"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, May 27, 2019

I Shot Jesse James (Lippert, 1949)

Pulp fiction


I should probably declare an interest before I start. I am not a fan of Samuel Fuller (left). I know he was an interesting chap and all, I know French cinéphiles think he’s the best thing since le pain tranché, as the French don’t say, and I daresay his movies in other genres were top class, I wouldn’t know, but as far as his Westerns go, well, I just don’t like them. I have reviewed Forty Guns already, twice actually (Forty Guns and Forty Guns Redux) and I found it lurid and trashy, both times. As for Run of the Arrow the same year (1957) I don’t know which was worse, Fuller’s writing or Rod Steiger’s acting. I suppose I’ll have to get round to reviewing that at some point too, sigh. The Baron of Arizona was hardly a Western, more a Gothic melodrama with Vincent Price (quite fun though). Fuller co-wrote the uninspired Guy Madison cavalry Western The Command. His Western record was, let us say, mixed. But I’m now going to do another couple of Fuller Westerns, his last and first (I’m excluding his TV stuff) The Deadly Trackers (coming soon) and, today, I Shot Jesse James – actually not only Fuller’s first Western as director but his debut in that role.

The thing is, though, that I Shot Jesse James is surprisingly not-too-bad. It isn’t exactly good. It’s an ultra-low-budget black & white picture from cheapo studio Lippert, shot in ten days, with an unstellar cast. Furthermore, it’s complete baloney historically: written by Fuller from an American Weekly magazine story by Homer Croy, it has Bob Ford killing Jesse because of a woman he loves; there follows a Psychology 101 study of guilt, and then Frank James comes to Creede to get his revenge. Ford is finally killed in a Main Street showdown with the marshal. Hooey, all of it.

And yet it does grip you. In any case, the Jesse James story has been overlaid by so many layers of myth that it is not even possible to tell “the truth” about it, and merely being tosh factually is no disqualification for a Western. Some of the very greatest have been pure fiction. Not that this is one of the greatest. It isn’t. But, largely thanks to John Ireland (as Bob Ford) it’s actually quite intense. Some of the photography (Ernest Miller, B-Westerns from 1923 to ’54) is good, with a big concentration on close-ups, perhaps faute de costly landscapes. And Fuller introduced a hint of noir (all the rage in the late 40s).

Lots of close-ups

This Jesse James telling came after two big color A-pictures from Fox, Jesse James (1939) and The Return of Frank James (1940), directed by top-notchers Henry King and Fritz Lang respectively, and then as the 40s progressed a couple of Roy Rogers Jesse B-movies and a Republic serial starring Clayton Moore, and in all of these Jesse and Frank were the classic heroes of legend, good guys who only turned to crime because of the wicked railroads and oppression. They only joined Quantrill because their daddy was hanged by Kansas Redlegs, and other falsehoods. Their names were blackened by the mean of spirit and they were good boys really. The way people thought of Jesse James by then you’d think Bob's surname was Iscariot rather than Ford. Fuller did at least want to show the other side of the James boys, that they were murderous brigands with few saving graces. That’s good. But to do this he elevates Robert Ford into an almost noble, certainly tragic character who acts out of love, and, well, that’s just as implausible.

The image usually given of Robert Ford

Robert Newton Ford, the real one, 1862 to 1892, was just twenty when he killed Jesse James (as against Ireland’s 36) and he was, it appears, little more than an impressionable youth. He had admired James for some time, though only met him two years before. It is said that Bob Ford's brother Charles took part in the James-Younger gang's Blue Cut train robbery, west of Glendale, Missouri on September 7, 1881. Susan King writes, By 1882, the James gang was a shadow of its former self on account of arrests, death and defections. The only people James felt he could trust were Charley Ford, who had been a veteran of James’ raids, and his brother Robert Ford, who was eager to prove himself.James invited the Fords to take part in the robbery of the Platte City Bank, but the brothers had already decided not to participate; instead, they intended to collect the $10,000 bounty placed on James by Governor Thomas T Crittenden. Crittenden promised Ford a full pardon if he would kill James, who was by then the most wanted criminal in the USA. After the killing, the Fords wired Crittenden to claim their reward. They surrendered themselves to legal authorities but were dismayed to be charged with first-degree murder. However, in only one day, the Ford brothers were indicted, pleaded guilty, sentenced to death by hanging, then two hours later granted a full pardon by Crittenden.

Jesse liked Bob well enough to get photographed together - if the photo is authentic, a claim denied by many

Largely thanks to the ballad written and circulated by Billy Gashade, the Fords became bywords for treacherous cowards.

For a time Bob earned money by posing for photographs as "the man who killed Jesse James" in dime museums. He also appeared on stage with his brother Charley, reenacting the murder in a touring stage show. Charles was terminally ill with tuberculosis and addicted to morphine, and he committed suicide on May 4, 1884. Soon after that, Bob Ford relocated to Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, where he opened a saloon. According to one story, Ford had a shooting contest with Jose Chavez y Chavez, a friend of Billy the Kid's during the Lincoln County War. Ford lost the contest and left town. On the day after Christmas 1889 Ford survived an assassination attempt in Kansas City, Kansas when an assailant tried to slit his throat. Ford then moved to Colorado to take advantage of the silver strike and opened a saloon/dance hall again, first in Walsenberg, then in the boomtown of Creede. When the entire business district of Creede, including Ford's saloon, burned to the ground in a major fire, Ford opened a tent saloon until he could rebuild.

The foul deed

Three days after the fire, though, on June 8, 1892, Edward O'Kelley entered Ford's tent with a shotgun. According to witnesses, Ford's back was turned. O'Kelley said, "Hello, Bob." As Ford turned to see who it was, O'Kelley fired both barrels, killing Ford instantly. O'Kelley thus became "the man who killed Robert Ford". Little is known about O’Kelley (or Kelley or Kelly) or about his motivation for the murder. One theory is that O'Kelley had stolen Ford's diamond ring, and the dispute escalated. O'Kelley's sentence was commuted because of a 7,000-signature petition in favor of his release and a medical condition, and he was freed on October 3, 1902. O'Kelley was subsequently killed on January 13, 1904 while trying to shoot a policeman.

Edward O'Kelley

Ford was buried in Creede. His remains were afterwards moved and reinterred in his native Richmond in Ray County, Missouri. "The man who shot Jesse James" was inscribed on his grave marker.

Such were the facts, as far as we can tell. Some of these were used by Fuller. In the movie we have the ballad and its impact (Robin Short is ‘Troubadour’, the Gashade-figure, and a beautiful voice he has too) in a well-handled and acted scene, and we see the stage show (gripped by remorse, Bob can’t go through with the re-enactment of the shooting). We have the assassination attempt on Bob (though it’s a punk with a gun who tries to kill him). And there’s a diamond ring, the engagement ring for his beloved, which Ford accuses Kelley of stealing (he didn’t, though).

A good scene

After rather enjoyable intro titles and credits, all the names posted up on a wooden wall alongside a WANTED – DEAD OR ALIVE bill on Jesse, we open with a bank job, Bob Ford emptying the safe while Jesse (Reed Hadley) holds a gun on a sweating bank teller. Jesse is steely-eyed and Fuller wants us to see his ruthlessness. Fuller said he thought Jesse James was a cold-blooded psychopath, and Bob Ford “did something that should have been done quite a bit earlier”. In this way his Western was quite revisionist. But curiously, he doesn’t go on with that. His Jesse becomes quite ‘gentle’. When the teller manages to sound a (rather modern) alarm, gunfire erupts and the robbers flee, dropping their loot, Bob is shot, and once clear of the (unnamed) town, Jesse rather tenderly dresses his wound, then takes the youth back to his home on the outskirts of St Joseph, where he remains for the next six months.

