A standard depiction of the Jesse James’ death would likely start somewhere well before the actual incident, following the famous bandit as he held up trains and banks, finally culminating with his murder: shot in the back by Robert Ford while straightening a crooked picture. But I Shot Jesse James isn’t a normal film, it’s a Samuel Fuller movie, which means that while the director’s style was far from developed in this nifty little debut, it still marked him as a cinematic outsider. The film is full of small inklings of the fixations that would eventually come to define Fuller, from a fondness for misfits to story presented oppositely of how you’d imagine.

The film lacks the headlong pacing and ragged sense of madness that makes the best of the director’s work so thrilling, but it works as a somewhat shaky first attempt, as well as a primer for the rest of his work. Befitting the director’s sense of backstreet humanism, Ford, played by western veteran John Ireland as a distinctly doomed man, is given a healthy measure of sympathy, despite his many crooked qualities. Fuller’s trademark wobbly close ups, which would be refined later on in films like Shock Corridor, is used here as a clunky way of ramping up excitement, forcefully pushing us into scenes that might otherwise seem dully staged. There’s also one singularly odd shot, of a punch thrown from the perspective of the fist, a strange choice that prefigures a lot of the director’s paradigm-breaking camera decisions.

Written by the director himself, I Shot Jesse James was created for producer Robert Lippert, who gave Fuller the chance to direct his own screenplays, provided he did it for no pay. The result follows the historical record similarly to the recent The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but with much more focus on the saga’s last chapter. Ireland’s Ford is nothing like the sniveling loser depicted by Casey Affleck in the later film. He’s a practical man, one whose fixation on wedding his childhood sweetheart prevents him from seeing the disaster that lies behind such a practical action. He kills his best friend James not for the huge bounty on his head, but in pursuit of the amnesty offered to anyone who brings him in, dead or alive. Tired of living on the run, under cover and assumed names, his attempt to escape a life of crime casts him into a metaphorical hell that’s even worse, forever branded as a coward, pursued by would-be killers trying to make a name for themselves.

The movie works because it sets up a simple scenario, exploring the mental state of a man spurned by nearly everyone, but doesn’t settle for a static portrayal. A lesser film would have settled on the basic fallout from Ford’s act, as I Shot Jesse James does early on, with the former thief moping about his Missouri town bemoaning his newfound reputation as a cowardly murderer. Instead the film shifts gears and sends Ford out west to Colorado, where a silver strike and a new set of circumstances only serves to reinforce the hopelessness of his circumstances. In one strong scene, Ford attempts to start a new career by acting as himself in a stage version of the famous murder. He can’t go through with it, but the reality of his life closely mirrors what happens on stage, forced to endlessly relive his most shameful act.

by Jesse Cataldo

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