Friday, 6 March 2015

I SHOT JESSE JAMES











d. Samuel Fuller (1949)


I Shot Jesse James was Samuel Fuller's directorial debut, but all of the Fuller trademarks are already in place: spinning headlines, omniscient narration, piquant dialogue, strong women, big close ups, love, hate, action, violence, death. But it's a bit of a muddle, as if Fuller (who also wrote the script) is trying too hard to find an oblique angle that will take the film into territory not normally covered by the standard and already well worn western tropes*. 

Bob Ford is the man who shot Jesse James, a man subsequently reviled in folk songs as a dirty coward (even by the authorities: he didn't even receive the full reward promised). Here, his motivation to kill his friend and colleague is not about the money: he simply wants to be free, to receive a pardon for his previous outlaw life and to get married to the girl he loves. His act of assassination (or murder, there's no clear line in this instance) doesn't liberate him, however, it kills him, filling him with self loathing and regret and making him a target for every kid with a gun who wants to be the man who shot the man who shot Jesse James. Worst of all, his girl turns away from him, no longer able to love a man whose name is synonymous with treachery. 

In this film, which is as much an old fashioned melodrama as a western, Ford dies in a gun fight with a love rival, an upright, honourable man who represents all the values that Ford lacks. It's a nice idea, but a load of rubbish. Ford was murdered by a man who walked up to him and, without warning, blasted him in the throat with a shotgun. There was no pomp, no ceremony, no build up, no drama, no tension, no honour. The man did it simply because he wanted to make a name for himself. For me, that's an ending that is heavy with irony but also sums up the circular nature of violence and, moreover, the savage nature of the old West.  

* Fuller is much more successful at this with his later 'Forty Guns' and 'Run Of The Arrow'.    

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