Cast & Crew
J. Edward Bromberg
The James gang, led by the notorious outlaw Jesse James, is in the midst of robbing a bank when the teller sounds an alarm, sending the outlaws scurrying amid a flurry of gunfire. After Bob Ford, a member of the gang, is wounded in the crossfire, Jesse treats his injuries and takes him to recuperate at his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, where Jesse lives under the alias of Tom Howard. Six months later, Bob is still living at the James house, prompting Jesse's wife Zee, who distrusts both Bob and his brother Charlie, to voice her fears to her husband. When Bob discovers that his longtime sweetheart, actress Cynthy Waters, is appearing in St. Joseph, he hurries to town to see her. Cynthy is engaged in coversation with an admirer, prospector John Kelley, when Bob interrupts them, causing Kelley to leave. Knowing that Cynthy longs to marry and settle down to an honest farm life, Bob promises to leave the James gang and go straight. Upon returning to Jesse's house, Bob learns from Charlie that the governor has offered a $10,000 reward and amnesty to anyone turning in Jesse. Recognizing the governor's offer as a path to a new life with Cynthy, Bob determines to betray his friend. When Jesse presents Bob with a pearl-handled pistol as a gift, Bob aims it at Jesse's back, but guilt-ridden, is unable to pull the trigger. One day, while alone with Bob, Jesse voices his dream of leading a peaceful life. When Jesse turns around to straighten a painting, Bob aims his pistol and fires, shooting him in the back. Sentenced to hang for Jesse's murder, Bob is pardoned by the governor and awarded the paltry sum of $500 for his heinous act. With his reward, Bob buys an engagement ring and hurries to present it to Cynthy. When Cynthy, repulsed by Bob's betrayal, refuses the ring, Bob accuses her of being in love with Kelley. Fearing for Kelley's life, Cynthy begs him to leave town, and to placate her, he packs his bags and flees. Afterward, Bob apologizes to Cynthy and informs her that Harry Kane, her manager, has hired him to reenact the killing of Jesse James on stage. In his theatrical debut, Bob freezes, unable to pull the trigger, and is booed off stage, humiliated. Retreating to the saloon, Bob is further shamed when a wandering minstrel serenades him with a ballad detailing his cowardly deed. Seeking refuge on a deserted street, Bob finds himself the target of a young boy trying to make a name for himself by killing the "man who shot Jesse James." Now a magnet for every would-be-gunfighter, Bob leaves the territory to mine a silver strike in Colorado. In the town of Creede, he meets Kelley again when the two are forced to share a hotel room. Well liked by the townsfolk, Kelley is offered the job of marshal but turns it down to continue prospecting. That night, during a saloon fight, Bob prevents a thug from gunning down Soapy, an unarmed drunken prospector. The next morning, Bob awakens to find both Kelley and Cynthy's ring missing and assumes that Kelley robbed him. In gratitude, Soapy makes Bob his partner, and some time later, Cynthy receives a telegram from Bob, notifying her that he has struck silver and wants her to join him in Creede. With trepidation, Cynthy journeys to Creede, accompanied by Kane. As Bob and Cynthy talk, Kelley bursts into the room to turn over the thief who stole Bob's ring and is surprised to find Cynthy there. Unaware that Cynthy has come to end their relationship, Bob gives her the ring, and Cynthy, afraid of angering him, accepts it. Now broke, Kelley takes the job of marshal. Soon after, Kelley visits Cynthy and she admits that she no longer loves Bob. Overhearing their conversation, Frank James, Jesse's brother, strides into the room, but Kelley overpowers and arrests him. Freed because he is not a wanted man in Colorado, Frank seeks out Bob and vengefully informs him that Cynthy is in love with Kelley. Insane with jealousy, Bob goes gunning for Kelley. Coolly walking out to the street, Kelley turns his back to Bob, then swirls around, rifle in hand and tries to reason with him. Unwilling to listen, Bob fires at Kelley, and Kelley retaliates with a blast from his rifle. Bob dies in Cynthy's arms, voicing remorse for his betrayal of Jesse.
J. Edward Bromberg
Jeni Le Gon
T. A. Carman
Carl K. Hittleman
Robert L. Lippert
Robert L. Lippert
John Mccarthy Jr.
I Shot Jesse James
As the title suggests, the film has less to do with the legendary Jesse James (Reed Hadley) than Bob Ford (John Ireland), his former comrade who was compelled to shoot him in the back. But we do see them ride together, robbing a bank together (and nearly being caught thanks to the first electric alarm bell), and holing up together at James's home in Missouri, much to the chagrin of Jesse's wife Zee (Barbara Woodell). During his lengthy recuperation from a gunshot wound, Ford reunites with his former sweetheart, music hall singer Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton). He also makes the acquaintance of an affluent prospector, John Kelley (Preston Foster).
