[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.
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.