Executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck shocked the Hollywood community when he chose German director Lang to helm the sequel to the studio's extremely popular western JESSE JAMES (1939). When asked why he expected a German to make a film about America's Old West Zanuck replied, "Because
he'll see things we won't." The film opens with a reprise of the assassination of Jesse James at the hands of the Ford brothers (Carradine and Tannen) from the first film. Jesse's brother Frank (Fonda) resolves to let the law handle the Ford brothers and goes back to farming under an assumed name.
When Carradine and Tannen are pardoned by the governor, however, Fonda vows revenge and, accompanied by his ward, Cooper, he sets out to find the Fords. To finance his search, Fonda robs an express office and a clerk is accidentally killed by his own friends. The murder is pinned on Fonda.
Meanwhile, the town of Liberty's newspaper publisher, Hull, sends pretty young female reporter Tierney out to get the true story from Fonda himself. Fonda isn't interested in the press, but he is in Tierney. Eventually, Cooper and Fonda catch up with Carradine and Tannen. There is a dramatic chase
into the mountains and Tannen is killed when he falls off his horse. Carradine escapes. Soon after, Fonda learns from Tierney that his servant, Whitman, has been accused of the express office killing and is about to stand trial. Fonda returns to Liberty and gives himself up. Carradine has enough
nerve to show up during the trial and watch--confident that Fonda will soon be hung. The villainous murderer is wrong, however, because Fonda is acquitted. After the trial Carradine finds himself trapped in a gun duel with young Cooper and both men are killed. His quarry dead, Fonda returns to his
farm to start a new life.
THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES marked several firsts in Lang's career. It was the director's first film shot in color and it was his first foray into a distinctly American genre--the western. Having spent time living with Navajo Indians to prepare for a failed project which would have been called
"Americana," and making several car trips throughout the Southwest, Lang eagerly accepted the assignment and looked forward to using the knowledge he had acquired about the American West. Not so eager to be in the picture was Fonda. Fonda had found Lang extremely unpleasant during the shooting of
YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE and wasn't keen on repeating the experience. When Lang heard of the actor's worries, he confronted Fonda with tears in his eyes--Fonda later called them "crocodile tears"--and promised that he would treat the performers with more respect. Fonda agreed to give Lang a second
chance, but the problems recurred and Fonda never worked under the director again. Personal problems aside, THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is a beautifully photographed western which de-emphasizes action in favor of mood, atmosphere, and character detail. Fonda, Cooper, and Carradine turn in fine
performances here, while Hull's usual hammy histrionics are used to good advantage by Lang. Tierney, in her film debut, is pretty and does well in a role that really isn't necessary. Perhaps the only problem with THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES is the veritable whitewashing of Fonda's character. Because
the Hays code decreed that a bad man could not be the hero of a film, Fonda's character is shown in an almost saintly light and his past is practically ignored. This is a tale of revenge, but cirumstances are manipulated in such a way as to keep Fonda from having to do anything remotely brutal.
The deaths of both the express clerk and Tannen are accidents and Carradine is finally gunned down by a third party--Cooper. Poor Cooper pays for Fonda's sins and enables the former bandit to ride off into the sunset. Though Lang tries to put the sharp edge back on the material through subtle
moments of character study, the script stays far away from any real portrayal of the destructive consequences of revenge. Because Fonda is the hero, he must not be tainted too badly by his drive for revenge. This soft approach to the subject of revenge in westerns would change drastically by the
1950s, especially in the films of directors Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann, whose obsessive heroes--usually played by Randolph Scott and James Stewart--border on the psychotic.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Executive producer Darryl F. Zanuck shocked the Hollywood community when he chose German director Lang to helm the sequel to the studio's extremely popular western JESSE JAMES (1939). When asked why he expected a German to make a film about America's Old W… (more)