When Ford learns that he can win amnesty (and a $10,000 reward) for the betrayal of James, he cannot resist. As Ford contemplates the deed, Fuller teases the viewer with ripe opportunities for the shooting, such as when James is in a bathtub, his bare back turned to Ford. "Well, go ahead, Bob." Ford weighs a pistol in his hand. James continues, "What are you waiting for? There's my back -- scrub it."
Eventually, Ford shoots James, while James adjusts a picture on the wall, just as it has been depicted in the history books. Ford is given his freedom, but only a small portion of the $10,000. What he hadn't expected was that the deed would earn him the enmity of his friends and enemies alike. However much James was feared as a bandit, no one in pioneer America could excuse a man for shooting a friend in the back. Ford takes a job in a stage show, reenacting the murder before a scowling audience, but he finds himself unable to pull the trigger again. Dogged by his reputation as a scoundrel (even a wandering musician sings a ballad commenting upon his cowardice), Ford moves to a silver-mining town in Colorado, where he again encounters Kelley. For a time, a friendship is struck between Ford and Kelley, but fate soon turns them against one another, leading up to a fateful Wild West showdown.
The project began when independent producer Robert L. Lippert tracked down Fuller after reading his 1944 newspaper-themed novel The Dark Page. In his 2002 memoir A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking, Fuller recalled Lippert saying, "I'm interested in backing you so that you can turn one of your stories into a movie... What've you got?" Fuller responded ("between puffs on my cigar") that he wanted to make a film about Cassius, the Roman senator who engineered the assassination of Julius Caesar. As might be expected of a hard-nosed businessman who produced low-budget Westerns, Lippert was not enthusiastic. "Caesar? You want to make a film about naked guys hanging around Roman baths wearing bedsheets?" "Exactly," Fuller replied.
Perhaps Fuller's ambitious undertaking was inspired by Orson Welles, who in 1948 convinced Republic Studios head Herbert J. Yates to back a version of Macbeth. If so, then Lippert's decision to pass was a wise one, as the Shakespearean project was more costly and less profitable than the studio's typical output of medium-grade Westerns.
Fortunately, Fuller had a second idea on stand-by. "I want to do a little film with a good story, Sammy," Fuller quotes Lippert as saying, "where we can have some fun and both make a profit."
"Okay," Fuller responded, "I've got another assassin yarn. It's even more exciting. It's about Bob Ford, a great character. Nobody ever made a movie about him." Lippert asked who Ford killed. Fuller told him. Lippert replied, "Jesse James! Now we've got a movie!"
Fuller insinuates that Lippert nixed the Cassius project because he was uncomfortable with homoerotic undertones -- yet there are plenty of those to be found throughout the film they ended up making, a film Fuller describes as "a yarn about a guy who kills the man he loves."
It is interesting that I Shot Jesse James treats the legendary badman as a virtual saint, when Fuller had nothing but contempt for the real-life outlaw. In an interview with Lee Server, Fuller expounded upon the American legend. "Jesse James, as a teenager, was a female impersonator. He would dress as a girl and lure soldiers into his cabin like a whore, get them drunk, then his brother Frank would come in, kill them and rob them... He became a hero in the folklore, but Jesse James was a despicable character. The first train he robbed was full of wounded soldiers. He killed and robbed the wounded soldiers."
Fuller echoed this sentiment in his autobiography, calling James, "bisexual, masquerading as a girl to hold up trains that were carrying medical supplies. The guy was a low-down thief, a pervert, and a sonofabitch. But you couldn't show that stuff on a screen back then, demystifying one of the great American icons." Sure enough, James's cross-dressing tendencies are not alluded to in the final release version of I Shot Jesse James.
Not wanting to take the bridle (in more ways than one), Fuller insists, in his inimitable style, that he did not want to make a conventional western. "Making just another Western wasn't going to give me a hard-on. Holdups, revolvers, leather gloves, and galloping horses didn't do anything for me. The real aggression and violence in the film would be happening inside the head of a psychotic, delusional killer."
To play the "psychotic, delusional killer" (Ford, not James), Fuller chose John Ireland, who had just appeared in one of Hollywood's most notoriously homoerotic Westerns: Howard Hawks's Red River (1948).
