Story: In an effort to keep one step ahead of the law, Jesse James (Reed Hadley) has been living a low profile existence, even using a false name to avoid suspicion. He is still involved in the crime racket of course, though his wife would prefer he leave his current associations behind. Robert Ford (John Ireland) has his own issues, as he has rekindled a romance from his youth, though Cynthy (Barbara Britton) wants him to turn straight and wants to find him a pardon. She is an actress who wants to be on a bigger stage and while she cares for Robert, he worries she will choose rival John Kelley (Preston Foster), which prompts a desperate decision. He learns that a pardon and a large cash reward await whoever brings Jesse James down, but could he live with himself if he killed his own friend?
Entertainment Value: This was the first feature directed by Samuel Fuller and while it might not be one of his best, it shows great potential and makes an interesting debut, to be sure. The narrative is a well known one, but I Shot Jesse James never feels like a retread in the least and instead, takes a personal, intimate approach to the storyline. The focus is on Robert Ford as he faces the consequences of his actions, which provides some interesting moments for us to watch, since he believes his choice was for the right reasons, even if it wasn’t an ethical decision. The inner conflict unfolds in believable, grounded ways, with the movie careful to not veer into over the top melodrama, so the atmosphere is authentic and it is easy to lose yourself in the experience. The various ways his actions have impacted others is also explored, often in very direct ways and the writing handles those sequences well. I found this to be an engaging and always interesting picture, well worth a look.
The cast here is a talented ensemble, with John Ireland in the central role and he carries off the role very well. I appreciated how he was able to bring across subtle, controlled emotion in Ford, showing the inner conflict without being overly dramatic. The slow burn of his character’s arc plays out so well thanks to Ireland’s performance, turning up the heat at a consistent pace that feels realistic and with this kind of emotion involved, that’s no small task. As he crosses certain thresholds after certain encounters, you can see him slowly unwind Ford’s mind, especially in the bar scene with the traveling musician and his face off with Kelley. Ireland is terrific here and bounces off his costars with skill as well, with the cast overall bringing the best out in each other. Barbara Britton also has a memorable turn in this one, again showing just the right emotional evolution with her character. The cast also includes Preston Foster, Reed Hadley, and Victor Kilian.