Sunday, January 5, 2014

Killing Jesse

I'm a big fan of Andrew Dominik's 2007 THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. Though it bombed at the box office and made a quiet transition to DVD, it remains one of the most original westerns I've ever seen. It's long, meditative and haunting, with undertones of sexual repression and violent jealousy embodied in the mesmerizing performances by Casey Affleck as Bob Ford and Brad Pitt as Jesse. I think it's pretty damn great.

Having said that, I will admit that it's not for every taste. It's less of a western, really, and more of an epic character study. When I saw it in the theater in 2007, most of the audience walked out. By the end it was just me and one other dude. (You and me, buddy--wherever you are.)

I say all this to say that recently I saw Sam Fuller's 1949 I SHOT JESSE JAMES for the first time. Though it is far more of a conventional western (at least by our standards today), I was surprised by how closely it mirrors the story of the Dominik film. Fuller's directorial debut, it doesn't have quite the snap and fire of his later work, but it does have a distinct point of view, a sympathy for the devil that we'd see throughout his career. One reason that the film isn't better is that it stars John Ireland as Bob Ford and Reed Hadley as Jesse. Ireland could be effective in supporting roles (think RED RIVER) but he was pretty bland as a leading man. (This lack of charisma is ironic given Ireland's offscreen reputation as one of Hollywood's most nortious skirtchasers.) As for Hadley, he was better known as a voiceover man. He did a lot of the booming Voice Of Authority reads that you hear at the beginning of docu-noirs. Seeing him here, it's no surprise that he wasn't more often employed onscreen.

Still, I SHOT JESSE JAMES makes for interesting lesson in how a story is shaped and molded by style and performance. It's like listening to an earlier version of a favorite tune.

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