Kim Newman on... I Shot Jesse James
RT Obscura 19: Assassinating Jesse James pre-Casey Affleck
RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 19th column, Kim explores an earlier take on the assassination of Jesse James, as Samuel Fuller's first feature casts John Ireland in a powerful performance as Robert Ford years before Casey Affleck joined the party.
I Shot Jesse James, director-writer Sam Fuller's first feature covers much the same ground as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, albeit inside 81 minutes and with a grafted-on three-way romance which sets up a peculiarly a-historical finish.
Fuller went on record as approving of Ford, deriding Jesse James' Robin Hood reputation as a sham mask for a murderous hypocrite; however, in his film, Reed Hadley plays the outlaw as an upright Lincoln lookalike, which theoretically makes backshooting Bob (John Ireland) even more of a villain than he's portrayed in print-the-legend biopics like Jesse James (where John Carradine wields a shaky gun to administer the treacherous shot). It wouldn't be until Robert Duvall in Philip Kaufman's underrated The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid that we'd get a screen depiction of Jesse James as the kind of total bastard Fuller thought he was.
The opening of I Shot Jesse James is direct, gripping and unusual. It opens in the middle of a bank robbery, panning without benefit of establishing shots from credits that appear as posters on a wall to a close-up of Jesse holding a gun on a sweating clerk (Stanley Price) whose foot is inching closer to an alarm trigger (a very 20th Century-seeming device). The cashier sets off the alarm and shooting starts (if Fuller had really wanted to make Jesse a bad hat, he could have had the outlaw gutshoot the bank official), but the bandits get away -- albeit without loot, and with Jesse personally saving a wounded Bob.
Then, we skip months and find Jesse living quietly as 'Mr Howard' and planning a return to crime and his wife (Barbara Woodell) nagging about the continued presence of 'best friend' Bob in the house. When Bob hears that there's amnesty and a reward on offer for any of the gang who turns Jesse in, he thinks not of the cash but the freedom to walk down the street unmolested -- mostly so he can marry his actress sweetheart Cynthy (Barbara Britton).
In a scene with a surprising gay undertone, Bob finds Jesse taking a bath and picks up a snazzy gun which Jesse gives him as a present. Jesse says 'there's my back' and asks his friend to scrub it -- Fuller shows a POV shot of Jesse's naked back, with moles where the bullet holes would go. The next time Jesse turns his back on Bob, getting up to straighten a picture, the temptation is too much and Bob draws the gift gun and fires.
Of course, nothing works out as planned -- the governor reneges on the reward (claiming it was for capture and conviction, not assassination), and Bob becomes one of the most hated men in the West. Fuller's best scenes show Bob's slide from puzzlement to self-hatred as he becomes aware of what he has done. Cynthy's manager (J. Edward Bromberg) adds him to the bill in a re-enactment of his dark deed but on the first night, with an audience staring hatred at him, he is unable to go through with the charade.