I Shot Jesse James (1949): A Sam Fuller Western

i shot jesse james

I Shot Jesse James is an off-center western as only Sam Fuller could possibly conceive it. At the very least it brings a journalistic eye and a shift in perspective. Because distilled down to its most basic elements, it’s a psychological character piece with John Ireland at the heart of it as Robert Ford: the man who shot Jesse James.

It’s not quite as punchy as Sammy Fuller would establish himself to be, but there is a slew of compelling ideas, and it’s not as straightforward as the western genre often suggests itself to be. Sure, the opening scene feels like quintessential Fuller, prepared to rap us over the head with the brunt of his movie. Bank robberies can never be easy; they’re always contentious. Guns drawn and bank tellers intent on sounding the alarm.

The picture is also about as noirish as they come out on the range — part of this is indebted to the conflicted character psychology — as expectations fluctuate wildly and scenarios happen not as we expect, but as they are meant to in a dismal landscape where everything comes out to its pessimistic worst.

People are poison to one another. The cruel hand of fate is inevitable. The lynchpin moment where a frankly, conventional Jesse James (Reed Hadley) is gunned down by his best friend is hardly imbued with the mythical glory the tabloids would have you believe. It’s almost matter-of-fact, totally unsentimental.

Fuller’s script acts as an examination of mythos and the pariah-like celebrity that engulfs the man. It makes for a far more perplexing exploration when you consider Jesse James died a hero — a Robin Hoodesque legend — while Ford is totally disgraced in society. He shot his best friend. If not for money, at least for a girl.

His desires are normal. He wants to get a ring so he can marry her and settle down. The question remains whether this kind of humdrum life is available to someone in his station.

The thematic ideas of legends on the range are dissected in many other westerns, and there’s always a sense of notoriety catching up with a protagonist. He has a target on his back. They might not have modern technology but papers, telegraph, and word of mouth have more pull than we might imagine. Word gets around and, if anything, legends grow larger with every town dispelling their own half-truths about the man and the myth.

Every gunshot potentially has Ford’s name on it. And yet he doesn’t want to give up his name. He’s too proud for that. He does take to the stage circuit reenacting how he shot Jesse James, and yet he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. The audiences watch with a kind of morbid curiosity. It’s another nail in the coffin. Surely they comprehend this is simply one pitiful man shooting another — not some gargantuan duel of ruinous proportions.

In an equally telling interlude, Ford offers to trade a drink for a troubadour’s ballad and gets an ode to the coward Robert Ford who laid Jesse James in his grave sung back in his face. You can imagine his chagrin when he finds out he’s been memorialized in such a manner and then the jovial performer’s surprise when he learns he’s singing to the craven legend himself.

i shot jesse james

In a flat western, Barbara Britton’s part would be tepid. Here she gets at least two moments in close-up where her face comes alive with a crazed expression you don’t soon forget. It’s fit for a femme fatale, but she’s not evil or psychotic. At worst, she’s torn apart by love, and it’s a force she can’t cope with.

If Ford is still madly in love with her, there’s another character who drifts through and vies for her affections. Whether real or imagined, it doesn’t really matter. Ford has it in his head that the genial prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster), is his bitter rival.

As mankind follows the trail of prospective wealth, both Ford and Kelley wind up in Colorado in the midst of a silver boon. For the time being, Cynthy is out of the picture. Far from fighting, they share a room, right neighborly.

The final act doesn’t feel much like a western at all. It’s shed all the traditions long ago. Again, it is a character piece. It could be any genre. This one just happens to be set around saloons and hotels, mining towns, and grubstakes.

But there are two men and one woman, and she can only end up with one of them. Perhaps she only actually really loves one of them. Frank James comes back into the story — you might remember him too — but he’s only another mechanism, like Wanted Dead or Alive posters or climactic showdowns between good and evil. Here they always carry the persistent inevitably we attribute to noir. There can only be one conclusion…

To the very last iota, it feels like textbook Fuller as he announces himself on the cinema landscape. On top of writing and directing the picture, he purportedly shot it over 10 days on rented sets from Republic Pictures. What’s most extraordinary is how the movie hardly seems to suffer from these constraints. If anything, it set a template for how Fuller would maintain a degree of creative autonomy while still managing to create a wide array of compelling projects in years to come.

Although his visual style would continue to grow and sharpen, there’s a killer instinct proving a lightning rod for stories. As a journalist and a journeyman, there’s this sense Fuller had the “don’t get it right, get it written” mentality. However, this very rarely seems to harm his output, which somehow always manages to find a worthwhile point of view to grab hold of.

I Shot Jesse James is little different. Its inadequacies often wind up making it all the more intriguing. You’ve never seen Jesse James spun in this manner, and way back in 1949 Fuller had a kind of prescience in suggesting where the West would go after the 1950s.

