For all Jesse James’ legendary legendariness, it sometimes seems that the movies about him aren’t that interested in him. As Brad Pitt’s James shares the big screen and billing with Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford in the most recent Jesse James pic currently in theaters, two of the more idiosyncratic James/not James films have been freshly released on DVD.
Two-fisted cinematic auteur Samuel Fuller (Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor) launched his career with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James, and his trademark dynamic visuals and tough-minded view of human nature are already in place. Fuller’s story focuses on Ford (John Ireland), who shoots his friend in the back to gain amnesty and enough money to buy Cynthy (Barbara Britton) a ring. Ford spends the rest of the movie trying to face up to/live down his betrayal and win back Cynthy, who’s repelled, terrified, and increasingly drawn to prospector/lawman Kelley (Russ Meyer look-alike Preston Foster). It’s classic tragedy as B-Western, and Fuller makes the most of it.
Philip Kaufman’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid hails from 1972 and the revisionist school. Robert Duvall plays James as a psychotic redneck goon still fighting the Civil War, but the spotlight is on Cliff Robertson’s Cole Younger, a long-haired outlaw philosopher and the brains of the outfit, equipped with an early bulletproof vest and a dent-proof wonder at the world. The West is already being tamed by steam engines and baseball games, and Younger would rather accept amnesty than rob and kill, but he and his brothers join the Jameses for one last big score, and you know how that usually goes. The film’s parts don’t quite add up to a satisfying whole, but they sure are colorful and amusing.