Written and Directed by Samuel Fuller
The Jesse James story is one that doesn’t begin and end here. We’ve already explored Jesse James, and The Return of Frank James, and will eventually get to The Assassination of Jesse James. Each has their strengths and weaknesses, each tells their own version of the same story. Jesse James is likely the most famous outlaw of the Old West, in contention with Billy the Kid and in notoriety with lawmen Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. These are the names we hear so often that they’ve almost stopped being real figures and instead have become urban legends. But each Jesse James stories includes an important character in his life, Bob Ford. Some of these films focus on him more than others, but with I Shot Jesse James, the debut film of notable director Samuel Fuller, Ford takes center stage.
In this version of the tale, Jesse James’ (Reed Hadley) fate is sealed perhaps surprisingly early on. Bob Ford (John Ireland) is a member of the James gang who finds himself longing for the chance to escape the outlaw life and marry his one true love, Cynthy (Barbara Britton). But in order to do so, he must take drastic measures. When he hears that anyone who brings in Jesse James, dead or alive, will be granted immunity and a hefty $10,000 reward, he makes the fateful decision to kill his good friend in favor of a life with his love. Upon doing so, however, Ford finds himself the least liked hero ever, with anyone who passes him in the street calling him a coward. Ford is forced to live with his fateful decision, dealing with the unexpected horrors every day of his life.
I would like to think the story of Bob Ford is a great psychological evaluation. And it is. For the purposes of this marathon, I have not yet gotten to The Assassination of Jesse James, but I have seen that film, and would claim it as a superior take on this same story. However, what Samuel Fuller is doing here in his debut feature is worthwhile as well, just far less consistent. I will say that I am glad the story quickly gets past the famed murder of Jesse James by Ford. However, the actors here are not the best, with inconsistent performances from the whole cast throughout the entire film. I use the word inconsistent though because there are times and scenes where they are quite good, John Ireland in the lead role especially. He can feel amateurish at times, while also displaying great depth of feeling and angst in the middle portions of the film.
And the middle portion of the film is the very best part of I Shot Jesse James. It is in these sequences where Fuller and Ireland get to the heart of the consequences of Ford’s actions, and the concepts of celebrity. Ford killed James, thinking it would do wonders for his fame and fortune, but as it turns out James, while an outlaw, was more famous and beloved for his headline grabbing actions than Ford could have anticipated. It’s an interesting study in seeing how negative the murder turned out to be for Ford, how vilified he became and the difficult times he experienced as a result. It’s in these scenes where Ireland’s acting chops come out as the disgruntled and troubled Bob Ford.
But just as the film began, the film struggles to a close. I appreciate that Fuller crafts a taut and swift film, coming in under 90 minutes, but the close of the film gets away from the heart of the film. The psychology is what makes this tale interesting, but Fuller is forced to bring the romance story to a close as well, pushing out the more interesting bits for more standard and predictable exposition. And while the romantic conclusion is high drama as well, and the overall result is a tragic result for an ill-fated Bob Ford, it becomes more convoluted than the simplicity of Ford wallowing away in Colorado, once again in search of riches. Overall, this is a good film, will Fuller presenting Ford in a compassionate and yet critical manner. It’s inconsistencies hold it back from being anything more than a footnote in the genre.