Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Auteur Files #3a: Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (1949)

Samuel Fuller

Nobody made films the way Samuel Fuller did. While he toiled for the earliest and most prolific part of his career in B-movies and genre pictures that were mostly either ignored or looked down upon by mainstream critics and middlebrow arbiters of taste, he nonetheless was discovered and championed in the early 1960s by Euro cinephiles mostly aligned with the Nouvelle Vague, an awakening that coincided with an interest in his films from the early Auteurists in the United States. This resulted in his oeuvre becoming one of the most contentious bodies of work to emerge from Hollywood in the period between the end of World War II and the decline of the studio system. Those who opposed the Auteur theory and disliked the rulebook jettisoning upstarts of the New Wave often used Fuller’s films as evidence against the very movements that championed him (in this regard, he’s similar to Jerry Lewis and Douglas Sirk). Many people found his work to be emblematic of unappealing aesthetics or dangerous ideology. A random movie by Fuller could be tawdry and sensationalistic while also being empathetic and progressive. These flashes of conflict are part of what makes the films so interesting, but I’m guessing that many people just saw inconsistencies and contradictions. The redemption of Sam Fuller into a cornerstone of personal filmmaking from within an impersonal, profit minded system fits perfectly with other transformative reevaluations that developed as the 20th century wound down: various pulp fictions, formerly disreputable strains of rock and pop music, comic books, outsider art etc. It was the blurring of the three brows, high low and middle. In 1958 the vast majority of people who professed to care about motion pictures as art were likely to view Fuller’s work as escapist and potentially harmful fare. In 2008 his films are a staple in the Criterion DVD collection.

The Eclipse series is a sideline of Criterion that specializes in affordable box sets sans extras that thus far are devoted to groupings of films by director, some canonical, others obscure or in need of reassessment. Series 5: The First Films of Samuel Fuller includes three works, indeed his earliest as director, that gain significance when grouped together and viewed in close proximity. Watching them projected from a quality print in a theatre would have certainly been preferable to home viewing, but I’ll take what I can get. And what I got was great. I’m going to opine on the films separately, in the order they were released, giving an individual post for each movie, and then down the road I’ll hopefully deal with some of Fuller’s awesome later work.
I Shot Jesse James is a low budget film released in 1949. One of its biggest points of interest is in locating the presence of Fuller in his debut as director. Much of what is associated with him is already here: the tabloid sensibility (flying newspaper headlines), the almost flaunting engagement with his lack of budget (the obvious and rugged use of day for night), and the striking structural decisions (the film opens in the middle of a bank robbery). The first shot of the film is a close-up of Jesse James, and it’s a telling indicator of what will be a large part of the movie’s visual motif. While a large portion of westerns are concerned with space and landscape (movement and geography and how people react to it and change it), the story here doesn’t really engage with these issues at all. Most of the movie takes place indoors. It would be tempting to just chalk up the focus on interiors with the lack of budget given to the film, but that doesn’t explain the recurring and very effective use of close-ups.
I Shot Jesse James is largely about neurosis. Robert Ford wants to quit the gang and start a farm with his old sweetheart Cynthy, but he’s cash-strapped. Catching wind of the $10,000 reward on James’ head (dead or alive), he eventually succumbs and shoots Jesse in the back in his cabin. After a trial, he finds himself denied the reward, and has a sticky emotional encounter with Cynthy, who is disturbed by his actions and more than a little fearful of his emotional fervor over the two of them making a life together. Cynthy has caught the fancy of John Kelly, and she eventually rebuffs him, though it seems that her actions are more motivated for Kelly’s safety than in a lack of interest in his affection. Kelly leaves town for Colorado, hoping to strike gold, and narrowly avoids a confrontation with an angry Ford. After finding himself unable to reenact his shooting of James in the traveling theatre show in which Cynthy is the star, Ford also heads to Colorado, hoping to get rich and secure his life with her. Against the odds, Ford does strike gold, and sends for Cynthy. Ford and Kelly have established a respectful if distant association by this point, and after Cynthy’s arrival, Frank James arrives, not to kill Ford as everyone assumes but instead to inform him that his gal and Kelly are sweet on each other. Naturally, there’s a showdown in the street. Ford is shot and while dying in the road declares to Cynthy that he’d always loved…..Jesse.

