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I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James(1949)

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At first glance, I Shot Jesse James (1949) might seem to be a disappointment. For a western, there's very little gunplay, landscapes or even horses on display. Most scenes take place in rooms, and the substance of the movie exists more inside the characters than out. Once one realizes that this is exactly what writer-director Sam Fuller was going for, I Shot Jesse James can be experienced as an intense examination of betrayal and its consequences, with a power that lingers.

The story, obviously enough from the title, is that of Robert Ford, the outlaw who infamously shot his friend Jesse James in the back in order to be granted amnesty and receive a reward. As written by Fuller and portrayed by John Ireland, Ford is a sympathetic, tragic figure - not really a hero, but also not a villain. He's a man whose decision to murder Jesse seems to have sprung more from simple-mindedness than from malice. Nonetheless, he is tormented by his actions and forced to relive the murder over and over, be it by reenacting the event in a stage show, hearing a song about it from a traveling minstrel, or simply enduring the scorn of others wherever he goes. While he claims not to care that he killed his pal for money, he develops ever-increasing self-loathing and a broken heart. He's deluded enough to think that a showgirl, Cynthy (the somewhat miscast Barbara Britton), will now marry him, but in fact she fears him to the point of being unable to tell him "no."

Also in the cast is an appealing Preston Foster as John Kelley, who may or may not be trying to win Cynthy for himself. Ultimately he becomes town marshall as well as a friend to Ford, but he must face him in a final showdown. Every major character is morally ambiguous and satisfyingly complex.

It may not be Fuller's most seamless picture, lagging a bit at times, but it is an auspicious directorial debut with many memorable moments. There's a striking vividness to certain sequences which Fuller would soon elevate to masterful levels in films like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Park Row (1952).

Before I Shot Jesse James, Fuller was a pulp novelist with several screenplay and story credits under his belt, as well as a former reporter and infantryman. Fuller's stories, including his novel The Dark Page, had caught the eye of independent producer Robert Lippert, a smart businessman who had begun his own career by pioneering the drive-in theater and in later years would invent the concept of the multiplex. Lippert was now offering Fuller the chance to write and direct his own low-budget movies.

Fuller pitched his idea for a movie about Robert Ford, Lippert agreed to it, and the two men shook hands. "That was all that was needed," Fuller later wrote. To Fuller, I Shot Jesse James was "a yarn about a guy who kills the man he loves... 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... What excited me about the yarn were the echoes of the Cain and Abel fable in Genesis, the first murder. The 'brother' killer is condemned to relive his crime over and over, never escaping the shame and outrage of it. I wanted to show Ford realizing that he's sick, then follow him as he sinks deeper into his sickness."

Fuller also took the chance to upend the Jesse James myth a little bit. Fuller believed that the real Jesse was bisexual, and there's a famous sequence here of Ford scrubbing James' back as James takes a bath - moments after Ford considers shooting him instead. The implication might have been lost on Lippert, but critics noticed it and were impressed with the complexity on display in the Ford-James relationship.

Fuller shot the picture in ten days for $100,000. "The time constraints and small budget," he wrote, "made I Shot Jesse James one of the toughest films I ever did, but I loved every minute of it. The scenes with little or no action were the most difficult. I used close-ups to reveal as much as possible about my characters' emotions."

The result was a sizable hit - quite a big deal for an independent movie in 1949, and a big confidence booster for the fledgling director: "Lippert had trusted me, giving me the independence to do the film my own way, and I hadn't let him down. The film's critical and box-office success was thrilling... There were scores of phone calls from producers with all kinds of offers. But I was going to stick with Lippert because he'd believed in me." Indeed, Lippert went on to produce Fuller's next two movies, The Baron of Arizona (1950) and The Steel Helmet, both of which are also now available in this new DVD boxset from The Criterion Collection's "Eclipse" line. While there are no extras other than some liner notes, picture and sound quality are up to Citerion's excellent standards, and the low (for Criterion) retail price makes the set a must-buy.

With the recent DVD releases of Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940) and The True Story of Jesse James (1957), not to mention the upcoming Warner Brothers feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), I Shot Jesse James makes for mighty interesting viewing and shows how the most potent American myths can lend themselves to multiple interpretations.

For more information about I Shot Jesse James, visit The Criterion Collection. To order I Shot Jesse James, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold