Wednesday, July 8, 2015

I Shot Jesse James review

I Shot Jessie James (1949)

Dir. Samuel Fuller
Starring: Preston Foster, Barbara Britton, John Ireland

In order to clear his name and marry the woman he loves, Robert Ford (Ireland) kills Jessie James, but then has to live with the guilt and public shame that comes from killing his best friend.

The movie plays things loose in terms of presenting what actually happened. Most reports say that Robert Ford was more of a minor member of the James gang that Jessie James didn’t trust, but the movie presents them as good friends, so good that Ford is allowed to live with James and his family and to be present (and assist) in an odd scene where Ford helps Jessie James take a bath. It’s also been said that when he was killed James was planning on taking the Ford brothers on a “midnight ride” to plan a bank robbery, but the brothers knew from past experiences that the “midnight ride” usually resulted in James returning alone, which lead to their plans to kill him before he had the chance to kill them. But like My Darling Clementine, this is a movie that seems more concerned with being entertaining that presenting actual facts, and it succeeds in that respect. The movie only spends a short time with the James Gang prior to the assassination of Jesse James, so most of the movie is spent on examining how life was for Ford following the killing, and how he responded to the accusations of being a traitor and a coward for shooting his friend in the back. The facts of what happened present the assassination of James as a desperate act of survival by two men that presumed that they were about to be killed, but the movie presents Ford acting alone and committing the killing in order to lose the stigma of being a wanted man so that he can marry the woman he loves actress Cynthy, a character created for the movie but one that gives him an understandable motivation to go through with the act.

The movie presents Ford as a man haunted by his actions, and having to deal with being branded a coward and a traitor by the people and the press. The scene with the minstrel in the saloon is great, as you hear him sing a song about the “coward Robert Ford” and using only his face, John Ireland shows a gamut of emotions, from anger to shame, and has to face the facts of what the public thinks about what he did. He also has to deal with Cynthy’s fear of him, and even though he killed James to be with her, she cannot be with him due to her fears of him after he murdered the man that he claimed was his best friend. Really it wasn’t even worth it from a financial standpoint, of the promised $5,000 that was offered for James, Ford was only given $500. It’s also interesting how he acts in the back half of the film, there’s a scene where John Kelley gets into a brawl in a saloon, and when a man tries to shoot him in the back Ford shots the gunman in the hand and gives a speech running him down for trying to shoot a man in the back, coming across a bit hypocritical, and really kind of human. He claims to Cynthy that he isn’t a traitor and a murderer, but he spent time in a gang that killed people until he betrayed and murdered the leader, which contradicts what he claims. Throughout the film he feels like he was justified in what he did, but his carrying of guilt and how it is handled is surprising for the time that the film was made.

The character of John Kelley (Foster) is loosely based on the real Edward O’Kelley, the man who killed Robert Ford. The film presents Kelley as a more noble man, and a romantic rival of the affections of Cynthy. But the real O’Kelley was a more sleazy and unscrupulous, being a member of gangs and nothing like the character in the movie that is presented as viable option for the position of sheriff.  Kelley also gets one of the best lines in the film when Cynthy is pleading with him to leave town to avoid being shot by Ford, he replies with “I don’t think he’ll shoot unless I turn my back”, which is interesting foreshadowing in terms of how the final scene between the two characters plays out.

As a side note, it is interesting that at one point a character remarks to Robert Ford that the gun he used to kill Jesse James will probably end up in a museum someday. And at the time of filming, the gun was in the Jesse James Museum, but it was later stolen, and presumed lost until it reappeared in the 1990s when it was presented for auction in London, and after the ownership of the gun was disputed and figured out, sold for $170,000. The history of the gun itself, from the killing of James and subsequently being passed on from person to person until it got to the museum, the theft, and reappearance is pretty interesting in itself, but without knowing the whereabouts of the weapon between it being stolen and it’s reappearance it leaves a pretty big hole in the story.

I liked this one a lot. While it is not a factually accurate presentation of what happened,  but it is still entertaining and interesting, and it could be pared with My Darling Clementine as similar films that both present fictionalized takes on actual events, but they are both interesting on how history is represented by two extremely different filmmakers. But I was surprised at how well the movie flowed based on it being Samuel Fuller’s first film, but the movie packs a lot into its shot 82 minute run time. I’d recommend it.

Availability Note: This film is available on dvd in the Eclipse Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller set that Criterion released several years ago, and as of this writing the movie is streaming on Hulu, which is how I viewed it.

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