Saturday 4 July 2009

I Shot Jesse James (1949)

Director: Samuel Fuller
Stars: Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, John Ireland and Reed Hadley

Sam Fuller was an established name in cinema in 1949, but only as a writer. He'd written eleven films but hadn't directed a single one until this one. Made for Robert Lippert, it was pitched as the story of Cassius, who betrayed Julius Caesar, but in keeping with Lippert's penchant for westerns, ended up instead as being the story of Bob Ford, who betrayed Jesse James. It's an interesting story, just because it is what it is, but it's even more interesting as an example of how few real stories there are and how ingeniously they can be retold.

Jesse James is played by Reed Hadley and we begin with him and his gang making a daring daylight robbery on the Cattlemen Bank in Topeka, only to be foiled by what the papers proclaim is the world's first alarm bell. The front pages thrown up on the screen also play up the James legend, claiming they took no money and that Jesse saved a wounded member of his gang. Well, the money was dropped during the escape and Bob Ford got away on his own from what I could see, but papers need to be sold.

Incidentally these front pages continued to get thrown up on the screen in films throughout Fuller's career. They were the obvious way for him to speak, given that he was a newspaperman before he was ever a filmmaker. He made one film that spoke specifically to this subject, the astoundingly underrated Park Row, but he kept the newspaperman's mentality throughout his life. Whenever I watch an old film where the someone like Clark Gable plays a reporter who breaks all the rules to get his story, I think of Fuller.

Now, unlike the newspapers and indeed most of Hollywood, Fuller wasn't interested in seeing Jesse James as a legend. He saw him as a murderous psychopath who killed the weak and innocent, and that the man who finally killed him did something that should have been done far sooner. This story never leaves that legend even though Jesse James himself leaves the film pretty early on, shot in the back by Bob Ford as he tries to straighten a picture on the wall.

Ford doesn't kill him for the $10,000 reward. He kills him for the opportunity to be free, to be granted amnesty for the crimes he'd already committed and pardoned for this one, and most of all to be able to marry his sweetheart, an actress by the name of Cynthy Waters. Naturally it doesn't turn out quite how he expects. The act that took him only a few seconds to perpetrate resonates and never lets him be. Instead of getting him out of the life he was in, it shapes the life he has left and not in the ways he wants or expects.

He's ripped off by the government, who gives him a measly $500 instead of the promised $10,000. So he gets a job in Cynthy's company, doing a reenactment of the famous incident, only to walk off the stage because he's unable to pull the trigger on his friend again even when it's fake. He goes to a bar, only for a wandering minstrel who doesn't know who he is to sing him the famous ballad of Jesse James, which brands him 'Robert Ford, the dirty little coward'. He leaves the bar, only for a youth to open fire on him from across the street, because whoever kills the man who shot Jesse James will be famous.

Most importantly, while Cynthy wanted him out of the James gang, she's horrified at what he did and really doesn't want anything to do with him any more. When she says she won't marry him, he misinterprets what she says entirely. With the blind eyes of a man in love, he thinks she's saying that she won't marry him now because he hasn't got the money to provide for her. So off he goes to Creede, CO, where they've discovered silver, to see if he can strike it rich and bring her back a mountain of money so they can live happily ever after.

Naturally this doesn't turn out quite how he expects either, especially through the presence of John Kelley throughout. Kelley meets Cynthy just before Ford kills James, right there in St Joseph, MO, where Jesse James has been hiding under the name of Thomas Howard. There's nothing between them at this point but because Ford believes there is, Cynthy talks him into leaving town for his own safety. Sure enough he's right there in Creede, CO, when Ford arrives and he's there at the end of his story too and so is Cynthy.

This is a pretty good take on the story though it's mostly interesting because it's Fuller's first movie, the beginning of a fascinating career. However it's a low budget production, shot in ten days, that looks far better than the money that was spent on it and it lived on in a number of further films. These aren't sequels per se but are either related or speak to the same characters. The most obvious is The Return of Jesse James, another Lippert film made a year later, presumably to cash in the success of this film. Many of the actors here return, but bizarrely in different roles.

Reed Hadley, who plays Jesse here plays his brother Frank there. John Ireland, who plays Bob Ford here plays Jesse there, and his half-brother in real life, Tommy Noon is Bob's brother Charlie in both films. Barbara Woodell is Jesse's wife Zee here but an unrelated character there, though she'd return to the role of Zee for 1953's The Great Jesse James Raid. Tom Tyler, who plays Frank here, had already played that part in 1946 in Badman's Territory and would return to it again for 1951's Best of the Badmen. I guess if you watched westerns in the forties and fifties, you had to get used to actors and characters playing some sort of game of cinematic musical chairs. If it's Wednesday I must be Jesse James, huh?

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