I Shot Jesse James

I Shot Jesse James

“I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it... The first Sam Fuller movie I ever saw was his first, too. I was seven years old, and I’d seen a preview for I Shot Jesse James. I wanted to see it just because of the title. When the day finally came, I remember sitting on the bus with my father on our way to the theater and feeling so excited that I couldn’t understand how everyone else around us could just go about their business – didn’t they realize that I Shot Jesse James was playing? It’s a feeling many of us have as children, and we’re usually a little let down – the things we look forward to and fantasize about rarely live up to the image you can build up in your head. But this was one time that the movie more than lived up to its promise. I Shot Jesse James is a film about betrayal; Sam gets right to the heart of it – the way it feels to betray and to be betrayed. I was really struck by the moment when Jesse is taking a bath and Bob Ford, played by John Ireland, aims a gun at his back: Will he shoot, or won’t he? I’ve never forgotten this image, or many others from the movie. I’ve had them in my head since I was seven years old.”

Martin Scorsese1


« La première fois que j’ai vu un film de Sam Fuller, c’était en 1949. J’avais sept ans. c’était I Shot Jesse James. Je me souviens d’avoir eu un désir très fort de voir le film, simplement a cause du titre. Ce titre avait pour moi un impact, une immédiateté. Bien sur, j’étais a l’époque, comme je le suis encore, fou de cinéma. J’étais tellement excité a l'idée de voir ce film que dans le bus qui me menait, en compagnie de mon père, au cinéma du quartier, je regardais les gens, et je ne comprenais pas qu'ils puissent vaquer à leurs occupations habituelles sans réaliser que I Shot Jesse James se jouait au cinéma. C’était pour moi la chose la plus importante du monde. L’impact du film fut très fort sur moi, il a duré des années. Des images photographiques se sont gravées dans ma mémoire, les gros plans de la trahison, le moment ou Jesse James prend un bain et ou Bob Ford, joue par John Ireland, pointe son fusil sur son dos : va-t-il tirer ou non ? La force de cette scène de la trahison venait de ce qu'elle était dessinée. Les images que Fuller avait composées, depuis que j'ai sept ans, je ne les ai jamais oubliées. »

Martin Scorsese2


“Interesting as it is Fuller’s first film as director, thematically it establishes a number of Fuller’s ideas and preoccupations which he has continued to develop in all his works to date... Fuller’s films fall into the three main action genres – War, Western and Crime – but his methods of presentation and technical assurance prevent them from falling into stylistic or thematic cliches. For this reason, 80% of I Shot Jesse James is shot in close-up; the film is dealing with the motivation and reactions of an assassin, therefore the physical action is of secondary importance, but at the same time verbosity would have of been as great an error as any over-stressing the physical action. Instead the visual contrasts of the characters’ faces lay bare their emotional reaction to situations in evolution. Fuller does not attempt to provide concrete answer, but merely to present the problems; usually in a limited time-span in the war films or thrillers or in a more general time-span in his westerns. Nor are his films factually accurate, if the facts do not fit into the schema of his idea – for instance, the alias of ‘Tom Howard’ was used by Jesse James, not by any members of his gang. Although Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) is the first accredited psychological adult Western, Fuller can certainly claim that his film is one of the earliest pioneering Western efforts in this field, and as such, it rates highly.”

Kingsley Canham3


Samuel Fuller: That’s a very curious machine, which works on its own. I’ll have to tell my friends how I was interviewed by this millionaire journalist. Well, I can go ahead if I want and the machine will record what I say. All right, what will I say?

Jean-Louis Noames: I’d like you to talk about your first film, I Shot Jesse James.

