I Shot Jesse James


Sam Fuller made his directorial debut in 1949 with this take on the old story. I Shot Jesse James, as the title suggests, keeps the focus squarely on Bob Ford (John Ireland) and shows him in a more sympathetic light than usual. Like most film representations of these characters, there are some elements of the truth woven into the story. This film comes a little closer to reality in depicting the demise of Bob Ford than was the case with The Return of Frank James; here the name of the killer, the location and the means are broadly correct. Where the story drifts off into total fiction is the inclusion of the romantic triangle as the centrepiece of the drama.

The story opens with a botched bank robbery that leaves Bob Ford wounded and forced to lay up at the James home in Missouri. As he recuperates, he has the opportunity to visit the love of his life Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton) who is an actress in a travelling theatre company. This meeting lays the groundwork for all that is to follow. When Ford arrives to see his woman he also meets a man called Kelley (Preston Foster) – a prospector who is clearly smitten with Cynthy. And thus the aforementioned triangle is set up. Cynthy begs Ford to abandon his outlaw ways and settle down to a decent life, thereby providing the motive for the subsequent murder of his friend. The rest of the movie is a portrait of guilt and a man trying to make good on his promise to go straight, yet foiled at every turn by his past and a love destined to remain unfulfilled.

In many ways I Shot Jesse James is a slight film, no more than a B movie really. What makes it notable is the way it tries to show Ford as a real person and not the greed driven caricature of earlier versions. I can’t say I was bothered by the playing around with historical facts since the reason for this was clearly the need to provide the character of Ford with a motive that might be understood. John Ireland does a pretty good job in showing us a man who is left bewildered when his actions draw not only the scorn of strangers but drive away the very woman whose heart he’d hoped to capture. Barbara Britton is good enough too as her character goes from love for Ford, through disgust at his actions, and finally to fear of what he has become. Preston Foster, as Kelley, isn’t called on to do much more than be the strong, dependable, moral anchor but he does it capably enough.

Sam Fuller would go on to make more famous, and better films than this but there are some memorable scenes. The climactic shootout has Ford framed in inky blackness – maybe signifying the moral void he now inhabits. There’s also a great scene in a saloon where Ford listens to a travelling minstrel sing about the murder of Jesse James. This was mirrored in the recent film by Andrew Dominik, but I prefer the way it was done here. After introducing himself, Ford insists that the singer complete his ballad as he stares implacably at him. You can almost taste the man’s fear as he chokes his way through the song, and struggles to utter the words ‘the dirty, little coward’ to Bob Ford’s face.

Criterion put this out on DVD in the ‘First Films of Samuel Fuller’ set, and it’s not available separately. This is part of the Eclipse line, and hasn’t had the careful restoration commonly associated with Criterion releases. However, it still looks good enough and I didn’t find the damage marks present to be particularly distracting. All in all, I Shot Jesse James is an interesting, if minor film.


18 thoughts on “I Shot Jesse James

  1. Being a Fuller apologist clouds my opinion of this a little, but I do think it’s a solid film (though I’d agree with your assessment of it being minor). I appreciated it even more after seeing the Dominik film and noticing a couple of similarities (the ballad number, but also the post-shooting theatrical performances). Casey Affleck ruined any appreciation I had for John Ireland here, but I’d maintain it’s the best of the bunch in terms of classic-era Jesse James-related movies.


  2. True, John Ireland is a bit wooden here but I thought that only served to emphasise his character’s naivity and foolishness. Having said that, Casey Affleck’s recent performance does completely overshadow it.

    As for the theatre scenes, they were much more effective here than those in ‘The Return of Frank James’, weren’t they?


  3. I enjoyed the film, never mind that in budget terms it’s just one step up from ‘Leave it to Beaver’.

    Fuller serves it up just like the newspaperman he was, as if it was an assignment from his editor: ‘Get me the skinny on Robert Ford – I want the whole thing, why he really shot Jesse, what’s he doing now, and the girl. There must have been a girl…I want tragedy, and lots of it.’

    And those endless newspaper headlines, one of the few films where they, and the intros, actually read as if they were written by a real hack.


  4. Funny you should mention those headlines. As I watched this I wondered if they had been lifted from actual contemporary newspapers. Probably not, but you’re right about them having a ring of truth.


  5. An interesting film in it’s portrayal of both James and Ford. I’m not sure (historically) that Ford had much remorse though – as he traveled around trying capitalize on his deed for quite a while. AIt looks like a bit of karma caught up to both the Ford brothers eventually. The film certainly kept my interest and the performances are pretty good. Though Reed Hadely – who played James, is Billed 4th on the posters, he had a very good film career – right up till 1971 – but now seems to pretty well a forgotten Actor.


  6. It’s now over ten years (!) since I last watched the film and then wrote this brief piece. As such, I remember very little about it all beyond the fact I generally enjoyed it. Thanks for looking up the review and commenting as it’s now got me thinking about the movie again and I’lll try to give it another viewing when I get the chance.
    As for Hadley, I agree he is now forgotten by all but old movie fans, and maybe vintage TV buffs too as he spent most of his later career working extensively in the medium. I think the last thing I saw him in, or the last one I remember anyway, was the low budget but quite good Little Big Horn.


  7. My step father was Robert W Gardner, who always told me he was one of the screen play writers on “I Shot Jesse James.” A list of the credits shows his name but I cant find ANY information about him. A search shows some “Robert Gardner” given “uncredited” reference, but then it shows there was some “Robert Gardner” who wrotescreen play for movies in the 70s !! That’s not my step dad. He died in 1960. I doubt that someone who write a screen play in 1949 would be writing them in 1970s….even, it shows, in the 2000s!. How can I find the truth about this???


    • Hmm, that is odd. IMDb shows that name as directing movies in the 1980s, so something must be wrong there.
      I have no knowledge to share on this but maybe someone who visits the site can help. I’ll flag it up and see if there’s any response.


      • Thanks !! My step dad…Robert Gardner…was 54 in 1960 when he died…He said he was involved in that movie…I started to Google it and it came up…Robert Gardner is listed on the movie info….but then a further search showed activity by some Robert Gardner in the 2000s…how could “their” Robert Gardner write a screen play in 1949 AND in the 2000s?? Thanks for your efforts


  8. Pingback: Some info on a Sam Fuller movie sought… | Riding the High Country

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  10. I’m a huge Fuller fan but I’ve been sitting on the Criterion set for over a decade – not sure why. But I found this film, despite its low budget and the addition of the love triangle, really satisfying thanks to Ireland’s understated performance and Fuller’stypically full-throated engagement with his subject. Easy to forget how good an actor Ireland was but he carries it really well. And it’s such an unusual theme too. Very memorable.


    • I’ve not watched this in over 14 years but I know I liked it well enough at the time and ‘m with you on John Ireland’s qualities as an actor.
      As for neglected sets of movies, I’m in a similar boat with a lot of stuff and I’m equally at a loss to know why!


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