Wednesday, June 2, 2010

That Dirty Little Coward: Robert Ford at the Movies

"Ford is a young man, about 22 years of age, and looks like a verdant youth from the country. In appearance he is a mere boy, and is the last person in the world to be taken as the slayer of the famous outlaw."
The New York Times, April 4, 1882.

It was Robert Ford, that dirty little coward.
I wonder how he feels.
"Jesse James," American folk song.

Recording by Vernon Dalhart (1925), uploaded to YouTube by cdbpdx

Robert Ford is an archetypal American traitor. If an American Dante were to stock his Inferno with his fellow nationals, we might expect to find Bob, if not his brother Charlie, smack at the bottom, gnawed on by an icebound Satan along with Benedict Arnold and John Wilkes Booth. In his time, he was seen not only as a traitor but as a conspirator and a mercenary. The most interesting thing I found out while researching the historical side of this review was the way the "assassination" of Jesse James impacted the career of Missouri governor T. T. Crittenden. In 1886, four years after Ford killed James, Crittenden was being considered for a diplomatic post. President Grover Cleveland rejected him, reportedly explaining that people back east would object because of Crittenden's role in James's death. Regardless of what people thought of James, many recoiled from a politician's employment of hired killers to solve a law-enforcement problem. Imagine if an elected official today was revealed to have hired a hit squad to take out alleged terrorists on American soil. Some would lionize him, but many others would condemn him. The people who made the latter of the two movies discussed below may have understood or even encouraged the analogy; they at least play up the political aspect of James's death more than the other film does.

But while the men who did that theoretical official's dirty work might be vilified as mercenaries or mere thugs, they certainly wouldn't be thought of as traitors, even if they were "radical" Muslims turning on their own kind. Bob Ford endured as a villain in the American consciousness long after the scandal surrounding Crittenden was forgotten mainly because he was seen as a traitor of the most venal kind. But Americans also have a tendency to play devil's advocate. There's a curiosity about why people do wicked things, why they betray, even if it boils down to a banal assumption that everyone has his reasons. You see it in the reluctance in many Jesus movies to portray Judas as a pure villain. Of our proposed victims in the lowest circle of American Hell, probably only Booth is denied this kind of consideration (as far as I know). So it was probably inevitable that at least one writer would follow up on the folk singer's rhetorical wondering and attempt to reconstruct what made Ford tick, what he really thought of James, and how he felt about what he did to the bandit antihero.

I Shot Jesse James (1949) is Samuel Fuller's first film as a director. Despite the title, the movie isn't told by Ford in the first person or even fully from his point of view. Ford's story is sometimes overshadowed by the fitful romance of the two figures who with him form a triangle; his fictional girlfriend Cynthy the saloon singer (Barbara Britton) and sometime lawman Kelly, a figure very loosely based on the man who actually killed Ford in 1892. Kelly is played by Preston Foster, an implausible leading man at the time but top-billed just the same. Ford is played by John Ireland, who'd just made an impression in Red River the year before and would make another in All the King's Men. He looks a little old to play Bob, but that actually adds emphasis to the quasi-oedipal motivation Fuller gives him.

Bob Ford (John Ireland) is torn between two kinds of love, for Barbara Britton (above) and Reed Hadley (below) in I Shot Jesse James.

The liner notes for the Criterion Eclipse edition of I Shot invite us to see a homoerotic subtext in the relationship of Bob Ford and Jesse James. The film does leave room for speculation, but the vibe I got was more parricidal than homoerotic. Fuller's James is played by Reed Hadley, an actor out of radio with a voice of generic bland authority. He sports more of a beard than Brad Pitt will later and it gives him a patriarchal, Lincolnesque if not Jesus-like look. His most provocative scene has him taking a bath, Bob bringing in fresh hot water by the bucket. Jesse uses this occasion to give Bob a revolver as a present, not knowing that Bob is already studying to kill him. But Bob can't kill him with the loaded weapon while contemplating Jesse's naked back, and when the outlaw somewhat impatiently demands to have his back scrubbed, Bob obeys.

Why does Bob want to kill Jesse? It's nothing personal, at first glance; he wants the bounty money so he can afford to marry Cynthy. His tragedy throughout the film will be his repeated attempts to earn Cynthy's hand by all means necessary, his belief that going to the maximum, to the point of murder, proves the intensity of his love, even while his romantic ruthlessness repels her. By making Jesse's death the precondition of Bob's hoped-for marriage, Fuller makes it look as if Bob has to prove himself a man (to himself, that is) by destroying a paternal figure. Jesse's naked back in the bathtub doesn't represent homoerotic temptation as much as it does the oppressive intimacy of the family household to a cranky adolescent. Bob has to look at Jesse's clothed back before shooting him, but Fuller makes a point of having James say that he "feels naked" without his guns as he climbs the stool to adjust the painting. We don't get a flashback, but we can assume that Bob's thinking of that humiliating scene with the tub as he lays poor Jesse in his grave.

Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) seems almost by design the opposite of Fuller's film. Dominik's film is lavishly budgeted while Fuller's is an indy B film. Assassination is almost exactly twice as long as I Shot, and the proportions of pre and post-assassination story are reversed, 3/4 of Fuller's film playing out after James's death while Dominik dedicates only about 1/5 of his epic to the aftermath. At first, Assassination promises a drastically different interpretation of Robert Ford, but in broadest terms both films come to the same conclusion about him.

