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The most memorable works of the two-fisted, cigar-chomping director Samuel Fuller are those that blend the sensational social outcry of yellow journalism with the violent extremes of ten-cent pulp magazines -- films such as The Naked Kiss (1964) and The Steel Helmet (1951). His first film as director, I Shot Jesse James (1949), is more restrained than his later works, but in it one finds plenty of the directorial trademarks for which he would become known.
As the title suggests, the film has less to do with the legendary Jesse James (Reed Hadley) than Bob Ford (John Ireland), his former comrade who was compelled to shoot him in the back. But we do see them ride together, robbing a bank together (and nearly being caught thanks to the first electric alarm bell), and holing up together at James's home in Missouri, much to the chagrin of Jesse's wife Zee (Barbara Woodell). During his lengthy recuperation from a gunshot wound, Ford reunites with his former sweetheart, music hall singer Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He also makes the acquaintance of an affluent prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster).
When Ford learns that he can win amnesty (and a $10,000 reward) for the betrayal of James, he cannot resist. As Ford contemplates the deed, Fuller teases the viewer with ripe opportunities for the shooting, such as when James is in a bathtub, his bare back turned to Ford. "Well, go ahead, Bob." Ford weighs a pistol in his hand. James continues, "What are you waiting for? There's my back -- scrub it."
Eventually, Ford shoots James, while James adjusts a picture on the wall, just as it has been depicted in the history books. Ford is given his freedom, but only a small portion of the $10,000. What he hadn't expected was that the deed would earn him the enmity of his friends and enemies alike. However much James was feared as a bandit, no one in pioneer America could excuse a man for shooting a friend in the back. Ford takes a job in a stage show, reenacting the murder before a scowling audience, but he finds himself unable to pull the trigger again. Dogged by his reputation as a scoundrel (even a wandering musician sings a ballad commenting upon his cowardice), Ford moves to a silver-mining town in Colorado, where he again encounters Kelley. For a time, a friendship is struck between Ford and Kelley, but fate soon turns them against one another, leading up to a fateful Wild West showdown.
The project began when independent producer Robert L. Lippert tracked down Fuller after reading his 1944 newspaper-themed novel The Dark Page. In his 2002 memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Fuller recalled Lippert saying, "I'm interested in backing you so that you can turn one of your stories into a movie... What've you got?" Fuller responded ("between puffs on my cigar") that he wanted to make a film about Cassius, the Roman senator who engineered the assassination of Julius Caesar. As might be expected of a hard-nosed businessman who produced low-budget Westerns, Lippert was not enthusiastic. "Caesar? You want to make a film about naked guys hanging around Roman baths wearing bedsheets?" "Exactly," Fuller replied.
Perhaps Fuller's ambitious undertaking was inspired by Orson Welles, who in 1948 convinced Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates to back a version of Macbeth. If so, then Lippert's decision to pass was a wise one, as the Shakespearean project was more costly and less profitable than the studio's typical output of medium-grade Westerns.
Fortunately, Fuller had a second idea on stand-by. "I want to do a little film with a good story, Sammy," Fuller quotes Lippert as saying, "where we can have some fun and both make a profit."
"Okay," Fuller responded, "I've got another assassin yarn. It's even more exciting. It's about Bob Ford, a great character. Nobody ever made a movie about him." Lippert asked who Ford killed. Fuller told him. Lippert replied, "Jesse James! Now we've got a movie!"
Fuller insinuates that Lippert nixed the Cassius project because he was uncomfortable with homoerotic undertones -- yet there are plenty of those to be found throughout the film they ended up making, a film Fuller describes as "a yarn about a guy who kills the man he loves."
It is interesting that I Shot Jesse James treats the legendary badman as a virtual saint, when Fuller had nothing but contempt for the real-life outlaw. In an interview with Lee Server, Fuller expounded upon the American legend. "Jesse James, as a teenager, was a female impersonator. He would dress as a girl and lure soldiers into his cabin like a whore, get them drunk, then his brother Frank would come in, kill them and rob them... He became a hero in the folklore, but Jesse James was a despicable character. The first train he robbed was full of wounded soldiers. He killed and robbed the wounded soldiers."
