Plot: A bank heist is a risky proposition, even for veteran bandits and while Jesse James (Robert Wagner) is one of the best, even he wasn’t able to pull of his latest raid and now, he and his gang are in serious trouble. The bank was prepared for James’ heist and as such, the teller turned over no cash and the locals rallied to defend against the bandits, so violence erupted. Jesse was able to escape with his life, but some of his crew weren’t as fortunate and the survivors are hiding out, licking their wounds after a resounding defeat. As a posse closes in to bring the remaining gang members to justice, Jesse refuses to just surrender and tries to formulate some kind of plan, but can even a legend like Jesse make it through this precarious situation alive?
Entertainment Value: The story of Jesse James has inspired countless movies, but this one takes a less glamorous, more grounded approach to James’ legend. The end result is a far cry from director Nicholas Ray’s original vision, as he wanted a non-linear, offbeat approach, only to be overruled by studio executives. So while The True Story of Jesse James has some interesting elements, you can’t help but wonder how it would have turned out if Ray were allowed to pursue his vision. The movie is decent and has a good cast, but there’s not much enthusiasm on showcase, the entire film just feels like people going through the motions. This is a remake of 1939’s Jesse James and in an odd choice, even reuses some footage from that movie, but even then, fails to capture the spark found in the original. That’s not to say this version is bad, as that isn’t the case, but it never rises above passable. The story is fine, the performances are acceptable, and the movie is watchable, but it leaves little impression and can’t compare with the genre’s better efforts. Perhaps if Ray’s non-linear, Elvis focused version could have seen the light of the day, this review might be much different. But as it stands, this one is for western devotees and fans of Wagner more than anyone else.
The cast of The True Story of Jesse James has a good lineup of talent, but no one really rises to steal the show, leaving us with competent, but unremarkable efforts. This seems like a home run role for Robert Wagner, who has the kind of charm and charisma to shine as Jesse James, but things just don’t fall into place and he seems disinterested. This becomes especially clear in group scenes, where he doesn’t seem connected to the others and the dynamic just feels off. I still think Wagner has some bright spots here, but I wish his full on charisma was on showcase and he was more in tune with his costars, as that could have enhanced this one a bit. Even Jeffrey Hunter fails to spark much of a presence in this one, again turning in a capable, but forgettable performance. I feel like the overall acting in the movie mirrors the rest of the film’s elements, fine and decent, just not dialed in. The cast also includes Alan Hale, Jr., John Carradine, Hope Lange, Anges Moorehead, and Frank Gorshin.
The Disc: This one reaches Blu-ray from Twilight Time, who have served up the best looking version on home video to date, even if it still doesn’t stand out as overly refined or remarkable. The print looks good, with no serious issues to content with, but detail is middle of the road at best. The scenes lifted from another movie match up decently, but look a little off if you pay attention. The colors seem muted, but that could be intentional and overall, this is a solid, but not great presentation. But for fans, this is a nice upgrade over previous incarnations. The extras include some always welcome Fox Movietone newsreels, the isolated music track, and the film’s trailer.