If a story doesn’t give you a hard-on in the first couple of scenes, throw it in the goddamn garbage. —Samuel Fuller
Maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller was shopping scripts around Hollywood when he met producer Robert L. Lippert. Lippert admired Fuller’s 1944 pulp novel The Dark Page and gave Fuller his first crack at directing.
The result was I Shot Jesse James, a low-budget but brilliant revisionist western starring John Ireland as Robert Ford, the member of the James gang who killed Jesse James and collected the bounty.
Fuller had a flair for the dramatic, and when shooting began on I Shot Jesse James, he discharged a round from his Colt .45 into the air instead of yelling “Action.”
Fuller made three films for Lippert, I Shot Jesse James, The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951). The budgets were tiny and the shooting schedules tight, but Lippert gave Fuller the freedom to make exactly the kind of movies he wanted.
Fuller wrote the script for I Shot Jesse James, and based it on an article by Homer Croy in American Weekly magazine. It’s a sympathetic portrayal of a roundly reviled historical figure (even if you have no sympathy for Jesse James, it’s hard not to instinctively dislike a man who shot his unarmed friend in the back for reward money).
John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a lovesick man who’s tired of life on the run and just wants to marry his girl, the beautiful actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He’s tempted by Missouri Governor Thomas Theodore Crittenden’s offer of amnesty for any member of the gang who turns in Jesse James (Reed Hadley), dead or alive.
Fuller depicts the relationship between Jesse and Bob Ford as deeply homoerotic, although the stolid Hadley doesn’t seem aware of anything strange about sitting in a bathtub and asking his friend to scrub his back for him. It’s the tortured Ireland who appears to long for Jesse, and perhaps by killing him he’s killing a part of himself that he despises.
Nothing good comes from it, of course. When Ford tells Cynthy that his killing of Jesse James was legal, she responds in horror, “It was murder.”
He walks through the rest of the picture with a haunted, desperate look on his face. He appears in a stage show in which he reenacts the killing of Jesse James, he dodges bullets from glory-hungry gunmen, and he desperately tries to repair his relationship with Cynthy.
This film explores a lot of the same territory as Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), which starred Casey Affleck as Robert Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse James. The most poignant parts of both films show Ford facing his own terrible legacy, such as when he appears in the onstage reenactment or confronts a troubadour who sings hymns to his cowardice.
I Shot Jesse James has stock music and its minuscule budget is pretty obvious, but it’s a great portrait of a complicated historical figure. Samuel Fuller would go on to have a long and iconoclastic career, and while I Shot Jesse James is never numbered among his greatest works, it’s his opening salvo as a director, and it’s a powerful one.