No One Loves The Man Who He Fears: I Shot Jesse James (1949)

Where Howard Hawks would step in to completely perfect a genre, tapping into its varied tropes and ideas to extend them to their fullest possibilities, a filmmaker like Samuel Fuller would, instead; find the exact same tropes and undertake the task of twisting and stretching them to their greatest lengths only to watch them snap and disintegrate into maddening, fleeting moments of cinematic insanity.  One needs only to recall what is perhaps his most evocative work Shock Corridor to see this unfold, but it certainly holds true for his later works, even including White Dog, which may well hold the record for the most obvious metaphor in a film to date.  When compiling my list for the month of viewing I was elated to discover that the ever unusual Fuller had offered a film to the genre.  I Shot Jesse James, while an early work in the Samuel Fuller cannon, nonetheless, exudes all the intensity and fractured psychosis of the director's works, while also managing to create sympathetic and highly likable characters.  Wherein Andrew Dominik's evocative 2007 film The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford would paint and dark and dismal picture of the famous outlaw's killer, this much earlier work manages to humanize "Bob" Ford, while also reminding viewers that he was clearly far from being sane or put together, and Fuller paints this picture with such exuberance and zeal that it is hard not to fall into the noticeably melodramatic trappings of this film and stay there well after its closing.  With its excellent visual opening credits and a performance by John Ireland, who was recently mentioned in my review of Red River, and some wonderful cinematography, I Shot Jesse James, much like the legend of the outlaw himself seems to take on mythological, almost implausible, proportions.  Indeed, the film was assumed impossible to find for quite some time and the few copies available proved quite desired, so when Criterion released a print it has moments where the film deteriorates and is covered with black spots.  In most any other film this would just be a sign of its age, yet in the world of this film and Fuller's continual concern with the slippage from sanity, these imperfections in the film almost seem preordained and nicely parallel the character of Bob Ford as he deals with his own internal fracturing.

For a film that is called I Shot Jesse James, the film is considerably preoccupied with not concerning the experiences of Jesse James, however, this is indeed where the film begins by focusing on a recent unsuccessful robbery attempt on the part of Jesse James (Reed Hadley) and his notorious gang of outlaws.  The heist is a failure in part because after being shot Bob Ford (John Ireland) drops the money in their escape.  Bob is quite apologetic about the failure, yet, Jesse is more than understanding knowing that it was purely and accident and a result of the wound.  In fact, Jesse is a rather simple man, who lives under an alias in a small Kansas town with his wife, only hoping to cash in a comfortable sum of money in order to rest, it is his gang who have far more complex problems, particularly Bob who desperately desires the adoration of Cynthy (Barbara Britton) a local saloon girl who is also being pursued by the wealthy silver miner John Kelley (Preston Foster).  Bob is fully aware that his financial failings will deter him from success with Cynthy and seeks an alternative means to make money.  When word spreads that any man who kills Jesse James will be afforded a governor's pardon and fame, Bob takes it upon himself to murder the outlaw, an act he does by shooting him in the back, much to the disdain of his gang members and every respectable man in the midwest.  Nonetheless, his pardon allows him to move freely and continue to pursue Cynthy, even attempting to make fame on his infamy.  Of course, this does little for Bob's financial success and he ends up seeking friendship with John, who also desires Cynthy.  When a chance opportunity affords Bob a great reward in silver mining he takes it upon himself to learn the trade and make money, again with the hope of winning the heart of his love.  Cynthy, at this point, is falling for John and is only amiable to Bob out of fear, and when Bob is informed of this information, he takes it upon himself to fight for the girl he loves, drawing guns against John in the street, claiming that he is the only one willing to kill out of love, a fact that is refuted when John guns him down first.  In these dying moments, Bob admits to a crippling guilt for what he had done to Jesse, suggesting a degree of misguided love in that action as well.

I Shot Jesse James adds such layers of complexity to the trope of the outlaw in the western that it is rather amazing that Fuller was not skyrocketed to the same status as Leone or Hawks in regards to making westerns specifically.  I would contest that there is really no other director who manages to subvert the methods of melodrama to heighten the moods of characters with whom the viewers are really not supposed to sympathize.  One could almost read I Shot Jesse James as a film noir work set within the confines of the wild west, although I plan to include an Anthony Mann film this month so it might be best to hold off that analysis until I get to that work.  Melodramatic elements are certainly present within the western, although one would not initially sense them, for example, the use of music to evoke a mood is much credited and even contemporarily parodied within film and is certainly used within I Shot Jesse James, think of the ways in which Aaron Copeland stylistic music is used in something like Red River and then compare that to the violins and swelling of traditional music within I Shot Jesse James, while it involves folk ballads they are a far cry from what exists within the traditional western, again, Fuller is merely using the setting of the western and its tropes to tell a story, he clearly has no concern with it properly fitting the genre format, indeed any other filmmaker would likely have given Jesse James a larger role, but it is not his film, it is about the emotional state of Bob Ford, therefore, Jesse's death some twenty minutes into the film is appropriate and absolutely underplayed.  What is heightened is Bob's reactions and preparation for the assassination, think of the bathtub scene and his intense gaze at the exposed back of Jesse.  This scene involves again heavy use of music, as well as a heightened camera movement that provides close-ups of Bob's face, whereas Leone would use these closeups in an extreme manner, Fuller only goes close enough to Bob to capture his curling desirous grins and beady eyes a clear trope of melodrama that is being subverted and reappropriated to the western genre, to subsequently subvert its elements.  Elements like these are no surprise considering that they came from Fuller he was a man who somehow managed to work within the studio system while rejecting everything it stood for in the process.  I Shot Jesse James is definitively a western while also managing to be anything but a genre piece.

Key Scene:  The bath scene is a master class in scene composition and allows viewers to truly understand the insanity latent in Bob's mind.

This is part of a wonderful box set released by Fuller that includes two of his other early works, I would strongly encourage getting a copy for this film specifically, the other inclusions are jut extra benefits.

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