Fuller echoed this sentiment in his autobiography, calling James, "bisexual, masquerading as a girl to hold up trains that were carrying medical supplies. The guy was a low-down thief, a pervert, and a sonofabitch. But you couldn't show that stuff on a screen back then, demystifying one of the great American icons." Sure enough, James's cross-dressing tendencies are not alluded to in the final release version of I Shot Jesse James.
Not wanting to take the bridle (in more ways than one), Fuller insists, in his inimitable style, that he did not want to make a conventional western. "Making just another Western wasn't going to give me a hard-on. Holdups, revolvers, leather gloves, and galloping horses didn't do anything for me. The real aggression and violence in the film would be happening inside the head of a psychotic, delusional killer."
To play the "psychotic, delusional killer" (Ford, not James), Fuller chose John Ireland, who had just appeared in one of Hollywood's most notoriously homoerotic Westerns: Howard Hawks's Red River (1948).
There was no money to be spent on an A-list star. Even with a more marketable topic, Lippert made it clear to Fuller that the budget had to be kept low -- and that he wouldn't back the picture, "if the story cost was fabulous or if I was paying a star $1,000 for standing around."
The Los Angeles Times reported that Lawrence Tierney had been proposed for the role of Ford, but was nixed by producer Robert Lippert. For a time, Ann Doran was slated for the role of Jesse's wife, Zee, but was replaced by Barbara Woodell.
Fuller and Lippert's project was known as I Killed Jesse James during production, and was reported to have cost a mere $110,000. It was shot in ten days, on rented sets at the Republic Studios. Though Lippert oversaw the production, it was technically produced by Carl K. Hittleman.
Lippert first became involved in filmmaking in 1946, after having established a chain of successful movie theatres on the West Coast. Lippert would later be credited with a major innovation in film exhibition. According to Fuller, "Lippert built the first multiple theatre, or multiplex, in Alameda, California, with the idea of showing several films at once in the same building, giving more movie choices to patrons."
In an anecdote that captures the director's flair for the bombastic (and possibly his tendency to exaggerate), it is said that on the first day of filming, rather than calling "Action!" Fuller startled his cast and crew by firing a Colt .45 into the air. "At the end of the scene, I yelled 'Forget it' instead of 'Cut.' Holy cow, now I was a movie director!"
The title sequence is comprised of a series of posters tacked to a fence. It is the perfect way to open a film directed by a veteran newsman and inveterate showman, but Fuller claims it was done simply because the production had run out of money, and couldn't afford anything more elaborate. Fuller's journalistroots are reflected in the headlines that frequently appear to provide information to the viewer as well as neat graphic transitions to the narrative.
I Shot Jesse James premiered on February 26, 1949, and quickly rose out of the slums of the B-Western. When it debuted in New York, in April, it was at the 1,700-seat Palace Theatre, a first-run Broadway house. At the end of its initial run, the film had grossed an estimated $800,000 -- though historian Lisa Dombrowski suggests that this figure might have been inflated by the publicity-hungry Lippert.
It was better than the average oater, but no one mistook I Shot Jesse James for an art film. Variety recommended the film for "houses buying sturdy action product," and opined that Fuller was "not quite adept in handling the character study motivation."
The New York Times was considerably more critical of Fuller's directorial abilities. "In preparing this picture, Mr. Fuller concentrated more on character study than action and since the character study is not particularly interesting, I Shot Jesse James is a very mild pretense at being an entertainment." They dismissed it as "a commonplace movie...without distinction."
Based on the success of I Shot Jesse James, Fuller and Lippert continued their collaboration with another Western: The Baron of Arizona (1950).
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Carl K. Hittleman
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Ernest Miller
Production Design: Frank Hotaling
Music: Albert Glasser
Cast: John Ireland (Bob Ford), Reed Hadley (Jesse James), Barbara Britton (Cynthy Waters), Preston Foster (John Kelley), Barbara Woodell (Zee James).
by Bret Wood