half-price Criterion sale: I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949), which is part of Criterion's Eclipse Series No. 5, The First Films of Samuel Fuller.
The movie was presented in a gorgeous black and white print on the Criterion DVD; a couple of the scenes had flaws, but otherwise the excellence of the print made a good film that much more enjoyable.
Although I'm not very big on "outlaw" movies, I am a big fan of Preston Foster, who plays one of the lead roles; I also enjoy leading lady Barbara Britton (SO PROUDLY WE HAIL!, THE VIRGINIAN).
The film tells the story of Jesse James' associate Robert Ford (John Ireland), who wants to marry his childhood sweetheart Cynthy (Britton). The only way Bob can be free is if he kills his friend Jesse James (Reed Hadley) and receives amnesty for his own crimes from the governor.
Ford does the deed, but almost immediately regrets it, not least because of Cynthy's revulsion when she learns he's betrayed his friend.
Ford resolves to make good and win Cynthy's hand in marriage. Cynthy becomes a very confused woman; she has some old romantic feelings for Bob, but fear and pity become the dominant emotions she feels for him. She also harbors a secret attraction to John Kelley (Foster). Cynthy fears for Kelley's life if she makes her feelings for him known.
Britton is extremely good in a multilayered performance, clearly communicating the myriad of emotions she feels towards Bob Ford; she can't seem to help feeling a pull toward him, but she's also become frightened, knowing he's capable of murder. The scene where she finally breaks down and expresses her emotions is excellent. I think Britton might give the best performance in the movie, although Ireland is also quite good as the tormented Ford.
Preston Foster was a breath of fresh air in each of his scenes, relieving the tension with his reassuring presence; his final confrontation with Ford is quite compelling. I also enjoyed seeing Reed Hadley, the narrator of so many docu-noirs, as a worn-down yet still forbidding Jesse James.
The supporting cast includes Barbara Woodell as Jesse's depressed wife, Zee; Tom Tyler as Frank James; Tommy Noonan as Charles Ford; and Victor Kilian, J. Edward Bromberg, Margia Dean, and Jeni Le Gon.
I'd rank this film, which was the very first film directed by Samuel Fuller, as a solid film with some nice touches, though not a classic. Fuller also wrote the screenplay.
It was shot by Ernest Miller at Southern California locations, including the Iverson Ranch.
Lippert Productions seems to have put out a whole series of James films, including GUNFIRE (1950) where Barbara Woodell again plays a James wife; THE RETURN OF JESSE JAMES (1950) which has many cast members from I SHOT JESSE JAMES, including Reed Hadley and Barbara Woodell, this time cast as Frank James and his wife; and THE GREAT JESSE JAMES RAID (1953), with Woodell reprising her role as Zee James.