Steely bank robber

Tender to the wounded youth

There, Jesse’s wife Zee (Barbara Woodell, who would also be Zee in a later Lippert Jesse James B-movie, The Great Jesse James Raid in 1953) makes clear that she does not care for the Ford boys at all; but Jesse reassures her about Bob. “He’s a good boy.” Is Zee jealous of Bob? There is the hint of some attraction between the famous outlaw and his neophyte, bordering on the homoerotic. This was certainly taken up by Ron Hansen in his 1983 novel The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and in the subsequent movie of the same title in 2007, and indeed you feel that the recent movie’s bathtub scene was a sort of reference to Fuller’s, in which Jesse bathes and asks Bob to scrub his back (that back again). Bob Ford’s last words in Fuller’s film are “I loved him.”

The bathtub scene

One of the reasons the film works is John Ireland, whom Fuller had seen and admired in Red River the year before (where there is also a sublimated quasi-homosexual relationship, between Ireland’s Cherry Valance and Montgomery Clift’s Matt Garth). Ireland was a fine actor, actually. Later in ’49 he would be nominated for his part in All the King’s Men. Then he would be excellent in another Lippert Western, Little Big Horn. He’d started as a young Clanton in John Ford’s Wyatt Earp/Tombstone story My Darling Clementine and you may remember him in The Doolins of Oklahoma with Randolph Scott, Red Mountain with Alan Ladd or in Hannah Lee: An American Primitive, which he also co-produced and co-directed.

Ireland very good

The romance is introduced early and thenceforth dominates the picture. Fuller said to Lippert, “It’s a murder story, goddamit!” but actually it isn’t, not really. It’s a love story. Bob Ford’s love is directed (though he only knows it at the end) towards Jesse but for most of the movie the object of his affections is actress Cynthy (Barbara Britton, the ‘perfect wife/mother’ of the 40s and 50s, rather prim and not quite convincing as a louche showgirl, Molly in the Joel McCrea The Virginian, leading lady to Randolph Scott in both Gunfighters and Albuquerque, Helen Chester in the Jeff Chandler version of The Spoilers). She won’t marry an outlaw who consorts with Jesse James and he decides to kill Jesse for the reward and the pardon, so that the two may live in married bliss. Actually, though, she probably won’t marry him anyway.

Britton rather sweetly apple-pie

Not very convincing as traveling showgirl

This is because Cynthy has another suitor, Kelley, a ‘silver king’ from Colorado, though now broke, played by top-billed Preston Foster. You probably know Foster, he-man actor, composer, songwriter, guitarist and author, No. 2 to Barbara Stanwyck in the 1935 Annie Oakley, star of the 1937 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Sergeant Brett in North West Mounted Police, the colonel in Tomahawk, and so on. He’s good in I Shot Jesse James, in fact, convincing as a tough guy, and his saloon brawl is really brutal. Of course he too is in Creede at the end, for dramatically Kelley must kill Bob. Bob has had good luck: in partnership with Soapy (Victor Kilian, Darby in The Ox-Bow Incident) he has struck it rich, raking in silver hand over fist (presumably well more than thirty pieces of the stuff). But Kelley has not had the luck of Ford, and is down to his last dime, so he reluctantly accepts the marshal’s badge, with the job of keeping order in the rowdy silver town. As you can see, we said earlier that little is known of the real killer of Bob Ford, and Fuller has made the most of his carte blanche to invent a backstory. It makes Kelley a strong, though not very plausible character.

Preston is Fuller's version of Kelley

And he's good too

In the climactic showdown, Kelley turns his back on Ford. He knows that Bob can no longer shoot a man in the back. A risky strategy, I would have thought, turning your back on an armed Bob Ford. Frank James (Tom Tyler, silent cowboy and Luke Plummer in Stagecoach) wouldn’t do that. He walks backwards out of Ford’s saloon.

Tom Tyler as Frank James

Bye, Bob

It’s a picture that was pretty well destined for low-rent movie theaters in the Bible Belt, and normally it would have died there in fairly short order, but it was ‘adopted’ as an art film by the liberal intelligentsia on the east and west coasts, then of course by the French. Jean-Luc Godard said it had “an oppressive intensity the cinema had not seen since Dreyer’s Joan of Arc.” Honestly, you couldn’t make it up, could you? Some of these French cinéastes seem to be parodying themselves. Still, plenty of sensible people think it’s a great film.

