1940, and in color, Fritz Lang takes on The Western, in The Return of Frank James. What do you get when the master of M and Metropolis goes west? A pretty good show, with Henry Fonda being particularly fine.
Lang plays it straight with the genre – how could he do otherwise then? But at times, he seems to be slipping in some playful self-referential material. Frank James is the brother of Jesse James, the famous outlaw gunned down by the Ford brothers, supposedly in a cowardly manner in return for their pardons. When Frank hears they are off the hook for the killing, he vows to get them.
Frank concocts a bit of theater to make it easier to spring a trap on the Fords. He checks into a fancy hotel and spreads the story by way of his young sidekick that Frank James was actually shot dead in a gunfight in Mexico. Nobody knows their faces, so the ruse is quite successful. It attracts the interest of a young, ambitious female reporter, Eleanor, played by Gene Tierney in her first starring role, who is completely taken by the tale. In the shot below, Clem acts out his “eye witness” account of Frank’s “heroic” death for the benefit of Eleanor and Frank. He seems to be spoofing the western genre itself as he does so.
Seems that the Fords are making hay out of their killing of Jesse, reenacting it in another bit of theater. Frank goes in to take a look at the show, Earlier in the film, there is a bit of dialog in which Frank relates another theatrical experience of his, seeing a great performance by an actor named Booth. Frank sits in a box above the stage, but he doesn’t kill anyone at the show, unlike John Wilkes. When Ford recognizes him from the stage, and hurls a lamp at him, Frank, like John Wilkes Booth, leaps from his box onto the stage, but he doesn’t break his arm…
Eventually, Frank turns himself in to prevent his farmhand “darky,” innocent of any crime, from being hanged for taking part in one of Frank’s robberies. The subsequent trial is filled with Civil War politics that results in Frank’s acquittal. I wonder what Fritz made of it all.
Say, what was the name of that theater, Mrs. Lincoln..?