Jotting 2: ‘The Return of Frank James’, 1940

27th March 2024

John Wyver writes: Here’s another brief, random note about a cultural object that I’ve encountered in the past few days, in this case Fritz Lang’s Western with Henry Fonda and Gene Tierney, which I saw at what I persist in calling the NFT on Monday evening. The film was screened as part of the Tierney season Out of the Shadows, that is just kicking off, with a host of treats, including a second showing of The Return of Frank James on Friday evening.

The film is not a great Western, but there is plenty to enjoy and appreciate, not least Fonda’s rangy, low-key performance reprising his role from Jesse James (1939), in which he was directed by Henry King. That same year he played in two fascinating John Ford films, Young Mr Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk, and at the end of the war he was to star in Ford’s My Darling Clementine, which is one of the greatest of all westerns. The Return of Frank James was Gene Tierney’s debut, and she’s delicately charming as a naive but determined female reporter much enamoured of Frank.

There were two aspects of the screening that fascinated me. One was the exquisite Technicolor, shot by cinematographer George Barnes, and rendered vividly in an immaculate digital print. I luxuriated in the reds of an open fire, the greens of the landscape, the golden yellows of the hayloft where the final confrontation took place. But there was a sharpness and a clarity to it all about which I felt ambivalent.

For I truly missed the grain and the light grunge of a projected print, the little jumps at moments of transition, and the modest markings for a reel change. Nostalgia for celluloid as a mark of the cinematic? Yes, largely. But also something else, something to do with the distance film projection offered, the shifting back and forth between the fictional world of the narrative and immediate materiality defining my seatedness, uncomfortable as it was, in row H of NFT3.

The other aspect of the film that engaged me was its insistence on story-telling and the acting out of tales and myths. ‘Throughout The Return of Frank James,’ Justin Roberts writes in a recent Journal of Cinema and Media Studies article (63:1, Fall 2023) [£], ‘Lang uses scenes of characters performing in numerous ways to highlight the historical revisionism inherent in Westerns.’ Exactly.

All the film’s significant characters, including Frank,’ Roberts writes, ‘perform their own idealized versions of themselves and their histories. Moreover, because foregrounding the theatricality of the Western is an important aspect of Lang’s meta-critical approach to the genre, Lang typically presents these performances in front of diegetic audiences, thereby highlighting how the inherent theatricality of Westerns fabricates American mythology while disguising that mythology as history.

I recommend both film and article.

Note: it’s not hard to find the film in full on Youtube, although the prints there are, as far as I’ve sampled them, washed-out when compared to what we saw on Monday; Jeff Arnold’s West blog has lots of great pictures and some useful historical background; and there’s a glorious contemporary Variety review online, although the author is not at all nice about Gene Tierney:

From standpoint of production and cast, Darryl Zanuck has spared nary a horse. It’s filled with ah-evoking outdoor scenes and nostalgically-impressive western streets and indoor sets. Henry Fonda, underplaying Jesse James’ older brother, Frank, in typical quiet style, is impressive; Jackie Cooper, as his kid buddy, shows a maturing dramatic sense although the pout is still there; Henry Hull, as a southern newspaper editor, overacts like no one else can, but is tremendously appealing despite it; John Carradine is a duly hissable villain as Bob Ford.

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