I don’t. I think it’s definitely the best Western by Samuel Fuller but then that isn’t setting the bar very high. It is, though, an 'important' Western in the history of the genre. You need to see it, at least once.


  1. A most welcome review, Jeff, of an under-seen, under-rated little western. This is one of those I only got to catch up with for the first time in the last two years.
    Taking its historical 'facts' with a huge pinch of salt, I found it (and its sequel) very enjoyable. I'm not a fan of Fuller's westerns either especially but this early film for Lippert is rather well done.
    John Ireland was a good actor and it's a pity his career fell so quickly into the low-budget end of the market, but then his presence raised many a film.
    Will you be reviewing the sequel, "THE RETURN OF JESSE JAMES", I wonder?

    1. Hi Jerry
      Yes, I plan to do The Return, tho' it was a Lippert exploitation of the 'franchise', not a Sam Fuller effort. Reed Hadley becomes Frank. Henry Hull and Ann Dvorak as Youngers… I don't think we can expect much better in the way of history!

  2. Personally, I enjoyed this film far more than the somewhat ponderous "THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD"......

    1. The 2007 film was much less a traditional Western but myself, I thought it was superb, as was the Hansen book it was based on.
      But I definitely think there are references in the one to the other.

  3. Jeff, another good write-up of a good Western movie. I probably like I SHOT JESSE JAMES better than you do. I first viewed the movie on an old VHS Burbank Video in 1991. Of course we know that writer/director Sam Fuller played loose with the historical facts, but that is to be expected. Was this movie sort of a beginning of a post World War II trend in portraying the so-called historical badman in a different light? Here we have the "dirty little coward" Bob Ford portrayed by John Ireland, who dominates the movie. I agree that Ireland was very good in this movie and others as well. Also, Preston Foster as John Kelly, was very good. Their portrayals made for a most interesting take on the story of Robert Ford and John O. Kelly.

    About that photograph of Bob Ford and Jesse James. Yes, it is an iffy one, to say the least. Eric F. James, who is a James Family Historian, says that the photograph isn't of Bob Ford and Jesse James. here is an article written by Eric James: ericjames.org/wordpress/2015/11/01/lost-jesse-jamesbobford-photo-not-lost-not-authenticated/

    Also, here is the HOUSTON CHRONICLE article that gives Sandra Mills' side of the photograph dispute: https://www.chron.com/national/article/Lost-photo-of-Jesse-James-assassin-Robert-Ford-6540749.php#photo-8717877

    This latest photograph controversy is one of many over the years and there will continue to be others.

    1. As I said in the review, there are the first signs of revisionism here, and Jesse is certainly not the hero of former films. At the same time Fuller doesn't go through with it, after the first scene. His Jesse becomes almost a gentle man. I could wish that he had gone for a more ruthless, even brutal figure.
      I have amended the photo captions to reflect the differing views!

  4. The French critiques de cinéma - almost from the beginning and surely from the 1920s, not only the future Nouvelle Vague directors like Godard, Truffaut or Chabrol - had this tendancy to over intellectualize the films and not only the westerns to make the cinema not only a mass industry for the working classes but an art - as the famous André Malraux's quote said - the European have almost always considered the director could be an author and artist when even the greatest of them in the USA were supposed to only obey to the orders of the studios tycoons. And this division between authors and "makers" is inseparable of the cinéma's history especially in the USA where the indies have taken over the studios mostly focused on blockbusters nowadays. Martin Scorsese has identified in one of his books what he calls the Hollywood pirates who within the system were trying to make their own more personal movies. Of course, the critiques are too often interpretating or finding things which do not exist or which were not designed by tge director. That's the beauty of the movies. Thanks to the critiques, many films and directors have been reevaluated, just look at Alfred Hitchcock who is now considered as one of the greatest even if he never shot any western.
    A very small correction to your neverthess excellent article : WalsenbUrg is mistyped. About Bob Ford see https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/walsenburg/robert-ford-and-walsenburg
    And if you have the opportunity to visit Creede, do not hesitate, the whole region is superb. JM

  5. This is not Jesse on this controversial picture but a Christian Bale lookalike ! JM