I was very excited by this idea; doing a film abou an assassin. (It wasn’t the Western itself that interested me. I don’t like the genre for itself). But the best Western i’ve seen is The Ox-Bow Incident. I can see that you don’t like the film, but what interesed me wasn’t the skill of the director but the story. What a great story! People hanging innocent men and then discovering that they’ve made a mistake. Tjey look at each other, they stand at a bar, and say nothing. It shows up how stupid men are. You see, they can only stare at each other. But let’s get back to I Shot Jesse James. In this film the assassin is the hero. It isn’t very original; for 2000 years the great dramatists have been telling the same story. After all, Oscar Wilde wrote that magnificient line, “Each man kills the thing he loves.” In my film, I told the story of the man who killed Jesse James. He shot him in the back. It’s already a well-known story in the folklore and sagas of the West. At the end when the killer dies in the arms of his girl, he says to her (and this what’s, and I’m glad I was the one able to do this), “I want to tell you something” and, sure enough, everyone expects him to tell her that he loves her, (and this scene had already been done at least ten thousand times): well, this man, dying in the street, murmers “I’m sorry I killed Jesse”, and, looking into her eyes, goes on “because I loved him”, and that’s the end of the film. You see, my film is about the story of the guy who killed the man he loved. This was a Western made in 1949. It was the first time (I’ll show you the press-cuttings) that they talked about “the adult Western”. And, by the way, the film was a great success. It was John Ireland’s first star role. Here’s quite a funny story – we were talking about Red River; he played Cherry, with about three lines to say. You know that the stars were Monty Clift and Wayne. Do you remember the four guys who worked with Wayne? He was one of the four, and the only line he spoke was “Go down south and get the cattle, and you there, go north.” That’s all he had to say. But I liked his face and he looked tragic enough to play a man who had killed his best friend. And anyway, the character, Jesse, was only on the screen for a minute, but that wasn’t important. The only reason that I showed Jesse at the beginning of the film was to make the point that it’s very hard for a man to kill his friend. He tries three or four different ways, and he was scared. I’m very proud of that because it marked the beginning of a whole series of Westerns, and I’m not exaggeration. At one point, a boy shoots at Johnny Ireland, because he had killed Jesse James. By that time, Johnny Ireland was a famous man, because he had killed the most notorious bandit of them all. The boy fires at him and misses, and he shoots at the boy. He doesn’t know that’s it just a boy. In the end, the kid, hidden in the darkness, shouts out “Don’t shoot. I’ve no more bullets.” It’s the first time that he realizes that it’s just a boy who was shooting at hime. When he gets the boy to come out, he asks, “Why the hell are you shooting at me?” The kid answers, “The guy who kills you will be the best shot in the States; in other words, he’ll be famous.” Fox liked this idea so much that someone even wrote a story based on this one line, The Gunfighter, and they gave Gregory Peck the lead. Since then, there have been lots of films in the same vein. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I inspired all the these films, but is what I put in mine hadn’t been so successfully they wouldn’t have used the idea so often. But here’s one thing I don’t like; if you’re going to use someone else’s ideas, it ought to be because they inspire you, and not because they’re good box-office.

Why did you have so many close-ups in your film?

