The Return of Frank James (Fritz Lang / U.S., 1940):

Fritz Lang picks the perfect detail from Henry King’s original to open with -- Bob Ford (John Carradine) trying to steady his trembling gun grip a second before shooting Jesse James -- and takes it from there. The news reach his brother Frank (Henry Fonda), who's in pastoral hiding; the Fords are pardoned by the corrupt railroad company, the Liberty Weekly Gazette editor (Henry Hull) gives his blessing to the hero’s vengeful journey: "Good huntin’, Frank." Following the small town (Fury), the road (You Only Live Once) and the shopping mall (You and Me), the Old West is the next logical location in the director’s tour of America. Continuously but vainly, characters try to control fate and rewrite their lives and deaths. Frank fabricates his own gallant demise to the Denver Star reporter (Gene Tierney in a squeaky debut), the Fords re-enact their betrayal as theatrical bravery in a rich balcony nod to The Birth of a Nation. Charlie Ford (Charles Tannen) is quelled in an outdoors mélange of ricocheting bullets and jagged rock that’s a reminder of how Lang was originally supposed to direct Winchester ’73; the courtroom tug-of-war is more theater of the absurd (Young Mr. Lincoln), with "the late unpleasantness between the states" still fresh in everybody’s mind. The abstruse stylization of Rancho Notorious is still a decade away, though the frontier is already a severe plain enlivened by intimations of hellfire. ("Be there, brother," says the preacher on his way to the revival tent. "It’s me and the Devil and no holds barred!") The hero is only tentatively integrated into the community, the camera fades out on a "dead or alive" poster, tattered but not forgotten. With Jackie Cooper, J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Ernest Whitman, Russell Hicks, Lloyd Corrigan, and Victor Kilian.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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