True Story of Jesse James, The (1957)

True Story of Jesse James, The (1957)

“You really like killing, don’t you?”

Shorty after legendary outlaw Jesse James (Robert Wagner) and his brother Frank (Jeffrey Hunter) carry out an infamous bank raid in Northfield, Minnesota, their dying mother (Agnes Moorehead) reflects back on her son’s progression from a put-upon Confederate war veteran to one of the most wanted men in America.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Agnes Moorehead Films
  • Biopics
  • Flashback Films
  • Hope Lange Films
  • John Carradine Films
  • Nicholas Ray Films
  • Outlaws
  • Robert Wagner Films
  • Westerns

Nicholas Ray directed this remake of Henry King’s Jesse James (1939), which similarly posited that the notorious outlaw had a reasonable rationale for turning to a life of crime — though in this film, it’s even more clearly emphasized how Jesse used and abused his initial motivations to continue his intimidating and felonious behavior.

The production was a challenging one for Ray, who was gradually forced to make a film unlike the one he’d envisioned (see CineSavant’s review for many more details). The result is a somewhat confusing flashback film in which we follow the general gist (especially after having seen the original 1939 film) but don’t understand the “logic” behind the order of the vignettes. With Lange such a sympathetic character, and Moorehead pleading for compassion on behalf of her son:

… it’s difficult to know how to manage our distaste for Jesse’s actions and choices. Coming across best are Hunter as Jesse’s brother Frank:

… and Alan Hale as gang member Cole Younger:

.. and the visuals are compelling throughout.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Fine cinematography by Joseph MacDonald

Must See?
No, though Nicholas Ray fans will likely be curious to check it out.


One thought on “True Story of Jesse James, The (1957)

  1. (Rewatch.) Not must-see, though, yes, Ray fans may want to check it out.

    I’d seen this once before, years ago at a Ray retrospective in Tokyo. It’s watchable but occasionally sluggish (which seems less Ray’s fault than that of the script).

    It’s true (I think) that Hunter and Hale come off best. Lange is more or less allowed to be ‘the girl’ and Moorehead surfaces as necessary. In the lead role – which might have gone to James Dean if he hadn’t died or Elvis Presley (whom Ray wanted) – Wagner (acc. to TCM) “succeeds in creating in Jesse James a self-centered, glamour boy outlaw, in love with his own press and fully in belief of it. …[I]n a roundabout way, Wagner turned out to be better for the role than anyone previously expected.” Since I’m not much of a Wagner fan, I would agree with the “better than expected” bit, even if I would have preferred someone else. (I’m really not sure what Natalie Wood ever saw in him, unless he’s different in real life.)

    Ray is at his best when it comes to the robbing of the Northfield Bank, which is captured with full tension and edited well.

    All told, today’s film fanatics would be advised to catch ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ (2007).

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