As I said, my film is the story of an assassin, and I wanted the faces to be seen clearly. You see, there wasn’t much action in the film. I like the title. Bob Ford had to be a weakling to kill the man he loved. But was he really weak? We don’t know – it’s just one of these things. I don’t know what went on in Brutus’ mind or in the mind of the man who killed McKinley and I don’t know what Booth was thinking to himself after he had killed Lincoln. Eighty per cent of my film consisted of faces, but that was all right because it was the story of an assassin. Just imagine a scene with people eating and there’s a man watching someone he intends to kill. They talk about bread, food, about ordinary things – what a contrast! You see to what extent one can use apparently unimportant dialogue. There’s a scene with Jesse taking a bath in a barn. He asks Bob Ford to rub his back and the murderer takes the brush. He notices a beauty-spot on Jesse’s back, and he says to himself, “There’s the perfect target.” He’s got the gun and stands right behind Jesse, who asks, “What are you waiting for?” He gives him a larger brush and says, “Go on, scrub.” I have another scene where Bob is outside the window, a few feet from Jesse. We didn’t need to pan or anything like that. He knows he’ll hit with his first shot and he aims. Jesse hears a noise outside and goes over to open the window. This noise upsets Ford because it’s an ordinary sound. Jesse says, “What are you doing outside? Come back in, I want to talk to you.” When Jesse is standing on a chair, having a “Home, Sweet Home” type picture, Bob Ford comes up and places a revolver at the nape of his neck and fires. In the film, he doesn’t get the full reward. The Governor gets his share, the Marshal and the Sheriff get theirs; You never actually see this inw sterns, but it’s what happens in reality. Who could take up his case? They give him a few dollars. He sets off on a tour to let everyone know who it was who killed Jesse James. He re-enacts the event on stage. He gets a man to climb on a chair, but on stage he couldn’t fire. Time has passed, he has already killed the man he loved, he can’t kill him a second time. That’s my story. But I must tell you something; I wasn’t all that interested in the action. Non of my films is, for me at least, an action film, even though there is action in all of them. Maybe people understand my films in a different way, and if I were to tell them the stories completely as I conceived them, it is possible that they wouldn’t accept them. Look, I don’t want to deceive the public. I’d rather satisfy them. That’s why I put action in my films, so that the action can carry the message and so the public doesn’t get the idea that I’m trying to deliver a sermon or a lecture. For me, the greatest art-form in the world is education. I believe that, one day, cinema (through the medium of film or television) will give the world first-class education. In a hundred or two hundred years a child of five or seven will be as mature as a fifty-year-old man today. I’d like to see, and indeed I myself would like, if I’m still in the running, to make a whole series of films, based on great historical figures, giving them traditional film treatment: action, suspense, mystery, drama, love, hate, duels, fights, laughs, anything. But a child, who’s seen ten of these films, will know for ever the history of a country or the life of a man. It seems to me that this is virgin territory and this is what I’d like to tackle. For example, I’ve already told you that I adore Balzac, but this wouldn’t stop me, if I were making a film bout him, from including the literary background in France at the same time; and this is the extraordinary thing – to teach people something, and also to succeed in reconstructing, in film, the habits, customs and controversies of an era. I believe that in this there is a great art form. We’re only skimming over the possibilities that are open to us, and this because of money, which plays far too important a role at the moment.

What you say is close to what Fritz Lang said, “All art must criticize”.

Yes, I’ll give you an example. As I see it, 95 per cent of films are born of frustration; of self despair, of poverty, of ambition, for survival, for money, for fattening bank accounts; that’s what’s behing 95 per cent of films. I think that 5 per cent, maybe less, are made because a man has an idea, an idea which he must express. I’m very proud of my record. It might nog be exceptional dramatically, or artistically, or even financially, but I’ve never made a film under pressure of circumstance. If I’ve made a bad film, if if you, or anyone else didn’t like it, or if my mother didn’t like it when she was alive, well they’re entitled to their opinion. I made it because, in myself, I wanted to. I had a story which I wanted to tell. Most of my films, for me at least, are better than others (perhaps you on’t agree) from the point of view of plot and characters. In the final analysis, that’s why I don’t care if people tell me that my films are action films; anyway, I think that’s funny, because it doesn’t even interest me; action is easy. You take a few good stunt-men, a bit of bravery in front of the camera, you can even show them beforehand what the’ve to do, you make them do it, and they do it – there’s hour action. That has nothing to do with drama.

Jean-Louis Noames in conversation with Samuel Fuller4


Jean Narboni et Noël Simsolo :  Donc, vous écrivez I Shot Jesse James. Et c’est le meurtrier qui vous intéresse.

Samuel Fuller : Oui. Que Robert Ford ait tué son meilleur ami d’une balle dans la tète, et qu’ensuite il ait été tue par un shérif dans la rue, cela ne m’intéresse pas. Ce qui m’excitait, c’était de faire revivre son crime à un assassin. Alors, on pouvait réaliser qu’il n’était pas seulement malade, mais conscient. II connaît sa maladie. Je m’approche de la maladie mentale a ma façon. De sorte qu’à la fin du film, lorsque le shérif tourne le dos à Ford, sachant que ce fils de pute a tué Jesse dans le dos, pour lui, ça veut dire: « Je ne pense pas qu’il aura le courage de tuer ) nouveau, en tirant dans le dos de quelqu'un. » Mais moi, je sais que cet assassin est un maniaque. C'est pourquoi, au théâtre, il ne peut pas jouer son rôle. Son propre rôle. II va au saloon, il boit un coup. Un homme vient chanter une chanson qui parle de lui, mais le chanteur ne sait pas que c’est Bob Ford qui est devant lui. La chanson dit: « Le sale petit lâche qui a tué dans le dos... » II dit: « Je suis Robert Ford. » Le chanteur est très gêné. Ford lui dit: « Continue. Chante-la. » II est en train de se tester. Est-ce qu’il peut supporter cette folie? Oui, il le peut. C’est une histoire psychiatrique. La texture du film est psychiatrique. Le New York Times a écrit que c’était un western adulte.

Jean Narboni et Noël Simsolo en conversation avec Samuel Fuller5


Stig Bjorkman: I Shot Jesse James was built up from a ballad, wasn’t it?

Samuel Fuller: “The Ballad of Jesse James.” It’s a very famous ballad, and I use that melody for the main musical theme of the picture. The ballad is about Robert Ford, who killed Jesse James. And I got an idea about how to use this ballad. I’d have a troubadour, a traveling singer, come into a saloon and sing a song about the man who killed Jesse James. And in the song he’s no good, Robert Ford, the assassin: “… the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard in the back …” Suddenly one of the men in the bar (it’s the first time this kind of thing is used, this kind of drama with a ballad) says, “I’m Robert Ford.” Now the man stops singing. Ford says, “Sing it!” The man says, “Well, I don’t think it’s a very popular song, Mr. Ford.” But Ford repeats, “Sing it!” So the man has to sing the song to the man it’s about, and he insults him with the lyrics. The singer almost dies doing that. You see sweat coming down his face. Afterwards, my idea was stolen for I don’t know how many westerns.

Stig Bjorkman in conversation with Samuel Fuller6


Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin: How much were you relying on popular knowledge of the shooting of Jesse James? In Jesse’s living room in the movie, the picture on the wall is tilted. Would the audience know the popular version of Jesse’s death, and respond to that?

Samuel Fuller: Even as kids, we’ve all seen illustrations of Jesse being shot while adjusting a picture on the wall. I wanted to get a simplification of what we know, but I wanted it to be fresh. I tried to get the feeling of a gun and a weird room by tilting the camera. I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction; and the picture to tilt in another. So that when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.

I love the West. I read a lot about the West, and I’m shocked, I’m ashamed that in pictures they have not made the true story of the winning of the West –comprising 90 percent foreigners, 100 percent laborers, nothing to do with guns. Streets, mountains, roads, bridges, streams, forests – that’s the winning of the West to me. Hard! Tremendous, tremendous fight. But we have, as you know [instead], cowboys and Indians and all that. Shane comes into town, cleans it up, and leaves. He’s doing that every week now on TV.

That’s why I didn’t want any horsemanship in the picture. After we finished shooting, Lippert put in some stock shots of people riding around. I didn’t want that. I’m not interested in a horse story. I’m not even interested in Jesse. I’m interested in Ford, and how difficult it must be for an assassin to kill someone, especially someone he knows. How difficult!

Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin in conversation with Samuel Fuller7

  • 1Martin Scorsese in Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), ix.
  • 2Martin Scorsese, « Voilà pourquoi les films de Fuller m’obsèdent, » in Il était une fois... Samuel Fuller, ed. Jean Narboni et Noël Simsolo (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986).
  • 3Kingsley Canham, “I Shot Jesse James,” in Samuel Fuller, edited by David Will and Peter Wollen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival ’69 in Association with Scottish International Review, 1969), 14-16.
  • 4Jean-Louis Noames, “Interview. Samuel Fuller talking to Jean-Louis Noames,” in Samuel Fuller, edited by David Will and Peter Wollen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Film Festival ’69 in Association with Scottish International Review, 1969), 14-16.
  • 5Jean Narboni et Noël Simsolo,Il était une fois... Samuel Fuller, (Paris: Cahiers du Cinéma, 1986).
  • 6Stig Bjorkman, “Samuel Fuller: Interview,” in Samuel Fuller, edited by Gerald Peary (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
  • 7Eric Sherman and Martin Rubin, “Samuel Fuller,” in Samuel Fuller, edited by Gerald Peary (Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2012).
UPDATED ON 27.05.2018