Barbara Britton, Preston Foster, Reed Hadley, and John Ireland in I Shot Jesse James (1949)


(director/writer: Sam Fuller; screenwriters: story by Sam Fuller/from an article in American Weekly magazine by Homer Croy; cinematographer: Ernest Miller; editor: Paul Landres; music: Albert Glasser; cast: Preston Foster (John Kelley), Barbara Britton (Cynthy Waters), John Ireland (Bob Ford), Reed Hadley (Jesse James), J. Edward Bromberg (Harry Kane), Victor Kilian (Soapy), Tom Noonan (Charlie Ford), Tom Tyler (Frank James), Byron Foulger (Silver King Room Clerk), Barbara Wooddell (Mrs. Zee James), Robin Short (Troubadour), Margia Dean (Saloon Singer); Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Clark K Hittleman/Robert Lippert; The Criterion Collection; 1949)

“The focus of this delightfully perverse character study Western is not on Jesse James, but on Bob Ford being a man cursed by his infamy as a Judas figure.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In his brilliant directorial debut, according to Phil Hardy, Sam Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”/”Fixed Bayonets”/”Park Row”) alters the legendary shooting of the bandit Jesse James (Reed Hadley) by Bob Ford (John Ireland) into this fictionalized account of misplaced love. The b/w delirious psychological Western, shot largely in intense close-ups, suggests through homoerotic gestures that Ford loved Jesse more than the actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton), but didn’t know it until it was too late and after the latter part of his life was steeped in humiliation by being defined by his foul deed. The low-budget film is based on a story by Sam Fuller and from an article in American Weekly magazine by Homer Croy.

Bob Ford rode with the James gang and after wounded in a botched bank hold-up and holed up for the last six months recuperating in Jesse’s farm cottage in St. Joseph, Mo., he decides to kill his best friend with the pearl-handled pistol Jesse just gave him. The cowardly Ford plugs Jesse, who goes by the alias of Tom Howard, in the back while he’s straightening a picture. Ford tells himself he did it to be a free man through the amnesty arrangement and will have enough money from the $10,000 reward offered to marry Cynthy. But she rejects him, and finds herself more drawn to the honorable prospector John Kelley (Preston Foster). Ford only gets $500 as a reward and finds the public is repulsed by him, but still willing to pay money to see him perform the shooting of Jesse on the stage. Cynthy’s manager, Harry Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), hires him as a special attraction performer, but he bungles the opening performance as he’s unable to pull the trigger and in desperation flees to Creede, Colorado to become a prospector. There he meets up with Cynthy and Kelley, now a marshal, and his maddening jealousy that he lost Cynthy to his rival leads him into a fatal gun duel with Kelley.

The focus of this delightfully perverse character study Western is not on Jesse James, but on Bob Ford being a man cursed by his infamy as a Judas figure. Ford must listen up close to a troubadour’s cutting song with the following lyrics: “the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard” and put up with nobodies just like him trying to make a name for themselves by picking a gun fight with him.