by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was I Shot Jesse James, a 1949 Western from Lippert Pictures that marked the directorial debut of Samuel Fuller, who also wrote the story and screenplay (with credited inspiration from an American Weekly article by Homer Croy and uncredited help from Robert Gardner). According to TCM host Robert Osborne’s introduction, Fuller wanted to make this film because he wanted to explore why a man would murder his friend. He originally planned to make the story of Julius Caesar, but couldn’t get any studio to back him. He got a nibble from sub-“B” producer Robert Lippert, who liked the idea of a film about a man who murders his best friend but blanched at the cost of duplicating ancient Rome. Fuller counter-offered a film about Jesse James and Robert Ford, and Lippert bit.
The result was a tough, no-nonsense movie that already established Fuller as a major director, despite some wince-inducing bits of clunky dialogue and awkward situations. An imdb.com commentator quotes Fuller as saying he hated Jesse James — which it’s easy to do; in his previous incarnation as a guerrilla with Quantrill’s Raiders, an irregular force of what would now be called “enemy combatants” for the Confederacy in 1862, he had hijacked a train containing wounded Union soldiers and shot them all — and thought Ford’s action in killing him entirely justified, but that’s not readily apparent in the film itself. (If he wanted to explode the myth of Jesse James the American Robin Hood, he should have made a film about him, rather than making his killer the central character and killing James off in the first 15 minutes.)
The film takes a highly ambiguous moral view of both James (Reed Hadley) and Ford (John Ireland), who kills James because the governor of Missouri has offered a full pardon and a $5,000 reward, which Ford hopes to use to get out of the outlaw life, buy a farm and marry his girlfriend, actress Cynthy Waters (played by Barbara Britton in a marvelously hard-boiled way that adds to this film’s appeal). Once Ford gets the idea to kill Jesse James, he goes about it in an almost comical way that makes one wonder if Fuller was inspired by Chaplin’s marvelous attempts to kill Martha Raye in Monsieur Verdoux — including one bizarrely homoerotic scene in James’s bathtub into which Ford has just emptied two buckets of hot water (how you had to take a warm bath in the days before running water and hot-water heaters).Ford unwraps a gun — a present from Jesse — from a towel at the foot of the tub, and is about to use it on Jesse’s back. “Go ahead and use it,” Jesse says — and just when we’re wondering if the famous outlaw has eyes in the back of his head, Jesse says, “Yeah, the brush. Scrub my back,” which Ford does. Finally Ford shoots Jesse in the back while Jesse is arranging a crooked picture on the wall (a glitch in Fuller’s editing shows the painting slanting down when Jesse first approaches it; with a change in angle the picture is now slanting up, and afterwards Fuller cuts back to his first angle and it slants down again) — a picture of an elderly woman we presume is James’s mother — and James dies without so much as an “Et tu, Robert?”
From then on Robert Ford is reviled throughout Missouri, not only by the townspeople for whom Jesse James had become a folk hero but even by the authorities — they give him the pardon but, saying they wanted James either taken alive or killed in a fair fight rather than assassinated, they only give him $500 and they hurl the bills at him (the connection with Jesus, Judas and the thirty pieces of silver is subtle but unmistakable) — and by Cynthy, who’s as repelled by her former boyfriend as anybody else in the movie. Ford can’t even go into a saloon without being reminded of it when he buys a drink for a traveling musician in exchange for a song — and the musician (Robin Short), who’s listed only as “Troubadour” in the cast list but is obviously supposed to be the real-life Billy Gashade, naturally plays Gashade’s “Ballad of Jesse James,” the famous (and still heard) song that denounces Ford as a “dirty little coward” for having shot James in the back. At one point Ford gets shot at, and he turns around and realizes his assailant is a teenage boy who wants to make his own reputation as a gunslinger by knocking off the man who killed Jesse James — anticipating the plot premise of Henry King’s The Gunfighter by a year. He’s also signed to play himself in a re-enactment of the James killing, only he walks off in mid-performance, apparently having finally realized himself what a horrible thing he did even if Jesse arguably deserved death for his crimes.
Eventually Ford gets caught up in the Colorado silver rush of the 1880’s and moves to the boom town of Creede — as do all the other surviving principals, including Cynthy; her boss, Harry Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), who’s arrived to produce his play in the town; and John Kelley (Preston Foster, top-billed), the poor but decent sort Cynthy took up with after she broke up with Bob. Kelley gets an offer to be the marshal of Creede; Ford saves prospector Soapy Sullivan (Victor Kilian) from a couple of swindlers who try to rob him of his claim while he’s drunk, and the two of them become partners and get rich. With his new-found fortune, Ford proposes to Cynthy — and she accepts less out of interest than fear, afraid he’ll kill her if she turns him down. In the end Jesse’s brother Frank (former Western and horror star Tom Tyler) comes to town intent on killing Ford to avenge Jesse; Ford confronts Kane in the streets of Creede; Kane dares Ford to shoot him in the back but Ford won’t; and eventually Kane turns around and shoots the gun out of Ford’s hand, which allows Frank James to kill him on the spot.
I Shot Jesse James is a surprisingly powerful movie, a triumph of a great director over a mediocre (except for Britton) cast; like the lead role in E. A. Dupont’s The Scarf two years later, the part of Robert Ford cries out for Montgomery Clift and gets John Ireland. At least Fuller gets some animation out of Preston Foster, who seemed to be sleep-walking his way through all too many otherwise interesting films at RKO in the 1930’s — even though his role here probably seemed like dèja vu after The Informer, in which Foster had likewise played a man who has to punish someone he knows well for killing a friend. But Reed Hadley as Jesse James is ludicrously incompetent — hardly likely to make anyone forget the screen’s best-known Jesse James, Tyrone Power — and Tommy Noonan (later Judy Garland’s piano player and confidant in the 1954 A Star Is Born) seems barely out of grade school as Ford’s brother Charlie. Later in his career Fuller would get better at finding unknown but first-rate actors willing to work for the sums he and his producers could afford to pay them, but even so I Shot Jesse James remains a powerful film that showed how well Fuller could direct and in particular how well he could combine moral ambiguity and exciting action in the same movie.