Monday, May 14, 2007

I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Baron of Arizona (1950)

The Museum of the Moving Image's Sam Fuller retro kicked off this past weekend, and I managed to catch his first two features, neither of which I'd seen before. I Shot Jesse James (1949) is his directorial debut, but he'd already been writing stories for the screen since the 1936 musical Hats Off. His Jesse James is a queasy sweaty-palmed affair that pays closer attention to the aftermath of James'(Reed Hadley) murder by his friend Robert Ford (John Ireland) than the act itself. Anyone who kills the outlaw will be granted amnesty, no questions asked, and so his closest friend, Bob Ford, itching to get hitched, shoots him in the back as he's straightening a portrait on the wall. A quote from our patron saint Manny Farber: "Fuller is one of the first to try for poetic purity through a merging of unlimited sadism, done candidly and close up, with stretches of pastoral nostalgia in which there are flickers of myth." And how!

In a story that's ready-made myth (and one in which James is presented as a flawed but noble instantiation of Western heroism), Fuller's penchant for looming moist close-ups is abundantly present, with an especially lewd example 2/3 of the way through, when a wandering minstrel sings his ballad of that "dirty coward Robert Ford" to Ford's face - until Ford keys him to his identity - and forces him to continue anyway. The look of uncut anxiety on the singer's face as he's forced to finish the tune is pure torture on Fuller's part, but credibly underlines Ford's growing self-loathing and isolation, hammered home by his extraordinary stumble outside, where shadowed statues stare holes into him as he stumbles his way down the street, only to barely avoid potshots from a jug-eared youth, one who'd gaped in close-up at Ford's failed vaudeville re-enactment of the kill a few scenes earlier.

Preston Foster fills the hero slot as John Kelley, a burly prospector/lawman/wanderer, but his character is as ambiguous as any, a fighter who takes up the sherrif's gig only because he just went broke, and who's likely to run out on the female of choice, Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton) at a moment's notice. The only bond of any value is the love of James-Ford. To quote Howard Hawks on his A Girl in Every Port (1928), it's a love story between two men, and one that documents the dissolution after the other's death.

The second half of the double bill was The Baron of Arizona (1950), Fuller's second film, and one I hadn't heard of before, but it's certainly of interest. According to Fuller, here's how he got the idea (from his superb autobio A Third Face:

"I'd come across The Baron of Arizona during my hobo days in the thirties. I was sitting in a bar in New Mexico one day drinking whiskey with another newspaperman when a man pointed out the window at a government building acorss the street.

'See that place?' he said. 'That's where Reavis lived.'

'Who's Reavis?' I asked.

'James Addison Reavis. Fooled the U.S. government into thinking he owned all of Arizona."

And that's the film - it's understandably been dropped from auteur studies of Fuller, since it's distanced tone, spotty flashback structure, and adventure plot are miles away from his other work. Taken on its own, however, it's quite a bit of fun. This is mainly due to Vincent Price's work as Reavis. He was born to play this role: could anyone else play fake erudition better than him? His slimy dissimulations include joining a monastery in Spain, seducing a Gypsy woman, and convincing a peasant girl she's the Baroness of Spain. His favorite line: "I've known many women in my time...but I'm afraid of you." It works every time.

It eventually runs out of steam plot-wise, but Price and James Wong Howe's stark B&W cinematography are a joy throughout.

It also led me to a curious website called Mining Swindles. Here's the post on Reavis, and it contains some photos of his forgeries, including an etching on a boulder. And of course, everything else you'd want to know about mining swindles.

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