RSS

I Shot Jesse James

01 Mar

Title

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.

Betraying a friend - Bob Ford (John Ireland) shoots Jesse James (Reed Hadley).

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.

About these ads
 
6 Comments

Posted by on March 1, 2008 in 1940s, Sam Fuller, Westerns

 

6 responses to “I Shot Jesse James

  1. clydefro

    March 1, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Being a Fuller apologist clouds my opinion of this a little, but I do think it’s a solid film (though I’d agree with your assessment of it being minor). I appreciated it even more after seeing the Dominik film and noticing a couple of similarities (the ballad number, but also the post-shooting theatrical performances). Casey Affleck ruined any appreciation I had for John Ireland here, but I’d maintain it’s the best of the bunch in terms of classic-era Jesse James-related movies.

     
  2. Livius

    March 1, 2008 at 10:29 am

    True, John Ireland is a bit wooden here but I thought that only served to emphasise his character’s naivity and foolishness. Having said that, Casey Affleck’s recent performance does completely overshadow it.

    As for the theatre scenes, they were much more effective here than those in ‘The Return of Frank James’, weren’t they?

     
  3. John Hodson

    March 1, 2008 at 10:46 am

    I enjoyed the film, never mind that in budget terms it’s just one step up from ‘Leave it to Beaver’.

    Fuller serves it up just like the newspaperman he was, as if it was an assignment from his editor: ‘Get me the skinny on Robert Ford – I want the whole thing, why he really shot Jesse, what’s he doing now, and the girl. There must have been a girl…I want tragedy, and lots of it.’

    And those endless newspaper headlines, one of the few films where they, and the intros, actually read as if they were written by a real hack.

     
  4. Livius

    March 1, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Funny you should mention those headlines. As I watched this I wondered if they had been lifted from actual contemporary newspapers. Probably not, but you’re right about them having a ring of truth.

     
  5. John Hodson

    March 1, 2008 at 11:28 am

    Even the film title is a newspaper headline…

    Good work Colin, BTW.

     
  6. Livius

    March 1, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Thanks very much, John.
    Hmm, I actually hadn’t given the title a lot of thought, but since you mention it…yes, I do believe you’re right.

     

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 494 other followers

%d bloggers like this: