THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD written and directed by Andrew Dominik from the novel by Ron Hansen, with Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck, Sam Rockwell and Mary-Louise Parker. 160 minutes. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (September 21). Rating: NNN
The unexpected appearance of two westerns in theatrical release this season doesn't mean that Hollywood is suddenly making westerns. It means that the creators of 3:10 To Yuma and The Assassination Of Jesse James managed to attach highly bankable stars to examples of a commercially moribund genre. Your best argument in a pitch meeting is "We've got Russell Crowe/Brad Pitt attached," whatever the genre.
With its unwieldy, spoiler-proof title (from Ron Hansen's novel, which is out in a movie tie-in paperback this week), The Assassination is at once inspiring and infuriating.
Jesse James, who rode with Confederate guerrillas in the Civil War as a teenager and spent the next 17 years robbing banks and trains with his brother Frank, the Younger brothers and various other miscreants, is one of the most filmed of the legendary western outlaws. (See sidebar for my guide to the key Jesse James films.)
The problem is that James was one of the best-documented figures of his era. Moviemakers don't have a lot of factual leeway, so there's a certain sameness to films about the James gang. Pretty much all of them wind up with Jesse James being shot by Robert Ford.
Had writer-director Andrew Dominik followed conventional chronology, Jesse would be shot halfway through the film, but he prefers to play with the sequence of events.
In Pitt, he has the best Jesse James on film. James was a sociopath with enough charisma to impress the rubes and the smarts to hide out after he walked his gang into the massacre in Northfield, Minnesota, but he was no criminal genius.
Pitt likes scuffing up his good looks, and Jesse's a character who could definitely use a good barber and some moisturizer. (As with Angelina Jolie's performance in A Mighty Heart, it's nice to have the reminder that Pitt's a really good actor when he wants to be.)
The Assassination is beautifully acted overall, with particular kudos to Casey Affleck's Robert Ford, Sam Rockwell's nervous intensity as his brother Charlie and Mary-Louis Parker as Zeralda James - a choice that looked like conspicuous overcasting for a role that's basically a background extra, until the scene where she's suddenly a widow. Roger Deakins's cinematography is exquisite, and works superbly on a scene-by-scene basis.
However, and this is a big stumbling block, Dominik fell in love with the novel's prose, so the film goes along for two or three scenes, then stops dead while the camera watches a man cross a snowy field on a horse and an anonymous omniscient narrator tells us in voice-over what's happening and how the characters feel about it.
I'm not opposed to voice-overs in principle, but I object to them if they don't add anything. Letting us know the characters' feelings, for example, is the actors' job, and the actors in this picture let us in on them pretty clearly.
That running time (160 minutes) is not a misprint, and it's rumoured that Dominik's preferred cut is three hours long. Yet this would be a great film if he'd cut it to two hours - and 20 minutes or more could be trimmed by just leaving out that momentum-destroying narration.
Henry Fonda gets frank in The Return Of Frank James.
SHOOTING JESSE JAMES
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford is thelatest in a line of westerns about the outlaw that stretches back to Tyrone Power's performance in 1939.
James presents interesting problems for biographical filmmakers,because there's very little room for speculation about the events.His life was one of the most documented of the legendary western outlaws, including the details of his death, which were dictated byhis killer. You can ignore the facts, but then you end up withAmerican Outlaws, featuring Colin Farrell as James and Scott Caan asCole Younger. Didn't see that one, did you? Don't feel bad. Nobody did.
Here's a quick survey of Jesse James's major film incarnations:
JESSE JAMES (1939) and THE RETURN OF FRANK JAMES (1940)
John Ford occasionally transcended 20th Century Fox's line in pastel Americana,but Henry King tended to wallow in it. Indeed, King's Jesse James,with its cast full of Ford regulars like Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Donald Meek and John Carradine, feels like a Ford film gone wrong .At the time, Fonda was sort of the third-place young leading man atFox, behind Power and Don Ameche.
This Jesse James biography has a lot of the usual hokum, but it's a must for connoisseurs of early Technicolor and for its very strikingdepiction of the botched bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, whichis a template for both the opening of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and the climax of Walter Hill's The Long Riders.
The sequel, a rather more fictional look at Frank James's hunt forFord - thus overlapping with the current film - should be animplacable revenge melodrama (it's directed by Fritz Lang, who knew a thing or two about revenge) but trips over its own script when Frank(Fonda again) becomes romantically involved with a young woman whowants to be a reporter for her father's paper. Silly, but GeneTierney, in her debut, was born for Technicolor, and the Fox DVDs offer superb transfers.
I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949)
Recently issued by Criterion in its mid-priced Eclipse series in a box called The First Films Of SamuelFuller, I Shot Jesse James was Fuller's blunt-force debut, focusing on Ford (John Ireland) and covering much of the material in TheAssassination Of Jesse James in about half its running time.
The climax is kind of fictional (okay, utterly fictional), but it'sfun to see Fuller's treatment of much of the same material as the new film, including the scenes where Ford confronts a street performersinging The Ballad Of Jesse James, and Ford's stage career recreatingthe murder. (In The Long Riders, Ford's line after the shooting is an awe-struck "I shot Jesse James," no doubt in homage to Fuller.)
The prize in this box set, though, remains Fuller's first great warfilm, The Steel Helmet.
THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES (1957)
There are a couple of chronic problems with movies about the James brothers, and one is that Jesseis the star part while Frank is the character part, so Frank is oftenthe more interesting character by virtue of casting: Henry Fonda overTyrone Power, Stacy Keach over James Keach in The Long Riders.In The Assassination, Andrew Dominik overcomes this problem byeliminating Frank's character. The brothers were not together at the end of Jesse's life.
In The True Story Of Jesse James, Nicholas Ray, director of RebelWithout A Cause, solves the problem by casting uninteresting juvenilepretty boys in both parts, Jeffrey Hunter as Frank, and Robert Wagner as Jesse. Or vice versa - it doesn't much matter. Too bad, as Ray'smay be the most beautifully directed of all the James films; theday-for-night scenes are eerie.
THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID (1972)
It's the grand exception to the Jesse vs. Frank rule, with a visionary performance by RobertDuvall, who preaches the role as much as he plays it, to thebemusement of Cliff Robertson's restrained Cole Younger. Long unavailable, Universal brings it out on DVD this week. I'd writemore, but I haven't seen it in 20 years and don't trust my memories.
THE LONG RIDERS (1981)
This movie is famed for a bit of stunt castingthat actually worked. The tale of the James Gang is one of brothers -Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Ed and ClellMiller, Bob and Charlie Ford - and Walter Hill cast the film with real brothers - James and Stacy Keach as the Jameses, David, Keithand Robert Carradine as the Youngers, Randy and Dennis Quaid as theMillers, Nicholas and Christopher Guest as the Fords.
There is one unfortunate twist to that casting: the James Brothers were originally to be played by Jeff and Beau Bridges, and thereplacement of Jeff Bridges by James Keach, an actor less charismaticthan toast, almost turns this into a movie about the Youngers,particularly David Carradine's flamboyant Cole Younger, arguably his best film performance - and, yes, I've seen his Woody Guthrie inBound For Glory. Casting bonus: Pamela Reed's Belle Starr.
This was the first of Ry Cooder's nine scores for Walter Hill -indeed, it was his first film score, period - and remains one of his best, exploiting his gifts as a musical archaeologist and steepingthe James-Younger Gang in the music of the era. Cooder himselfappears as a saloon musician, taking a request at gunpoint to switchfrom the Union anthem Rally Round The Flag, Boys to the more Confederate-friendly I'm A Good Old Rebel. JH