There is a particular interest in watching filmmakers with a strong, distinctive visual style making their first movie using this or that technology; and there's a similar appeal to watching such filmmakers stretching outside of their comfort zones of tone and genre. So the first color film and first Western made by German expatriate Fritz Lang, four years after he began the Hollywood phase of his career, ought to be very interesting indeed. And yet 1940's The Return of Frank James is almost perversely disinteresting; not bad, nor does it fail to be entertaining in its way. But it's pretty thin gruel as a Lang film, and any viewer with knowledge of his future Western Rancho Notorious would be forgiven for assuming that he couldn't make a genre film so... generic, as this one.

The problems, maybe, begin with the fact that The Return of Frank James is a sequel, on top of everything else, to a movie with which Lang had nothing to do whatsoever: 1939's smash hit Jesse James, a full-color biopic of the famous American outlaw directed by Henry King and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox. It was Zanuck who gave the reins of the follow-up to Lang, and we can take it for granted that he didn't leave too much slack in those reins, either: with Jesse James triumphing as one of the highest-grossing films of its year, the last thing a savvy executive wanted was to fuck things up with its sequel (such behavior, of course, has not yet been bred out of film studio executives in all the generations since). Despite a few flickers here there, The Return of Frank James really isn't a "Fritz Lang film", at least not to anything like the degree that those of us who fancy such things might prefer.

Take out the (extremely slender) connection to historical figures, and the plot is very much like any one of a hundred other Westerns: after his brother, Jesse, was shot in the back by his friend Bob Ford (John Carradine), Frank James (Henry Fonda) is content to lie low and pretend to be dead as the nation rages over the death-by-betrayal of one of the most beloved/notorious of all outlaws in the great wilds of the American West. The only thing that can rouse Frank from his retirement is injustice: finding out that the Ford brothers, Bob and Charlie (Charles Tannen) are to receive not even a cursory prison term for their acts, Frank emerges to seek revenge, with the enthusiastic if unwanted help of young Clem (Jackie Cooper), and the unwitting support of overly romantic Denver newswoman Eleanor Stone (Gene Tierney). Basic, meat-and-potatoes "you killed my brother and now I'm gonna kill you" stuff, Western boilerplate right up until it crosses the one-hour mark and it becomes clear that a huge portion of the film's last third is going to be taken up with a lengthy courtroom sequence. Based on a real trial, at that, but still, you don't ever expect to see an action-packed Western, especially one from the morally untroubled pre-revisionist days, decide all of a sudden that it wants to be a legal drama instead.

Still, even with this freakish turn of events, The Return of Frank James is nobody's idea of a spectacularly innovative and clever Western, and I doubt that was any less true in 1940 than in the 21st Century. The film's appeal is centered chiefly in its leading man: starting with his previous collaboration with Lang, 1937's You Only Live Once (theirs was not a happy relationship), Fonda had steadily been rising up the leading man ladder, finally sealing the deal in earlier in 1940 with an instantly-iconic leading role in The Grapes of Wrath. With their new star having played one of the side characters most easily spun off into a sequel to their biggest film of '39, it's no surprise that Fox made this film, or that the film, as it was made, is almost exclusively a star vehicle, with its oddly-presented drama considerably less important to the studio, the filmmakers, or the viewers.

And as a Fonda delivery system, it's quite impossible to say anything bad about the movie: he was still young enough and fresh enough that he wasn't inclined to play up a Henry Fonda persona that didn't exist yet. His Frank is a drawling, sarcastic prick, just heroic enough to root for but still totally unconcerned with morality or decency, and his tendency to stand at a remove from other people and look through them makes it clear just how little he actually thinks about them. All of this is in the performance, not in Sam Hellman's script; indeed, the writing is mostly taken up with increasingly desperate tricks meant to allow Frank to emerge as a Good Guy, requiring some awfully convoluted contrivances to absolve him of any unsavory behavior (honestly, given what he was tasked with doing, I think it's amazing that Hellman got as much out of the material as he did - leaving Frank James as not even an antihero must have been profoundly limiting).

As genre fare, it moves quickly enough and is satisfactorily swashbuckling; nothing in the story really redeems it as more than just any random Western, and Lang's directing is at such odd angles relative to everything else that he hardly helps the film. Generally speaking, the director's heavily architectural directorial style helps to situate the characters in their physical space and explore it through and with them; his are films about the relationship between humans and the environment. In this case, there are many undeniably dramatic compositions in which characters are framed by the sets, or cowed by the span of the natural world, but very few of these shots really seem to mean anything; more frequently, especially in his persistent but seemingly random attempts to "imprison" Tierney within the frame, he seems mostly to be amusing himself. There are exceptions - a phenomenal shot of Fonda in a theater box, staring down at the Ford brothers re-enacting the shooting of Jesse James, leaps to mind. Mostly, though, Lang and his cinematographer George Barnes are just having fun. And this is not unwelcome! It gives The Return of Frank James a visual panache not typically found in Westerns of this generation. And there are other moments where the director is up to something clever: in that same theater scene, the actor playing Frank onstage is busily chawing on tobacco, with a cut to Fonda almost subconsciously flexing his mouth in response, a neat echo of past into present and reality into fiction (that is further echoed when the action leaves the theater: from the fake backdrops of a 19th Century theater piece to the far posher but still visibly fake backdrops behind the backlot set). Mostly, though, the inventive Lang, the sociologist Lang, the sneakily perverse Lang - that Lang was not involved in the making of The Return of Frank James.

Some style, some pretty great, rough Fondaisms; the film offers up little else, though the only real detriment is Tierney, in her very first film performance, failing entirely to tune down her bubbly girlish squeak and gaping a little bit in all of her shots (Lang, we are told, spoke terrible imprecations against her and demanded that she keep her mouth shut in reaction shots), and feeling not just like a teen girl from the '30s had just wandered into the Old West, but that she was a particularly dimwitted teen girl at that. Kinder directors and more appropriate material would shape Tierney into one of the more striking new stars of the '40s, but she's simply terrible here.

Outside of those positives and that negative, the film is serviceable and fun - except for the draggy courtroom scene, but at least that has the merit of being weird. The Technicolor footage of the California desert is extraordinarily pleasant, if a bit spectacle-for-spectacle's sake; and the brief action scenes are staged with verve and energy - there's a horse-riding montage that has some of the best editing in any horse-riding montage I've ever seen, which probably sounds insulting even though I don't want it to.

All in all, it's a fine, durable genre picture. Lang had already made better films in America and would make better films again; that's true for most of the people involved, really. But as a snapshot of what mindless popcorn cinema looked like in 1940, it's a flattering example, still watchable and breezy even if it's not remotely challenging on any level.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1940
-Alfred Hitchcock makes his first Hollywood film, Rebecca, for David O. Selznick
-Disney animation reaches its all-time artistic pinnacle with Pinocchio and Fantasia
-Bing Crosby and Bob Hope travel on the Road to Singapore, the first in a long-lived comedy series

Elsehwhere in world cinema in 1940
-Alexander Korda produces the Technicolor fantasy extravaganza The Thief of Bagdad in Great Britain
-Vittoria De Sica, who would become Italy's first important film director after the war and the end of Fascist control over the film industry, makes his debut with Maddalena, zero in condotta
-The most infamous of Nazi anti-Jewish propaganda films, The Eternal Jew, is released