I Shot Jesse James (Samuel Fuller / U.S., 1949):

The blunt title is just the kind of fabulous headline an intrepid newshound would pick for his directorial debut. The titular outlaw is first a flat profile nailed on a wanted poster, then a giant, bushy-bearded face, impassive like an undertakerís but for the fervid, lupine eyes. Close-up of a sweaty banker with hands up, foot slowly inching toward the alarm bell, guns drawn as the camera dollies back to reveal the robbery as tableau vivant; the composition combusts as the bullets start to fly, and there you have the cornerstone of Samuel Fullerís cinema of collision. Jesse James (Reed Hadley) saves Robert Ford (John Ireland) in the aftermath of the hold-up, and takes him into his hideout: "They say when you save a manís life, you assume his responsibilities." Both desperadoes pine for domesticity, Ford gets wind of the price on his friendís head and plots his legendary betrayal. Naked and soapy in a bathtub, James gifts Ford with a six-shooter and offers his back, though the key shooting in this tale of sublimated love and rape is consummated after dinner and under a slanted family portrait. Ostracized more as traitor than as criminal, Ford is rejected by his actress beloved (Barbara Britton) and engages in a self-flagellating bit of "playacting," re-enacting his Judas act on a stage before audiences. All he gets back is his own cowardice hurled back in ballad form and snot-nosed gunslingers vying for his notoriety. Fullerís arresting reworking of his all-time fave The Informer (vide Preston Fosterís role, and the blood-money scene), done with a frontal intensity that rightly reminded Andrew Sarris of Dreyer. The West and its theater, early traces of essayism (Shakespeare is quoted, or is it Aristotle?), contradictory forces building up to the endingís Pietŗ -- the purity of pulp, not that Fuller minds impurity ("to be a little corrupt for the sake of art, that I wouldnít mind"). With J. Edward Bromberg, Victor Kilian, Tom Tyler, and Tommy Noonan. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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