Henry King's 1939 film "Jesse James" may not be very mentioned in the pantheon of great Westerns, might be the fact that other more notorious films were made that year which have "stolen its thunder" so to speak, or maybe because it's not groundbreaking overall. But in all its right it features one of the greatest scenes in the genre. One so full of tension, impending doom and so much visual richness that it really has to be seen to be believed.
Jesse James (Tyrone Power) has returned home after more than five years and has decided to move to California with his wife (Nancy Kelly) and son (Johnny Russell).
As he's packing, he receives a visit from his old friend Robert Ford (John Carradine) and his brother Charles (Charles Tannen). They come to inform him that his brother Frank James (Henry Fonda) is putting together the gang for one last heist.
Anyone who knows their history (or saw the movie with Casey Affleck) knows where this is heading...
As Jesse begins to ponder if he should go back for one last job, the mood becomes somber and we see his wife sobbing and staring out the window.
Just as Jesse's eyes sparkle with the idea of one last job, we listen to his son yell from outside, calling him. Jesse stand sup and approaches the door.
Charley reminds him that he's wearing his pistols and can't come out like that. For a moment we wish he wouldn't get rid of them (which forces us to question why is it that we root for Jesse James if we're reminded all the time that he's a criminal).
He obviously takes them off and goes outside to help his little boy.
He asks the bigger kids to treat the five year old with more care.
"We didn't hurt him Mr Howard" says one of them (they all ignore they're in the presence of the legendary James) "we just killed him. That's part of the game"
"He's like Jesse James" he adds..."he's gotta die!"
Little Jesse plays along and dies.
Upon, literally, watching his own death Jesse reflects.
In the space of about three frames he comes to terms with his entire life of wrongdoings (in the name of justice? Revenge? It makes no difference now).
Power was never the most expressive of actors, but in this scene he musters so much emotion and "life" that he convinces you he was better than he ever would be again.
Is it his own doing or the inevitability thrown upon his character?
The children leave and he picks up his son.
He enters the house, gunless.
Robert Ford awaits.