The Return of Frank James

Henry Fonda in The Return of Frank James (dir. Fritz Lang, 1940).

It's a disappointment that Fritz Lang's first western is not quite as good as the film it is a sequel to (Henry King's Jesse James). Not as good, that is, at being the kind of film the first was: a big romantic crowd pleaser with lots of action and glamor. This would be fine if it were as good as other Fritz Lang films, but that's not the case either, although there are some attractive visual arrangements in which you can spot his emotive signature of brooding and dread. Henry Fonda reprises his performance as Frank James, and he's good, but he never delivers fully on the promise of wraithlike sternness he showed just standing in front of the camera in Jesse. Gene Tierney doesn't make much of her movie debut: all she gets to do is be a perky kid reporter and make a few concerned noises. John Carradine is a pleasure to watch as Robert Ford, but here as in the first film, he has sadly little screen time. The Jackie Cooper character (gung-ho kid tagging along after Frank) is useless. The color is dramatically more muted than in the first film, and that would make sense if Lang were consistently true to his downbeat aesthetic, but the screen captures I've posted above nearly exhaust the moments when this is the case, so a lot of the time things just look dull. There's a brief but mildly inspired scene where Frank walks in on the Ford brothers doing a heinously false cabaret "reenactment" of Jesse's murder, with the delightful help of career extra Barbara Pepper as Nellie Blane, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the West."

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