I Shot Jesse James (1949)
*Originally published on The News Hub
When we think of director Samuel Fuller we tend to think of films noir about displaced men, damaged women, criminals searching for redemption, and tabloid stories expanded to the level of mythology. Yet Fuller cut his teeth originally in the Western genre, with his first feature film I Shot Jesse James. This might seem like a strange starting for the crime reporter and veteran turned director, especially for those already acquainted with Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, but I Shot Jesse James shares remarkable affinities with those more perfected works of tabloid filmmaking.
I Shot Jesse James takes as its subject the now iconic shooting of Jesse James by his friend and fellow gang member Robert Ford. After being injured in a bank robbery, Ford (John Ireland) holes up in Jesse’s (Reed Hadley) house to recover. Ford is in love with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), a singer who keeps on refusing his marriage proposals because he can’t give her a stable existence. When Ford learns about the bounty on Jesse’s head, including a substantial reward and amnesty from imprisonment or execution, he chooses the coward’s way and decides to betray and murder his best friend.
James’s death is the catalyst for Ford’s narrative to truly begin, but the film is not particularly concerned with the relationship between the two men. In the aftermath of the killing, Ford finds himself vilified in the eyes of the public, and in the eyes of Cynthy, who wants nothing more to do with him. He’s given only a fraction of the reward and forced to make a new living, branded a coward and a traitor. After a brief stint in which Ford re-enacts the murder onstage for an eager public, he heads out West to Colorado on a search for silver and gold, which he hopes will be the key to make Cynthy marry him.
I Shot Jesse James could have been a straightforward Western, but Fuller turns his attention to the internal, as Ford grapples with his cowardice, his anger, and his sense of betrayal. The murder of Jesse invigorates Ford’s nascent self-loathing. Far from a real villain, he keeps trying to take the easy way out, insisting on his love for Cynthy despite her consistent rejection of him, fooling himself into the belief that everything he did, he did for love. Ireland plays Robert Ford with a pathos tinged by hollowness – he seems to not quite understand why Cynthy would be horrified by him, or why the public would vilify him. While not an inherently likable character, his tragedy lies in the flaws that pushed him to murder Jesse in the first place. He’s a coward not because he’s afraid of Jesse James, but because he truly does love the man he murders and so cannot bring himself to look his victim or his crime squarely in the eye. In a particularly powerful sequence, Ford listens to a wandering singer sing “The Ballad of Jesse James,” detailing Jesse’s murder with references to Ford as “the dirty little coward/who shot Mr. Howard.” Each word is a bullet in his heart, and while the singer shakes with fear that Ford will kill him, the viewer sees Ford’s palpable pain. He sees himself as a coward just as much as anyone else, and it’s a stigma he must continue to carry with him, for all he does to eradicate it. He finds a short-lived redemption in the wilds of Colorado, but his continued obsession with Cynthy forces him back into the same pattern, grappling with flaws that will never be resolved.
Fuller’s usually indulgent cinematography is circumspect in I Shot Jesse James. There are no indulgent flourishes, explicit POV shots, or surreal sequences that will so palpably characterize later films like The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Fuller is beginning to develop his style, focalizing the narrative through Ford’s experience and forcing the viewer into a position of sympathy with an occasionally unsympathetic protagonist. Most powerful is the build-up to Jesse’s murder, as Ford contemplates the ease with which he can shoot his friend without even the smallest shred of danger to himself through numerous focalized shots of Jesse’s back.
There are flaws in I Shot Jesse James, though most of them can be put down to generic conventions. This is a B-movie, full of melodrama and heightened emotions, with actors screaming and crying rather than performing with subtlety. The film buys into the characterization of James as a Robin Hood, an outlaw who only kills when he has to, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor – a major departure from the actual history of the James Gang. But this is not a film concerned with history or even verisimilitude. This is the stuff of legend, the story of a legendary outlaw and a legendary coward. Ford’s story gains traction as the film reveals him as more complex, more tragic than the man he murdered. While it never compare favorably with a Bergman film, I Shot Jesse James doesn’t particularly want to. Robert Ford’s tragedy is a melodrama set for the stage.