“When it’s night time … “: Myth and the Geography of the Unconscious in ‘I Shot Jesse James’

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”

-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James

Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.

John Ireland as Robert Ford

Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.

A resonance begins to build around Kane as “creator,” with the stage as an environment of memory and conscience. Ford is now an “attraction”—a legend reviewed in the theater before a rapt audience. During Ford’s debut, Fuller cuts to a few closeups of the faces of the crowd, including one particularly attentive and street-hardened kid as ruthless and troubled-looking as young Tolly Devlin in Underworld U.S.A. As Ford comes offstage he throws a huge shadow across the figure of Kane and is clearly already something larger than life. A few moments later that kid from the audience fires at Bob Ford from the shadows out in the street, trying to kill the man who is now part legend, but not before Ford’s renown is underscored by the troubadour who has just rolled into town with the song of Bob Ford’s betrayal of Jesse James on his lips. The kid tells Ford, “You shot Jesse James. Anyone who shoots you becomes the biggest gunman in the country.” Even as Ford is in the process of becoming myth, the mortality of the man looms like the shadow cast over Kane, leaving him vulnerable to every punk gunman with illusions of grandeur. It is a symbol of Ford’s isolation—in conscience and in the legend he never measures up to in the oppressive world of I Shot Jesse James.

But to hark back to that card-playing scene for a minute: Almost as an afterthought—we have become so engrossed in the obscenity of what Ford is going to do—we surmise that Kane had been faking his “bad luck” the whole evening in order to bolster Ford’s confidence and talk him into doing the act. Ford must see himself measured against the legend that is developing in order to escape his conscience and become enshrined in a substanceless portrait of his own impotence (“Blanks,” he says to the bartender who watches him empty his sixgun after the show). On a more immediately dramatic level, Fuller is able to get more impact out of the scene by letting us in on the deal between Ford and Kane at the same time it’s discovered by Cynthy. After all, it is for Cynthy that Ford kills Jesse, simplemindedly believing that freedom would not be precluded by his act of betrayal.

Barbara Britton and John Ireland

Fuller’s extensive and well-known use of closeups in I Shot Jesse James (which induced Sarris to invoke Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc) is not the only way in which he condenses his world to its claustrophobically intense proportions; the adamant denial of habitable space to his characters also becomes an element of Fuller’s spare, elliptical narrative style in a way that gives time as well as space the constricted quality that Robert Ford experiences, and which almost seems an extension of his fate-heavy consciousness. A letter that Ford writes to Cynthy (he’s out in the Colorado goldfields, she’s back in St. Louis) concludes with a longing and disquieting description of what it’s like out West where “when it’s night time … well, it’s night time.” Night time and time in general become important quantities in I Shot Jesse James. Even though a sign above the bar in the Silver King Saloon proclaims that “It’s day all day in the daytime and there is no night in Creede,” in fact it’s very seldom daytime, when people can figure out what time it is at all. Cynthy arrives in Creede sooner than Bob expected: “Your telegram said you’d be arriving at six,” he says. Cynthy replies, “I said I’d be leaving at six,” and Bob concludes that he must be a little confused.

We’ve been confused about such matters in our own way. Just prior to the scene in which Ford shoots Jesse, he is seen poking around the window of the house with the idea of knocking off James and winning amnesty for himself and a happy future with Cynthy. The light, what there is of it, is very muddy. Suddenly, Charlie Ford (Tom Noonan) surprises Bob, yelling from somewhere behind him that he’s going to town. We then see Charlie on his horse in what looks like a day-for-night shot. Moments later, however, when Bob and Jesse and his wife are all inside they start talking about plans for the day ; Jesse is to pick up the children from school when he goes into town. Obviously, it’s not night, at least not in a literal sense, although the murky atmosphere outside the James household (a sort of perpetual darkness veiling the secrecy of assumed identity) provides a fitting moral context for Ford’s betrayal and his ensuing burden of guilt.

In Ford’s consciousness, and in the world of I Shot Jesse James in general, things are indeed at sixes and sevens. Ford’s interior disequilibrium is manifested in visible details like a wheel above a blacksmith shop that casts a shadow as inexplicably lopsided as the plane of the picture that Jesse James was trying to straighten when Ford shot him in the back, or that very shadow that Ford casts over Kane—a shadow indicating a discrepancy between the size of the myth and the real-life stature of the man. “There is no night in Creede,” but even the final confrontation between Ford and Kelly (Preston Foster), a drifting adventurer who has become sheriff of the boom town and who seems destined to ride off with Cynthy, is played out in darkness that recalls the moral upheaval of ruptured friendship and betrayed trust when Bob Ford shot Jesse James.

Trust is at a premium in I Shot Jesse James. Even self-reliance tends to turn into obsession with Fuller’s protagonists, and it is often to the characters just slightly on the periphery of the story that one must look for signs of less neurotic endurance—Kelly in I Shot Jesse James, Captain Clark in Run of the Arrow. Relationships between men and women are also strangely tortuous ordeals in Fuller’s films. Ford’s and Cynthy’s “love scenes” amount for the most part to highly defensive assertions of identity, efficacy and potency on Bob’s part. They never really do communicate; the intensity of Ford’s guilt and the growing legend over which he seems to have no control rules out any sort of freedom either with Cynthy or from his own conscience and consciousness. Trapped in a myopic closeup after he has told Cynthy that he killed Jesse James, Ford says, “I’m not on the run no more, I can walk down the street … I’m a free man.” There really is no freedom in the world of I Shot Jesse James. It is a psychologically self-contained world that has a disturbing, almost Poe-like way of conforming to the deranged contours of its protagonist’s consciousness. There is night in Creede, and there is a darkness in Robert Ford’s soul. It is within the shadow of Ford’s guilt that Fuller finds the pith of the legend: a tension between the heroic and the infamous, between a myth of the West and the psychology of a tragically flawed protagonist.

I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1948)
Lippert Productions, for Screen Guild. Screenplay: Samuel Fuller, after a story by Homer Croy. Cinematography: Ernest Miller. Art direction: Frank Hotaling; set decoration: John McCarthy, James Redd. Editing: Paul Landres. Music: Albert Glasser. Production: Carl K. Hittleman; executive: Robert L. Lippert. (81 minutes)
The players: John Ireland, Barbara Britton, Preston Foster, Reed Hadley, J. Edward Bromberg, Victor Kilian, Tom Tyler, Tom Noonan, Barbara Woodell, Byron Foulger, Eddie Dunn, Robin Short, Margia Dean, Gene Collins.

© 1976 Rick Hermann

A pdf of the original issue can be found here