Ray was with him. Wagner writes in his autobiography (Pieces of My Heart: A Life, by Robert J. Wagner with Scott Eyman) that although he liked working with Ray he found him unfocused and confusing. He says the "problem was that Nick was always anesthetized; he'd stare off into space and then he'd say, 'Try this. No. Wait. Don't'"
This kind of direction may have been difficult for an actor to work with but doesn't show through in the final cut. The True Story of Jesse James itself starts off with the failed Northern Minnesota bank robbery that sent Jesse and Frank James on the run after most of their gang had either been caught or killed. While Jesse and Frank hide out, their story is told in flashback, complete with the clichéd twirling lens signaling the beginning of a new flashback each time, added by the studio against Ray's adamant wishes. As told, Jesse was essentially a fiery boy with a penchant for fighting for justice or, at least, his definition of it. His mother, played by the great Agnes Moorehead, defends and lies for him as best she can but never stops worrying. Jesse and Frank team up with Cole Younger (a very good Alan Hale, Jr.) and his gang and start robbing banks, with Jesse as the leader since he's the one that comes up with all the plans and organizes the getaways. Along the way, Jesse takes an interest in Zee, a surprisingly lackluster Hope Lange, and the two get married. It's suggested in Eisenschitz's book that the studio wanted Joanne Woodward but Ray chose Lange because with her inexperience he wouldn't have two great stage actors, the other being Moorehead, telling him what to do. Considering the studio didn't think twice about pushing Robert Wagner in the role over Ray's fervent choice of Elvis Presley, the veracity of this story is questionable. Whatever the case, Lange simply doesn't pull it off. Her role is underwritten, to be sure, but little effort is made on her part to flesh it out and convince the viewer that a relationship actually exists between Jesse and Zee.
In the end, after the Ford brothers are introduced, played well by Carl Thayler (Robert) and Frank Gorshin (Charley), the biggest opportunity missed is one that would be picked up years later by another writer, Ron Hansen, in his novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, later adapted to a film of the same name by writer-director Andrew Dominik in 2007. That opportunity was one in which the studio wanted no part, the idea that Jesse James had a death wish and courted his assassination, perhaps even setting it up. Ray had even gone so far as to film a scene, later cut, in which Frank directly accuses Jesse of wanting to die and trying to make it happen. After all, historically, the real Jesse James did indeed give the gun that would eventually kill him to Robert Ford as a gift and, shortly after discussing the reward on his head, deliberately turned his back on Ford to straighten a frame on the wall. This is all shown in the final film but without the references to Jesse's death wish it has little impact. Indeed, it plays as disjointed and jarring.
The True Story of Jesse James looks gorgeous, shot in Cinemascope with a few action scenes from the 1939 version expanded to Cinemascope and inserted at key points, but plays as a mixed variety of Jesse James vignettes rather than a cohesive whole. Still, as with any Ray film, there is plenty to recommend and the story of Jesse James alone is enough to keep the viewer's interest for the duration, a short one at that: Only 92 minutes. The studio, unhappy with Ray's psychological study over raw western ode, ended up hobbling the film they had so wanted to be a hit. As Nicolas Ray said himself, "I think some of the best scenes I ever directed were in that film but they were cut out." Left on the cutting room floor, along with a motivation for Jesse James' death that could've made the film the great one Nicolas Ray wanted to direct from the start.
Producer: Herbert B. Swope, Jr.
Director: Nicholas Ray
Screenplay: Walter Newman
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: Addison Hehr and Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Leigh Harline
Film Editor: Robert L. Simpson
Cast: Robert Wagner (Jesse James), Jeffrey Hunter (Frank James), Agnes Moorehead (Mrs. Samuel), Hope Lange (Zee James), Alan Hale, Jr. (Cole Younger), Alan Baxter (Barney Remington), John Carradine (Reverend Jethro Bailey).
by Greg Ferrara
SOURCES: Bernard Eisenschitz, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey
Robert J. Wagner with Tony Eyman, Pieces of My Heart: A Life