There was no money to be spent on an A-list star. Even with a more marketable topic, Lippert made it clear to Fuller that the budget had to be kept low -- and that he wouldn't back the picture, "if the story cost was fabulous or if I was paying a star $1,000 for standing around."
The Los Angeles Times reported that Lawrence Tierney had been proposed for the role of Ford, but was nixed by producer Robert Lippert. For a time, Ann Doran was slated for the role of Jesse's wife, Zee, but was replaced by Barbara Woodell.
Fuller and Lippert's project was known as I Killed Jesse James during production, and was reported to have cost a mere $110,000. It was shot in ten days, on rented sets at the Republic Studios. Though Lippert oversaw the production, it was technically produced by Carl K. Hittleman.
Lippert first became involved in filmmaking in 1946, after having established a chain of successful movie theatres on the West Coast. Lippert would later be credited with a major innovation in film exhibition. According to Fuller, "Lippert built the first multiple theatre, or multiplex, in Alameda, California, with the idea of showing several films at once in the same building, giving more movie choices to patrons."
In an anecdote that captures the director's flair for the bombastic (and possibly his tendency to exaggerate), it is said that on the first day of filming, rather than calling "Action!" Fuller startled his cast and crew by firing a Colt .45 into the air. "At the end of the scene, I yelled 'Forget it' instead of 'Cut.' Holy cow, now I was a movie director!"
The title sequence is comprised of a series of posters tacked to a fence. It is the perfect way to open a film directed by a veteran newsman and inveterate showman, but Fuller claims it was done simply because the production had run out of money, and couldn't afford anything more elaborate. Fuller's journalist roots are reflected in the headlines that frequently appear to provide information to the viewer as well as neat graphic transitions to the narrative.
I Shot Jesse James premiered on February 26, 1949, and quickly rose out of the slums of the B-Western. When it debuted in New York, in April, it was at the 1,700-seat Palace Theatre, a first-run Broadway house. At the end of its initial run, the film had grossed an estimated $800,000 -- though historian Lisa Dombrowski suggests that this figure might have been inflated by the publicity-hungry Lippert.
It was better than the average oater, but no one mistook I Shot Jesse James for an art film. Variety recommended the film for "houses buying sturdy action product," and opined that Fuller was "not quite adept in handling the character study motivation."
The New York Times was considerably more critical of Fuller's directorial abilities. "In preparing this picture, Mr. Fuller concentrated more on character study than action and since the character study is not particularly interesting, I Shot Jesse James is a very mild pretense at being an entertainment." They dismissed it as "a commonplace movie...without distinction."
Based on the success of I Shot Jesse James, Fuller and Lippert continued their collaboration with another Western: The Baron of Arizona (1950).
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Carl K. Hittleman
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Ernest Miller
Production Design: Frank Hotaling
Music: Albert Glasser
Cast: John Ireland (Bob Ford), Reed Hadley (Jesse James), Barbara Britton (Cynthy Waters), Preston Foster (John Kelley), Barbara Woodell (Zee James).
by Bret Wood
I Shot Jesse James
I Shot Jesse James - I SHOT JESSE JAMES - Sam Fuller's Directorial Debut on DVD
The story, obviously enough from the title, is that of Robert Ford, the outlaw who infamously shot his friend Jesse James in the back in order to be granted amnesty and receive a reward. As written by Fuller and portrayed by John Ireland, Ford is a sympathetic, tragic figure - not really a hero, but also not a villain. He's a man whose decision to murder Jesse seems to have sprung more from simple-mindedness than from malice. Nonetheless, he is tormented by his actions and forced to relive the murder over and over, be it by reenacting the event in a stage show, hearing a song about it from a traveling minstrel, or simply enduring the scorn of others wherever he goes. While he claims not to care that he killed his pal for money, he develops ever-increasing self-loathing and a broken heart. He's deluded enough to think that a showgirl, Cynthy (the somewhat miscast Barbara Britton), will now marry him, but in fact she fears him to the point of being unable to tell him "no."
Also in the cast is an appealing Preston Foster as John Kelley, who may or may not be trying to win Cynthy for himself. Ultimately he becomes town marshall as well as a friend to Ford, but he must face him in a final showdown. Every major character is morally ambiguous and satisfyingly complex.
It may not be Fuller's most seamless picture, lagging a bit at times, but it is an auspicious directorial debut with many memorable moments. There's a striking vividness to certain sequences which Fuller would soon elevate to masterful levels in films like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Park Row (1952).
