Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1949. Lippert Pictures. Screenplay by Samuel Fuller, based on the article by Homer Croy. Cinematography by Ernest Miller. Produced by Carl K. Hittleman. Music by Albert Glasser. Production Design by Frank Hotaling. Costume Design by Alfred Berke. Film Editing by Paul Landres.
Samuel Fuller’s directorial debut is a critical look at western mythmaking in advance of John Ford’s doing the same in The Searchers a few years later. Fuller’s experience as a newspaper man and his service during World War II colours the determination with which he tells us that the folk hero beloved by fans of the genre was actually a cold-blooded killer, making a sympathetic (and highly fictionalized) biography of the man who shot him. John Ireland is excellent as Bob Ford, James’ right-hand man, who wants to marry his actress girlfriend but she refuses unless he changes his line of work and gets away from the notorious, perpetually Most Wanted Jesse James. She won’t be aged before her time like James’ wife is by her perpetual worry, so Ford comes up with the perfect solution: the authorities are offering rewards aplenty for bringing the man in dead or alive, so using the gun that James gave him as a gift, Ford shoots him dead. Rather than the outcome he expects, however, he is vilified for killing a famous gunslinger, is labeled a coward for shooting him in the back while he was unarmed and, even worse, his lady love has eyes that wander elsewhere, plunging Ford in increasing guilt and depression. Ireland expertly performs the desperation to achieve the American dream through ever stranger means, performing in theatrical reenactments of the crime and heading for the Colorado gold rush among them. A jaded, dark western, this is a great watch especially for anyone who enjoyed the more dramatically detailed Andrew Dominik film on James made in 2007.