Monday, May 5, 2008

I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James, Samuel Fuller's first film, is a sharp piece of work: efficiently dramatized, imaginatively staged and committed to bringing a fresh perspective to familiar material. In Fuller's conception, Bob Ford shoots James because he wants to settle down and have a family, but (as in Andrew Dominik's recent film which covers much of the same narrative ground) the aftermath is considerably more complicated than imagined. Shifting the focus from James himself (presented here as a figure of Christ-like generosity) to Ford, Fuller devotes most of his picture to the aftermath of the killing, with everyone seeming to insist that he feel shame for his "cowardly" action, but Ford refusing any outward admission of wrongdoing, instead weakly repressing the guilt, which remains completely transparent in the discomfort on actor John Ireland's nervously scrunched face.

For a first time filmmaker, Fuller directs with impressive confidence, risking several unorthodox stagings that must have been rather surprising to encounter in a 1940s B-picture - most notably a bathtub scene between James and Ford which follows immediately after Ford's decision to shoot his friend. As James soaks in the tub, Ford picks up his .45 (a gift from James) and Fuller cuts in several lingering shots of James' back, a mole prominent in the center. But Ford hesitates, and James gives voice to the viewer's thoughts when he says: "What're you waiting for? There's my back," but it turns out he just wants Ford to scrub him. (It's hard to ignore the rather blunt sexual implications here. The scene suggests another layer to the central relationship and deepens our sense of Ford's conflicted feelings over his actions).

Later, after the shooting, Ford takes a job re-enacting the assassination, but the act of reliving the events - represented by Fuller in a double exposure flashback which forces the viewer to experience the past simultaneously with the present, approximating Ford's own vivid experience at the moment - proves too much and he flees the stage to a round of jeers. If Ford's feelings of guilt are rarely given explicit outward expression, this is one moment when Fuller calls on imaginative technique to make concrete the character's interiority. The only other time we're told in such unambiguous terms what Ford thinks is when he lies dying on the ground at the end of the film and gives voice to what Fuller's already implied throughout the picture. "I'm sorry for what I done to Jess," Ford says, his face filling the screen in a final close-up, "I loved him."


Anonymous said...

Oh, yes! I've watched recently and found it remarkable. Sammy had clear ideas, isn't it? It departs from classical western, too; and in 1949! Sort of forerunner.

whitney said...

It sounds like this was much more influential on the Dominik film than other versions of the story. I was very disappointed with the Nicholas Ray version. There were some blatant homosexual undertones (because when is there not in a Ray film) but that interesting bit didn't really make up for the over-dramatics and, well, boringness of the thing. I'm excited to watch this Fuller version. It's on my queue.

-Whitney (

Anonymous said...

>It's on my queue.

You won't regreti, it!

andrew schenker said...

I haven't seen the Ray, but Fuller's film definitely seems to have been a key reference point for Dominik. Both films focus most of their attention on Ford (in Fuller's case almost exclusively) and specifically the forces, both external (the opprobrium of the public who treat him as a villain) and internal (guilt, self-loathing) that drive him to despair after the assasination.

Then, many of the scenes in Dominik's film seem like explicit references to Fuller - for example, the scene in the barroom where a balladeer (played by Nick Cave) sings a derogatory song about Ford not knowing he's standing right in front of him is taken directly from I Shot Jesse James.