I Shot Jesse James


jesse_james.jpgThe First Films of Samuel Fuller: I Shot Jesse James/The Baron of Arizona/The Steel Helmet (Criterion Collection)

Samuel Fuller came out of WWII guns a-blazin’, anxious to get back into the movie game in a big way. Fuller had done some scripting before the war, had made connections, but the tabloid jockey-turned-infantryman had yet to hit personal paydirt.

B-movie producer Robert Lippert, responsible for dozens of B pictures, could greenlight anything that looked interesting and would cost peanuts to shoot, and when Fuller said he wanted to make a picture about Jesse James’s killer, Robert Ford, Lippert gave him the go-ahead.

Fuller cast John Ireland as Ford. Ireland had made an impression as the insolent gunslinger Cherry Valance in Red River (1948) and became a second-tier leading man who could take top billing in low budget movies (Ireland also starred as a James look-alike in The Return of Jesse James, another solid Lippert Western). Like most of his characters, Ireland's Ford is stoical, dense, a cross between cocky and confused, but the script does the real work for Ireland, and it tells us he drilled his pal Jesse for a woman, for $5000, and for amnesty. Amnesty, $500, and the mean end of a double-barreled shotgun is all he got.

Since that afternoon in April 1882 when Jesse James turned his back on Robert Ford and took a bullet to the brain, Ford has been viewed as a cur, a “dirty little coward,” as the song goes, but that’s not how Fuller saw it. Fuller hated Jesse James, referred to him in an interview as a “half-assed homo” who lured Union soldiers to their death in drag—an old story, probably apocryphal—but Fuller was more interested in the outcast than the outlaw. (Fuller once hoped to make a movie about 19th century poet/lovers Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine from the perspective of Verlaine’s wife and Rimbaud’s mother.)

I Shot Jesse James is sketchbook Fuller, but it made money, and by the time he made his third and final Lippert picture, The Steel Helmet (’51), he was a fully assured filmmaker. Two years later Fuller would knock it out the park with Pickup on South Street (’53), assuring him a permanent spot on the two-fisted-indie-filmmaker walk of fame. - Henry Cabot Beck

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Henry BeckMr. Beck straddles the coasts, contributing features on movies, music, books, comics and other cultural objects to the New York Daily News and many other publications.