Before I Shot Jesse James, Fuller was a pulp novelist with several screenplay and story credits under his belt, as well as a former reporter and infantryman. Fuller's stories, including his novel The Dark Page, had caught the eye of independent producer Robert Lippert, a smart businessman who had begun his own career by pioneering the drive-in theater and in later years would invent the concept of the multiplex. Lippert was now offering Fuller the chance to write and direct his own low-budget movies.
Fuller pitched his idea for a movie about Robert Ford, Lippert agreed to it, and the two men shook hands. "That was all that was needed," Fuller later wrote. To Fuller, I Shot Jesse James was "a yarn about a guy who kills the man he loves... Holdups, revolvers, leather gloves, and galloping horses didn't do anything for me. The real aggression and violence in the film would be happening inside the head of a psychotic, delusional killer... What excited me about the yarn were the echoes of the Cain and Abel fable in Genesis, the first murder. The 'brother' killer is condemned to relive his crime over and over, never escaping the shame and outrage of it. I wanted to show Ford realizing that he's sick, then follow him as he sinks deeper into his sickness."
Fuller also took the chance to upend the Jesse James myth a little bit. Fuller believed that the real Jesse was bisexual, and there's a famous sequence here of Ford scrubbing James' back as James takes a bath - moments after Ford considers shooting him instead. The implication might have been lost on Lippert, but critics noticed it and were impressed with the complexity on display in the Ford-James relationship.
Fuller shot the picture in ten days for $100,000. "The time constraints and small budget," he wrote, "made I Shot Jesse James one of the toughest films I ever did, but I loved every minute of it. The scenes with little or no action were the most difficult. I used close-ups to reveal as much as possible about my characters' emotions."
The result was a sizable hit - quite a big deal for an independent movie in 1949, and a big confidence booster for the fledgling director: "Lippert had trusted me, giving me the independence to do the film my own way, and I hadn't let him down. The film's critical and box-office success was thrilling... There were scores of phone calls from producers with all kinds of offers. But I was going to stick with Lippert because he'd believed in me." Indeed, Lippert went on to produce Fuller's next two movies, The Baron of Arizona (1950) and The Steel Helmet, both of which are also now available in this new DVD boxset from The Criterion Collection's "Eclipse" line. While there are no extras other than some liner notes, picture and sound quality are up to Citerion's excellent standards, and the low (for Criterion) retail price makes the set a must-buy.
With the recent DVD releases of Jesse James (1939), The Return of Frank James (1940) and The True Story of Jesse James (1957), not to mention the upcoming Warner Brothers feature The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), I Shot Jesse James makes for mighty interesting viewing and shows how the most potent American myths can lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
For more information about I Shot Jesse James, visit The Criterion Collection. To order I Shot Jesse James, go to TCM Shopping.
by Jeremy Arnold
I Shot Jesse James - I SHOT JESSE JAMES - Sam Fuller's Directorial Debut on DVD
The working title of this film was I Killed Jesse James. The title of the work on which the film was based has not been determined, but contemporary sources indicate that it was adapted from an American Weekly magazine story by Homer Croy. Croy wrote two stories about Jesse James that appeared in American Weekly, "Jesse James May Never Die" (14 November 1948) and "Jesse James's Love Story" (19 June 1949). Croy also wrote a biography about James in 1949, entitled Jesse James Was My Neighbor, which some modern publications list as the picture's source. The film's onscreen credits are presented as a series of wanted posters on which the production credits and pictures of the actors are presented. The camera then pans from poster to poster. Casting director Yolanda Molinari's name was misspelled as "Yolondo" in the onscreen credits. A November 1948 Los Angeles Times news item notes that Lawrence Tierney was originally considered for the role of "Bob Ford," but was vetoed by executive producer Robert Lippert. A pre-production studio cast list indicates that Ann Doran was originally cast as "Mrs. Zee James." Although onscreen credits list Alfred and Katharine Glasser as composers of the film's song "The Man Who Shot Jesse James," others sources list Billy Gashade as the originator of that tune. I Shot Jesse James marked writer Sam Fuller's directorial debut. In a January 1949 New York Times article, Lippert stated that he "gave [Fuller] the chance [to direct], but I couldn't have if the story cost was fabulous or if I was paying a star $1,000 for standing around." Modern sources also list Fuller as producer. The Variety commented that Fuller had capably staged the physical clashes, but was not quite as adept at handling the character study motivation. Modern sources add Gene Collins and Chuck Roberson to the cast. For additional information on the James gang and the films featuring them as characters, please see Jesse James and The Return of Frank James in AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2212 and F3.3703.