The True Story of Jesse James (Ray, 1957)

Told mostly in flashback, Nicholas Ray’s telling of the Jesse James story has a multi point of view/Citizen Kane style narrative, jumping back and forth between impressions of the famous outlaw by family and friends. The director’s patented use of vibrant colors compliment a wide angle cinema-scope mise-en-scene, creating a vastness in environment as well as in the approach to historiography. Nicholas Ray is a fascinating director, but none of his obsession with dual relationships, moral confusion, and social consciousness come into play in this very traditional western. Starring Robert Wagner (of Hart to Hart fame) as Jesse, Ray’s film is a jumble of flashbacks, connected through whimsical, colorful dissolves and sappy music. Disappointed doesn’t begin to describe my response to The True Story of Jesse James, mainly because Ray’s other venture into the genre, Johnny Guitar, is so effortlessly risky and inventive. The beginning chase sequence of Jesse James promises this type of unpredictable storytelling, but little else in the film warrants any excitement. The last shot, with a black man singing the song of Jesse James, purports to display the complex legend of the outlaw in the making, but it really reverberates the classical Hollywood aura Ray’s film has oddly embraced throughout.

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