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With: Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Jackie Cooper, Henry Hull, John Carradine, J. Edward Bromberg, Donald Meek, Eddie Collins, George Barbier, Russell Hicks, Ernest Whitman, Charles Tannen, Lloyd Corrigan, Victor Kilian, Edward McWade
Written by: Sam Hellman
Directed by: Fritz Lang
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 93
Date: 08/10/1940

The Return of Frank James (1940)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The James' Bond

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1939, 20th Century Fox scored with their prestigious, critically approved Jesse James. And despite the fact that its hero (played by Tyrone Power) didn't make it past the ending, the studio carried on with a sequel, featuring Jesse's brother (played by Henry Fonda) and directed by the recent German transplant Fritz Lang. Most people prefer the original film, but Lang's sequel arguably has more of a personal vision. The Return of Frank James may lack the psychological darkness associated with Lang's best work, but it's still a rousing good Western.

Frank James is now hiding out under an assumed name, when he hears the news that his brother has been shot in the back by the Ford brothers (John Carradine and Charles Tannen). The Fords are captured, tried, and eventually released, leading Frank on the trail for revenge. But Hollywood codes prevented the hero from gunning down the villains in cold blood, so the movie carefully sidelines Frank from any serious wrongdoing while making sure the Fords get their just desserts. Frank keeps his duty to his friends, his young ward Clem (Jackie Cooper) and his farmhand Pinky (Ernest Whitman), as well as toward an amateur newspaperwoman, Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney) whose poor reporting skills inadvertently get Frank into trouble. Though Lang was unable to truly plunge Frank into emotional jeopardy, the film gets by with its remarkable photography (an early attempt at color for Lang), crisp action sequences and breezy storytelling.

According to Peter Bogdanovich, Henry Fonda swore he would never work with Lang again after You Only Live Once (1937), and swore the same thing again after The Return of Frank James. Lang went on to make two more Westerns, Western Union (1941) and the superb Rancho Notorious (1952).

DVD Details: Fox Home Video has released a whole slate of Jesse James movies (including King's 1939 version and Nicholas Ray's The True Story of Jesse James), but this is the only one I was able to check out. Extras include a couple of trailers. The color transfer is gorgeous and comes with optional subtitles.

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