Sam Fuller made his directorial debut in 1949 with this take on the old story. I Shot Jesse James, as the title suggests, keeps the focus squarely on Bob Ford (John Ireland) and shows him in a more sympathetic light than usual. Like most film representations of these characters, there are some elements of the truth woven into the story. This film comes a little closer to reality in depicting the demise of Bob Ford than was the case with The Return of Frank James; here the name of the killer, the location and the means are broadly correct. Where the story drifts off into total fiction is the inclusion of the romantic triangle as the centrepiece of the drama.
The story opens with a botched bank robbery that leaves Bob Ford wounded and forced to lay up at the James home in Missouri. As he recuperates, he has the opportunity to visit the love of his life Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton) who is an actress in a travelling theatre company. This meeting lays the groundwork for all that is to follow. When Ford arrives to see his woman he also meets a man called Kelley (Preston Foster) – a prospector who is clearly smitten with Cynthy. And thus the aforementioned triangle is set up. Cynthy begs Ford to abandon his outlaw ways and settle down to a decent life, thereby providing the motive for the subsequent murder of his friend. The rest of the movie is a portrait of guilt and a man trying to make good on his promise to go straight, yet foiled at every turn by his past and a love destined to remain unfulfilled.
In many ways I Shot Jesse James is a slight film, no more than a B movie really. What makes it notable is the way it tries to show Ford as a real person and not the greed driven caricature of earlier versions. I can’t say I was bothered by the playing around with historical facts since the reason for this was clearly the need to provide the character of Ford with a motive that might be understood. John Ireland does a pretty good job in showing us a man who is left bewildered when his actions draw not only the scorn of strangers but drive away the very woman whose heart he’d hoped to capture. Barbara Britton is good enough too as her character goes from love for Ford, through disgust at his actions, and finally to fear of what he has become. Preston Foster, as Kelley, isn’t called on to do much more than be the strong, dependable, moral anchor but he does it capably enough.
Sam Fuller would go on to make more famous, and better films than this but there are some memorable scenes. The climactic shootout has Ford framed in inky blackness - maybe signifying the moral void he now inhabits. There’s also a great scene in a saloon where Ford listens to a travelling minstrel sing about the murder of Jesse James. This was mirrored in the recent film by Andrew Dominik, but I prefer the way it was done here. After introducing himself, Ford insists that the singer complete his ballad as he stares implacably at him. You can almost taste the man’s fear as he chokes his way through the song, and struggles to utter the words ‘the dirty, little coward’ to Bob Ford’s face.
Criterion put this out on DVD in the ‘First Films of Samuel Fuller’ set, and it’s not available separately. This is part of the Eclipse line, and hasn’t had the careful restoration commonly associated with Criterion releases. However, it still looks good enough and I didn’t find the damage marks present to be particularly distracting. All in all, I Shot Jesse James is an interesting, if minor film.