3.5/5 Stars

I Love Trouble (1948): Enter Roy Huggins

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In the days before they were known as film noir, the melodramas of the 1940s have such evocative titles, which now verge on the edge of camp. One can imagine the plethora of quality bumper stickers noir aficionados could plaster on their jalopies and Cadillacs. Try these on for size: Kiss Me Deadly, Murder My Sweet, Touch of Evil, In a Lonely Place. You get the idea.

I’ve become so conditioned to hearing them — to referencing the actors and directors within their frames — sometimes it’s easy to forget how strange they sound. Well, you might as well add I Love Trouble to the bunch. Of course, it means absolutely nothing, but that’s the point isn’t it, stirring something volatile up within the viewer. It suggests a vivid mental picture and this is somehow equally important.

I Love Trouble is generally forgotten today, as is its director-producer, S. Sylvan Simon, and yet the movie is a swirling labyrinth capable of going toe to toe with anything Marlowe ever faced. The dividing line between tautness and plot holes or logic and absurdity almost ceases to have credence. If this will fluster you as a viewer — enrage your logical sensibilities — it’s best to look somewhere else for your two-bit entertainment.

The true pleasures come with getting swept up in the world with all its additions and misdirects courtesy of a neverending conveyor belt of characters riffing off snappy bits of repartee. It fills in fairly nicely between the confrontations and beatings, smoothing over any major issues.

The opening is simple. A man is trailing a woman and she confronts him. It turns out he’s a private eye in the service of one Ralph Johnston (Tom Powers), looking for the other man’s missing wife. So it’s a bit of a Vertigo set-up, except the woman he’s already confronted wasn’t her. Well, it was, but it might as well be somebody else. Because she altogether vanishes from the film.

What follows is as expected. Stuart Bailey (Franchot Tone) makes the rounds being his charming, slightly ingratiating self in order to dig up the facts at the behest of his employer. Tone is a dashing lead prone to cheekiness, but this is most of the fun, played in the vein of the best P.I. work of Bogart and Dick Powell if not quite as iconic.

No matter. It leads him to run around Los Angeles and take a venture to Portland, Oregon. The facts start unveiling themselves bit by bit but never in a clear, definitive manner. There must always be further convolutions and new moments of sheer incomprehensibility.

In a picture like this, every single Dick and Jane might as well have a motive and the cast just keeps on coming. To explain how all the characters fit together siphons off a bit of the gamesmanship of the drama. It’s safe to say John Ireland is a brooding heavy. Steven Gerray, though graced with pleasant features, somehow contrives them, along with his accent, into something vaguely sinister.

Then, there’s the bald-pated cafe staffer Buffin (Sid Tomack), who knew the dame in a former life when she was making the move to Los Angeles. There’s a Chauffeur who seems oddly invested in the whereabouts of Mrs. Johnston and his enigmatic employer Mrs. John Vega Cabrillo (Janis Carter).

Others might be far more astute than me, but upon a single viewing, it’s easy to admit never quite getting one’s head straight on which woman is which, and maybe that’s the point of it all. Regardless, it hardly seems necessary to avail oneself of the details.

Janet Blair has near-top billing and drifts into the story almost haphazardly on the pretense of finding her sister. Janis Carter is suitably brooding with that imperious allure of hers. Adele Jergens is just another pretty face who jousts with our protagonist because what would such a picture be without her? Finally, there’s Glenda Farrell with a bit of lovable fortitude as Hazel Bixby, Bailey’s hapless secretary.

It actually proves to be a fine asset, having so many female characters all of varying degrees of importance, but all getting a piece of the pie. Because granted some are more cursory than others, and yet I’m even disposed to remember the two waitresses (Karen X Gaylord and Roseanne Murray) at the sidewalk cafe. It says something about the characterizations, where the bit players get to leave an impression.

These whirling, abstruse brands of noir often work best on this level. I Love Trouble can generously be christened a lesser disciple of The Big Sleep but nevertheless a decent go at the gumshoe genre. Because it has the peculiarities — small pockets of interest — placed within the befuddling signposts of the plot.

Roy Huggins would be remembered much later for his work in television for shows like 77 Sunset Strip, coincidentally starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. as Stuart Bailey, and then The Rockford Files, which owes more than a small debt to the hardboiled procedurals of the olden days with a James Garner twist for the 70s.

The final moments of I Love Trouble could play out as a male dreamscape. Our protagonist is surrounded by a myriad of women, and yet since the threat is abated, he’s taken in by the calls of matrimony. For being such an obscure entry in the noir canon, it’s quite a surprising piece of diversion if you go for such things.

3.5/5 Stars