Uh-huh. That last revelation might just seem like a mild quirk if it weren’t for the blaring homoeroticism from earlier in the film, where a pre-death Jesse, taking a bath with a nervous Robert in the room, presents his back and says Go ahead. This is first presented as a taunt to Robert to shot him, but then is wonderfully twisted around to reveal that Jesse just wanted him to wash his back. How could Robert say no?
Now, this is more than just some kooky accidental double-entendre. When asked, Fuller stated that the homoerotic aspect of I Shot Jesse James was intentional, and that his producer Robert Lippert was so hopelessly square that the then-subversive content slid right passed him. It was integrated in such a way that it made it through the Film Board as well, and now stands as a fine example of Fuller throwing a curveball right by the censors ala Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby and Hitchcock’s Rope. For in the movie, Robert Ford’s killing of James seems less inspired by a deep love for Cynthy and more motivated by the intense need for some sort of acceptable life in societal terms. Robbing banks isn’t a suitable way to live, even less so when you have all these bewildering feelings about the leader of your gang and end up scrubbing his back with a brush when he asks you to. What better way to put an end to all these weird, socially unacceptable feelings then by corking the source in the back, collecting ten large, and living the farmer’s life with a comely wench, i. e. Fitting In. After the fact, when he’s vilified as a coward by almost everyone, his desire to succeed in his plans with Cynthy takes on the pitch of pathology. He sees the killing of James as an act of betrayal, and the only thing that can stop the self-corroding power of this betrayal is to achieve the goal which motivated him in the first place. Only when he’s dying and no longer need worry about the opprobrium of the community at large can he look the woman he dragged all the way out into the mountains of Colorado in the eye and tell her that he always loved not her but Jesse. How ‘bout them apples, baby?

The character of Cynthy is one of the most interesting elements of the film. Barbara Britton does a nice low-key job with a role that’s essentially presented as a feminine ideal. To put a finer point on it: not only does Robert Ford kill with the intention of gaining the financial wherewithal to marry her, but the John Kelly character falls for her, and when she makes the trip to Colorado her manager/show producer Harry Kane follows her there. Cynthy is a real paradigm. She contrasts strikingly with Jesse’s wife in the beginning of the movie, whose function is to nag, nag, nag, and generally serve as at least partial impetus to why James was so eager to go off robbing banks. Cynthy is a free woman who expresses herself creatively and is quite unencumbered from the burden of responsibility. Where Ford obsessively clings to her as a way to help counteract his own dysfunction (which only serves to make matters worse), the attraction between her and Kelly seems based more healthily on sincere human affection. He’s a bit of a free spirit himself, and his character is presented as decent and nonjudgmental (he’s one of the only people in the film that doesn’t treat Ford like a pariah). It’s important that I Shot Jesse James ends with Ford dying in the street instead of with a concluding sequence of Cynthy and Kelly making inroads to some future union. After all, this is a film about Ford’s actions. If Cynthy is given the importance in the narrative that I think is intended, then the ending isn’t so much a confession as it is a declaration of acceptance. It’s a bitter pill that he couldn't come to terms with who he is until he’s a dying man lying in the dirt, but that’s the movies for you.

Fuller’s story is brought to life by his visual choices. They are superficially in line with his future reputation as a primitive but upon consideration posses a depth and consistency that reveals him to be a less intuitive, seat of the pants director than some people claim. The use of close ups bears mentioning again, as does the choice of dispensing with a suspenseful buildup to the opening robbery. The opening sequences of debut films are often indicative of what will come later in a filmmaker’s career, but rarely are they as strong as they are here. If Fuller doesn’t want it and it can be dispensed with, then out the door it goes. No need for establishing shots or needless exposition, for the title of the movie does plenty to clue in the viewer to what they are going to see. And because this material is left out, all the thematic musing in the above paragraphs gains credence. It becomes obvious that Fuller wasn’t really interested in making a standard western at all, but was far more inclined to start with a mythic part of American history and then bend it to his own ends (which puts him in line with all the great directors of westerns from Ford and Hawks up to Peckinpah and Leone and perhaps Eastwood). Based on I Shot Jesse James, it seems clear to me that if Fuller is to be labeled an intuitive director it is only because his creativity corresponded so well with the rapid-fire pace of low-budget film production. There are plenty of little moments in this movie that point to Fuller as a robust artist. Just a gesture like filming Ford alone in a room with his shadow splashed on the wall behind him (which I like to think suggests something about the man and his conscience, something that can be communicated to the viewer pictorially instead of with dialogue) is enough to signify that he wasn’t just making unconscious decisions that would be injected with meaning by writers, scholars, and film-nuts. He was able to absorb the often brutally raw sensibility of modern life (in the process injecting then-contemporary vitality into a period film) and was able to spit it back out in an idiosyncratic manner that was bursting with energy and conviction. Fuller didn’t make a masterpiece with his debut, but he did lay the groundwork for a bunch of them. To see him at this early stage in his development as a fly in the ointment of the tidy and dismissive impulses of good taste is a real pleasure, as well as an opportunity to correct received wisdom with first-hand experience.

Argentine poster for the film.

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