Thursday, September 08, 2011

I Shot Jesse James

"It Was Legal." "It Was Murder."

Samuel "Flashback" Fuller, reliving the nightmare, the trauma (cf. Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, The Big Red One, etc.): Bob Ford (John Ireland) can't bring himself to pull the trigger in the re-enactment of Jesse's murder (Jesse played by Reed Hadley), and he's being paid to do so, before an audience.

A film about what happens when action passes into mythology...

After Bob Ford retreats from the stage, in quick succession he
— is serenaded by an unwitting troubadour with the ballad of "the coward Robert Ford"
— is shot at by a young boy who, once Ford returns fire, relents and claims he only wanted to be the one who killed the most notorious gunman in the land
— spins to take in a prospect-messenger galloping through the street, firing his revolver skyward (Ford's shot nerves recoil once more) and announcing to the townsfolk: "Silver! Silver!", thus completing the nightmarish tripartite-sequence with an echo of Judas's betrayal.

After he strikes it silver-rich, to set the scene for a proposal of marriage to Cynthy (Barbara Britton), a trouper of modest talent, Bob Ford takes rooms done up as a floral hell — a camp Gethsemane.

I Shot Jesse James by Samuel Fuller, 1949:

Much has been made of the homoeroticism of the washtub scene, but a gay lust in-and-of-itself never motivates the characters of James and Ford, nor does such a subtext drive any concrete aspect of the story. What the tub sequence accomplishes is to make The Homoerotic Suggestion a symbol for the mutually admiring, near-brotherly love shared between the two men (oblivious in part to the existence of Jesse's actual kin, the intermittent Frank, portrayed by Tom Tyler); The Homoerotic Suggestion serves too to encapsulate crudely (of course crudely: a Sam Fuller film) the resentment felt by Bob Ford in what he determines to be an unequal power-relationship with the leader of the gang.

I Shot Jesse James by Samuel Fuller, 1949:

Near the end, two pivots:

(1) Frank James walking backward out of the saloon with his shotgun pointed at Ford the entire time.

(2) Kelly (the wonderful Preston Foster) refusing at first to turn to stymie Ford in the showdown, and complete the motif: Ford now cannot shoot a man with his back turned. At the fatal moment, Kelly blows Ford away and the latter admits his regret over killing, betraying, a man he loved.

All this business with backs, of course — from Ford's gaze upon Jesse in the washtub, to the moment of the boss's assassination — completes the "symbolic suggestion" of the film, and represents, within Ford's mind, guilt over having committed, metaphorically, anal rape.

And so begins this oeuvre of fuller symbology: with a flash back.

I Shot Jesse James by Samuel Fuller, 1949:


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