RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 19th column, Kim explores an earlier take on the assassination of Jesse James, as Samuel Fuller’s first feature casts John Ireland in a powerful performance as Robert Ford years before Casey Affleck joined the party.
I Shot Jesse James, director-writer Sam Fuller‘s first feature covers much the same ground as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, albeit inside 81 minutes and with a grafted-on three-way romance which sets up a peculiarly a-historical finish.
Fuller went on record as approving of Ford, deriding Jesse James’ Robin Hood reputation as a sham mask for a murderous hypocrite; however, in his film, Reed Hadley plays the outlaw as an upright Lincoln lookalike, which theoretically makes backshooting Bob (John Ireland) even more of a villain than he’s portrayed in print-the-legend biopics like Jesse James (where John Carradine wields a shaky gun to administer the treacherous shot). It wouldn’t be until Robert Duvall in Philip Kaufman‘s underrated The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid that we’d get a screen depiction of Jesse James as the kind of total bastard Fuller thought he was.
The opening of I Shot Jesse James is direct, gripping and unusual. It opens in the middle of a bank robbery, panning without benefit of establishing shots from credits that appear as posters on a wall to a close-up of Jesse holding a gun on a sweating clerk (Stanley Price) whose foot is inching closer to an alarm trigger (a very 20th Century-seeming device). The cashier sets off the alarm and shooting starts (if Fuller had really wanted to make Jesse a bad hat, he could have had the outlaw gutshoot the bank official), but the bandits get away — albeit without loot, and with Jesse personally saving a wounded Bob.
Then, we skip months and find Jesse living quietly as ‘Mr Howard’ and planning a return to crime and his wife (Barbara Woodell) nagging about the continued presence of ‘best friend’ Bob in the house. When Bob hears that there’s amnesty and a reward on offer for any of the gang who turns Jesse in, he thinks not of the cash but the freedom to walk down the street unmolested — mostly so he can marry his actress sweetheart Cynthy (Barbara Britton).
In a scene with a surprising gay undertone, Bob finds Jesse taking a bath and picks up a snazzy gun which Jesse gives him as a present. Jesse says ‘there’s my back’ and asks his friend to scrub it — Fuller shows a POV shot of Jesse’s naked back, with moles where the bullet holes would go. The next time Jesse turns his back on Bob, getting up to straighten a picture, the temptation is too much and Bob draws the gift gun and fires.
Of course, nothing works out as planned — the governor reneges on the reward (claiming it was for capture and conviction, not assassination), and Bob becomes one of the most hated men in the West. Fuller’s best scenes show Bob’s slide from puzzlement to self-hatred as he becomes aware of what he has done. Cynthy’s manager (J. Edward Bromberg) adds him to the bill in a re-enactment of his dark deed but on the first night, with an audience staring hatred at him, he is unable to go through with the charade.
In a saloon to steady his nerves, Bob is accosted by a singer (Robin Short) who serenades him with ‘The Ballad of Jesse James’, a song that repeatedly refers to him as ‘the dirty little coward who murdered Mr Howard’. Ireland and Short are superb in this exchange, especially when Bob tells the singer who he is and forces the man to continue the song. As the terrified troubadour goes on, he has a moment of dreadful sympathy for the hard-faced, self-hating man whose misery he is perpetuating.
Directly after these two horrible experiences, Bob is shot at from across the street by a gawky kid (Gene Collins) out to make a reputation as the man who gunned down the man who gunned down Jesse James (only Fuller would have this character plead with Bob to stop shooting back when he runs out of bullets). Most Westerns are about landscape and action, but Fuller delivers one-on-one stand-offs, confrontations and conversations, with shots of angry, agonised or neurotic characters staring directly at the camera: even the love scenes are suspenseful and vaguely disturbing.
Though Ireland’s complicated, ambiguous performance remains strong, Fuller clutters up the second half of the film with unlikely business. Aside from a sub-plot about Bob’s silver-mining partnership with a whiskery coot (Victor Killian) who could have come from a 1930s kiddie matinee Western, the storyline is sidetracked by Cynthy’s feelings for a rival named John Kelley (top-billed Preston Foster). Kelley winds in and out of the story, an ardent fan of Cynthy’s who gets a job as Marshal. When he cuts in on Bob’s girl, Kelley becomes the proxy instrument of the James Boys’ revenge.
Frank James (Tom Tyler) shows up in town and everyone expects him to gun down Bob, but he actually fells his enemy with gossip — striding into a saloon and telling Bob that Cynthy is seeing another man. This prompts a final shoot-out (Kelley tauntingly presents his back to the advancing killer) which leaves Bob dying in the dust. The real Edward O’Kelley, who shot Bob Ford, was more like that nameless kid out to make a fast rep — and it’s strange that a movie otherwise concerned with setting a record straight rethink him as a conventional hero (the 1953 oater Jack McCall, Desperado did the same for Wild Bill Hickock’s murderer).
However, even in this relatively less interesting section, Fuller delivers solid character moments — Britton’s best scene comes as she admits she’s put off telling Bob she won’t marry him because she’s terrified of her former lover. In 1949, the idea of psychological depth in a Western was relatively new — even the A-feature Westerns of the 1940s tended to be mythic rather than complex. Ireland, a supporting player in one of the key grown-up Westerns (Red River), usually played straight-out baddies (he plays different characters on the wrong side of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine and The Gunfight at OK Corral) and was an inspired choice for Bob Ford.
Billing or not, this is a whole film about the agonies and yearnings of the sort of characters Ireland always played as taken-for-granted villains who snarl in a few scenes and get shot. By highlighting someone usually played as a minor character, this is almost a Western Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and it’s Fuller and Ireland’s achievement that, decades before Andrew Dominik and Casey Affleck, he made audiences sympathise with the tragic Bob Ford. Ireland’s Bob dies admitting, “I want to tell you something I ain’t never told no one. I’m sorry for what I done to Jess … I loved him.”