REVIEW: I Shot Jesse James [1949]

“Tell ‘em I’m gonna be a farmer”

Back in 2007, the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford made my initial top ten list with its spectacle and grandeur. It was my introduction into the myth and legend of James as well as Ford, a name I was not familiar with until that point. The film was a mood piece that centered on Ford’s inclusion into the posse of robbers to the inevitable incident of the title, showing his lack of self-worth and spiteful heart towards the man he idolized who looked down on him as a strange wildcard. Little did I know that back in 1949, Samuel Fuller brought to the screen his own version of the tale with I Shot Jesse James. There is some overlap in plot, mainly the end of Assassination with the start of I Shot, but the direction itself is completely different. In Fuller’s film, Robert Ford isn’t out for retribution or a false sense of honor; instead he is after a freedom from jail time so as to marry the woman he loves. His cowardice is in the necessity of love—the feeling of such being stronger with sweetheart Cynthy than with best friend James.

I am kind of shocked at the film’s tagline: “The thrilling and colorful last days of America’s most fabulous outlaw”. Even the opening credits show that Jesse James is barely more than a cameo as he gets fourth billing. But then the star, John Ireland’s Ford, gets third billing, so who knows? Reed Hadley plays James as merely the catalyst for the journey that Bob Ford will take in trying to make his act of murder mean something. Basically asking for Ford to kill him, putting the very gun that does so into his hands, the relationship between these two men is an interesting one. As my friends made mention during our viewing, there are numerous instances that can be construed as homoerotic in nature. James asking Ford to scrub his back is one and him removing his gun belt with the words, “I feel naked without my weapon,” before getting on a chair, putting his rear-end right into the view of Ford, is another. I’m not necessarily sure that these moments are meant to be read that way; I believe we are seeing a man with complete trust in his friend, unafraid to turn his back due to his certainty in not being betrayed. We see a close up of James’ bare back during a bath not to show Ford aroused, but to see the glorious opportunity he is given to shoot him dead, get the pardon and reward, and go live happily ever after with Cynthy.

If only the world were that simple. The film is called I Shot Jesse James for a reason—it is about the man that did the deed and his inability to live with it. Having no regrets, at least admitted to at first, he tries to tell himself that he did it for love. Of course, the act of betrayal and cowardice in shooting this infamous legend in the back only makes the woman he loves turn against him as she sees whom he really is, fearing him now more than loving him. By killing for her, he has in fact transferred the crime, and she does not want to live with that guilt. This is just the beginning of Ford’s struggles, however. Not only does he start to lose Cynthy, played effectively by the quite beautiful Barbara Britton, but he also becomes a target for James’ brother Frank looking to avenge the murder, as well as every gun-toting citizen looking to become famous. He is a marked man, yet not a coward despite the song now being sung about him in saloons across America, (shown in a scene that brought images of Nick Cave playing the guitar in Assassination). He refuses to change his name and will not back down from any challenge, even going so far as to try his hand in the theatre, reenacting his own crime for the public. Needing money to try and win back Cynthy, Ford moves to Colorado to strike it rich in the silver boom, and that is where the bulk of the film takes place.

While in Colorado, Ford crosses paths with a familiar face from the past in John Kelley. Preston Foster plays this role with a strong moral center, as though he could be a sheriff if he so desired. And, go figure, he is soon propositioned to become the Marshal of Creede later on. What the time in Colorado really displays, though, is how Ford copes with what he has done while setting down roots to start fresh. Ireland plays him with a huge chip on his shoulder and a very short fuse. Yet the character never shows a lack of control in differentiating between right and wrong. He understands the creed of being an outlaw because he understands the law. If an unarmed man is to be shot during a fight, it is his fault for not bringing a gun, but if an unarmed, just got rich, drunk is hiding under a table, well you better not take a shot. Ford knows the rules and he knows the life. He very well could have succeeded James if not for his one lapse of judgment. No matter how righteous he lived before or could live after, it took just one moment to prove the opposite.

The film, then, becomes a sort of karmic retribution for the man who shot Jesse James. It also shows the weight in which the concept of celebrity held even back in 1882. Here was the most wanted criminal in the country, yet, when he is killed, all the people can do is lambaste the man who did it. Not only that, but then the murderer himself becomes just as famous for his lack of courage, no matter what his reasons might have been. Fuller gets his actors to deliver very real portrayals, especially with Ireland and Foster. These are the epitomes of the Western genre’s black hat and white hat roles. The director even allows for—in what I would say is the best sequence in the film—a showdown at the end. Framing Foster’s Kelley in the curved top of the saloon door from the outside, we track him into the road’s foreground to see Ireland’s Ford enter the frame far in the background. Here is where we finally see whether he truly is a coward or just misunderstood and unable to leave that one incident behind him, no matter how hard he tries.

I Shot Jesse James 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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