[The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). The note, originally written in 1956 on behalf of UFOLEIS (Union française des œuvres laïques pour l’éducation par l’image et le son) for film club screenings of the film, was republished in Godard par Godard (1985, Cahiers du Cinéma). 

A. Presentation

I. The Director: Fritz Lang

 The Return of Frank James is the third film Fritz Lang made in the United States. F. Lang was forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, and he had taken refuge in France (where he made Liliom) before leaving for Hollywood, where he settled down in 1934. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1939, Fritz Lang is today a veteran of Californian studios and, like his compatriot Otto Preminger, has adapted himself to them very well. He’s the last representative, along with Carl Dreyer, of that glorious era which saw the combined talents of Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau (on this subject, refer to a volume of film history for F. Lang’s role during German expressionism).

Fascinated by the Far West since his youth, he worked from 1938 to 1940 on a film that would retrace the entire history of the American West, a sprawling fictionalized documentary like the one Eisenstein had attempted with Mexico and the one Orson Welles would dream of with Brazil. The project was shelved, but Lang’s penchant for the Far West and its legendary heroes encouraged the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, to entrust him with the direction of a typical Western, The Return of Frank James, which marked Lang’s debut in colour film.

II. The Western

It would be incorrect to classify the Western as a separate genre. What sets a Western apart from other films is only the setting in which it unfolds. In fact, there are historical Westerns, crime Westerns, comic Westerns, and cowboy psychology can be as meticulously probed as those of Bernanos’ peasants or R.L. Stevenson’s adventurers. To be sure, characters in Westerns are among the most ‘stereotyped’ in the whole of cinema, but that’s because myths play a significant role in their existence. Jesse James [1], the ‘beloved bandit’, or ‘The Durango Kid’, are first of all heroes from legend; they are treated by screenwriters as such, in the same way as The Song of Roland or Chanson de Guillaume. That explains the frequent comparisons made between their reactions and those of Corneille’s characters: the same concern to act solely on the given word, the same respect for a homespun morality ruled by a sense of honour.

III. Practical Tips

As part of the projection, we could use the disc Rocky Mountains of Times Stompers (Vogue EPL 7201) in order to create an ‘ambiance’ that will put the viewer in a favourable mood. This disc includes famous tunes from the Far West such as Oh Susannah, Old Faithful, Down in the Valley etc.

 

B. Discussion

I. Dramatic Value

a) The Return of Frank James is the story of a revenge. After gaining notoriety in the West, the James brothers lead a peaceful life. Frank learns from one of his friends, Clem, that Jesse has been murdered by the Ford brothers, their old enemies, who have been acquitted after a trial. Frank, followed by Clem, vows to avenge his brother and sets out in search of the Fords. To get the money that they need, Frank and Clem hold up a cash desk at a small railway station, but a clumsy move by Clem ends in the death of an employee. Frank is wanted for murder. In order to mislead the Fords, Frank passes himself off as dead with the help of Clem and a young rookie reporter, Eleanor Stone, whose articles about the death of the famous Frank James create a nationwide sensation. This way, Frank manages to catch the Ford brothers off guard. One of the Fords plunges fatally during a fight, but the other, Bob, manages to escape. Wanting to save Clem [2], who is charged with the death of the railway employee, Frank James falls into the police’s hands. Bob Ford reappears during his trial and taunts his adversary. But Frank is acquitted thanks to a skilful defence by an old lawyer friend of his. Right away, Frank goes after Bob Ford, who flees after he hears the verdict. Young Clem tries to stop him, but he is shot in the fight and dies in Frank’s hands. Bob Ford is also hurt and dies in a nearby barn. Having had his revenge, Frank James marries Eleanor, the pretty journalist.

b) The theme of vengeance is Lang’s favourite (we find it in all his works, in the second part of the Nibelungen films, in Man Hunt, in Rancho Notorious, in The Big Heat): a man leads his peaceful little life and refuses to poke his nose into other people’s affairs until he loses someone dear to him. He takes law into his own hands, not in the name of society, but on his own behalf.

All of Lang’s scripts are constructed the same way: chance forces a man to come out of his individualist shell and become a tragic hero insofar as he ‘forces the hand’ of the fate abruptly imposed upon him.

II. Cinematic Value

a) Fritz Lang’s mise en scène is of a precision that borders on abstraction. His découpage is a mixture in which intelligence trumps sensitivity. Fritz Lang is more interested in a scene as a whole than in an insert shot, like Hitchcock for example. The role of sets is primordial in each one of his films. Let’s recall that he was once a brilliant student of architecture. One image could singlehandedly define Fritz Lang’s aesthetic: a policeman takes aim at a fleeing robber and is about to kill him; in order to bring out the inexorable quality of the scene better, Lang has a viewfinder attached to the gun; the viewer immediately senses that the policeman cannot miss and that the fugitive must mathematically die. 

b) If The Return of Frank James has an happy ending, in contrast to so many of Lang’s other films, it shouldn’t be seen as a concession to the American censors. Going beyond the moral man, Fritz Lang arrives at the sinful man, which explains his bitterness. But more than the sinner, it’s the study of the regenerated man that attracts the most Germanic of American filmmakers. If the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds happiness, it’s only after he is rewarded morally for his troubles. “Why are you so happy today?”, asks his fiancée; “Because, from today, I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”, replies the former outlaw.

III. Additional Reading

– The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence, J.-L. Rieupeyrout and A, Bazin (Éditions du Cerf).

 

(UFOLEIS notes published in Image et Son, issue no. 95-96, Oct-Nov 1956)

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Jesse James, a film made by Henry King in 1938, whose sequel is The Return of Frank James.

[2] [Translator’s note] It’s actually Pinky, Frank’s black ranch hand, who is charged with murder.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Should Man Revolt or Adapt? (1940-1949)

No matter its results, the revolutionary impulse seems to be condemned by Lang as foreign to nature and inspired by the desire to create a new social order, a new collective morality, while the asocial impulse—often stemming from the barriers that Society places around itself for protection—seems to him to be more congenial, as though reflecting an individual and natural morality. But these are only tendencies that we sense in the direction of actors, or which the dramatic construction hints at. Except when he’s dealing with some typical examples of the American society, ones particularly marked by it, Lang doesn’t judge and remains objective. He judges neither Joe Wilson nor Eddie Taylor, no more than he does the killer of Dusseldorf. He doesn’t show a path to follow. What counts for him are facts, their circumstances, their immediate significance. Even when there appears to be a moral significance, it is, more or less, simply the reflection of a metaphysics.

On the other hand, in this period, Lang becomes more of a moralist than a metaphysician. Not happy with simply showing reality, he now reflects on what he’s showing. His style becomes simpler, less lively, and more sober because he doesn’t have to recreate the world as he sees it anymore, i.e. through formal experiments, especially expressionism; Lang now simply shows how and why people act the way they do in a given milieu—which is the reason characters become more important than the sets—and tries to draw out a moral point of view.

America seems to be the chief reason for this evolution: in contrast to Germany, America is a country whose essential problems are moral and immediate. Now, Lang worked in three genres, the Western, the spy film, and the psychological drama. The first of these, especially, and the second, in part, are typical of America and are always conceived in moral terms. What we have here then is an adaptation of Lang’s world to existing genres, a period of trial and errors, of reflection which makes the oeuvre go around in circles, and which, though very successful, is less memorable than the previous period.

(more…)