Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Just when we predicted the death of the Western genre, one of the most reliable staples of the Hollywood industry in 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (and then on TV), along comes a cycle of horse operas, beginning with James Mangold’s remake of the terrific “3:10 to Yuma” (1957) and writer-director Andrew Dominik “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a Brad Pitt vehicle, based on the adaptation of Ron Hansen’s novel.

Dominik, who hails from New Zealand, and thus should be familiar with the wilderness, promises his film will have a new, fresher, more contemplative view of the legendary hero, his nemesis outlaw (Casey Affleck), and the latter’s deadly obsession with one of America’s most notorious figures. Set in the nineteenth century Old West, the modestly budgeted oater centers on Jesse James’ band of thieves-brothers, and Robert Ford’s status jealousy and fixation on belonging to the inner circle of the famed train robber.

I grew up on classic American Westerns, which I saw as reruns at the French Cinematheque in the 1970s. Two of the most popular Western programs were “Jesse James” (1939) and its sequel “The Return of Frank James” (1940), which was more interesting than the original due to the fact that it was directed by Fritz Lang, better known for his dark noir and crime pictures.

Since Jesse James (played by Tyrone Power) was killed of at the end of the first Western, which bore his name, the sequel was titled “The Return of Frank James,” with Henry Fonda playing Frank. In both films, Fonda’s portrayal of the subordinated brother was more exciting and multi-shaded, due to the writing and acting; Fonda was a far better actor than Power. Other actors from the 1939 film repeated their roles in the follow-up: Henry Hull, John Carradine, Donald Meek, and J. Edward Bromberg. Unlike Henry King, who helmed “Jesse James,” Lang, living up to his reputation emphasized character and mood over action, and Andrew Dominik may follow the late director’s approach.

The cast of the new take includes both mainstream and indie actors, such as the versatile Sam Rockwell, here playing Ford’s older brother, who introduces him to James.

Oscar-nominated lenser Roger Deakins shot the movie in Canada’s Calgary and Winnipeg, where Clint Eastwood also filmed some of his Westerns. Deakins is an expert of capturing the unique beauty of remote wintry sites, as was evident in the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning “Fargo” and the upcoming “No Country for Old Men,” which is very much a Western, albeit set in modern times.

Rumors of trouble have persisted ever since the film went into production. Initially, the picture was supposed to be ready last fall. Then it was reported that it would premiere at the 2007 Cannes Festival, which Brad Pitt attended with “Ocean’s Thirteen” and his companion Angelina Jolie with “A Mighty Heart” (kind of a star package deal), but the movie was not ready (or so they said). Then we heard that Warner was not pleased with the results of the test screenings, where some audiences found the film too arty and character-driven rather than action-oriented yarn with thrilling chases and violent robberies and shootouts.

“Assassination of Jesse James” is now set to world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, which kicks off August 29, and to open stateside in mid-September.