It worried me to see Ford (Casey Affleck) portrayed as an obsessed fan of Jesse James (Pitt), even though we know that Bob did idolize the outlaw as a boy. His use of the slightly anachronistic term "sidekick" to describe his desired position in the James Gang didn't exactly boost my confidence. It seemed as if Dominik was imposing a 20th or 21st century character archetype on a 19th century legend. Fortunately, Bob's character evolves, albeit under duress. His fandom (his collection of newspaper clippings and dime novels) becomes an object of ridicule within the gang, including brother Charlie, who humiliates him in front of Jesse by telling tales of Bob's childhood worship of the bandit. Amused, Jesse presses Bob for more stories, goading him into a painful recitation of a host of Lincoln-Kennedy type resemblances between Jesse and himself. All of this puts Bob on the road to another kind of parricide. Treated contemptuously as a child by his peers, he has to prove his manhood by repudiating his idol -- or destroying it.

Nearly everyone treats Bob (Casey Affleck, on the floor) like a child in The Assassination of Jesse James, including Jesse (Brad Pitt, on the couch)

In the middle of this, there's a bathtub scene, either a homage to the Fuller film or just another version of a historical incident. There's no back scrubbing, though. Instead, Jesse uses this moment to ask Bob, "Do you want to be like me, or do you want to be me?" By this point in the story, the answer is probably neither. The major difference in content between Assassination and I Shot is that the later film gives Bob plenty of reasons to repudiate Jesse. For all we know, Fuller's Jesse James is no more and no less than the folk hero turned patriarch. Dominik and Brad Pitt's Jesse is gradually revealed to us as a monster. His constant sense of bemusement emerges as a depthless contempt for everyone around him. He's a genial paranoid who infects everyone around him with fear and distrust of each other. It'll sound strange to some of you, but the long, brilliantly written and acted scenes when Jesse probes for weaknesses, embarrassments and self-betrayals reminded me of nothing so much as accounts I've read of the inner circle of Josef Stalin, where the dictator enjoyed seeing his cronies make abject asses of themselves, while they understood that the wrong word could cost them their lives. The big difference is that Jesse James settled scores in a hands-on manner; maybe he was more like Saddam Hussein in that respect. At the same time, Dominik's Jesse has a clear death wish, as if his paranoia about betrayal was in part a matter of wishful thinking. It's as if he felt there was nothing left for him but to wait for murder, so he might as well make a game of it and enjoy himself a little longer. Brad Pitt nails the subtlety of James's menace, playing the legendary outlaw as something more sinister than the legend without turning him into a blatant psycho. I've liked Pitt best in his smaller comic roles, when he abandons the cool of stardom (he's brilliant in Burn After Reading, for instance), but for now Jesse James is the best work I've seen from him.

So why does Bob Ford want to kill this Jesse? For self-preservation, mainly, since he'd killed Jesse's cousin Wood Hite and assumes that James will kill him if he ever finds out. For all he knows, Jesse might just kill him for no good reason. Killing James is also part of a bargain with Crittenden (an uncanny cameo by James Carville); a pardon for Hite's murder in return for killing Crittenden's enemy. At the same time, killing his idol is essential to differentiating himself from Jesse and thus, like John Ireland's Bob in Fuller's film, proving himself as a man.

Dominik's Bob also kills Jesse for fame just as he joined the gang for fame. Celebrity is the subject on which Fuller goes most astray from history. In real life, Ford toured the nation recounting his exploit and re-enacting it on stage. Dominik shows him leaping off the stage to attack a heckler who called him a coward. But Fuller shows us a Ford who can't make it through the first night of the tour without having crippling guilt-ridden flashbacks of the real Jesse. Fuller's Ford hits the boards just to make money, the same reason he does anything, while Dominik's revels in fame until the backlash against his "treachery" breaks his spirit.

Art imitates Art imitating Life: John Ireland prepares to make his exit (above), while Casey Affleck prepares to take a bow (below)

Both Fuller and Dominik show Ford struggling with guilt and defensiveness about his deed. Both films introduce a wandering musician who sings the historic folk song about the "dirty little coward" without knowing that he's serenading the subject of the song. In I Shot Bob interrupts the song in the middle to identify himself, then forces the reluctant performer to finish the tune before walking away. By the time a drunken Bob hears the song in a crowded bar in Assassination, most of his fight is gone after fights with hecklers. He listens to the full performance before identifying himself, throwing a gun at the singer's feet, correcting him on the number of Jesse's children, and taking a swing at a complete stranger that nearly knocks himself out. Fuller still has a lot of story to tell after the song, but Dominik closes his film soon afterward with a purposefully perfunctory narration of Ford's meaningless death. His Bob does eventually say that he's sorry for what he did to Jesse, but Fuller's Bob tops that. His dying words to Cynthy are "I loved him."

"People don't really like it that much."

Beyond its interesting conception of Bob's motivation and Ireland's earnest interpretation of it, I Shot Jesse James is weighed down by its lacklustre love triangle and the narrative limitations of a first-time director. It opens dynamically with an aborted bank robbery and has a fair climax as Foster enrages Ireland by showing him his back, but Fuller's early attempt at an adult western is a pale preview of the genre explosion unleashed by Anthony Mann and others just a year later. I felt that way before I saw The Assassination, so please don't think I'm judging a B movie in light of an A. As for Dominik's film, it lived up to its slow-building reputation as the best western of the past decade. It is lavishly visualized in classic widescreen style in a manner that had seemed to die with the debacle of Heaven's Gate. Roger Deakins's cinematography is stunning in nearly every scene, but particularly in an early train-robbery sequence that presents the passage of the night train through the woods as a spectral apparition attended by hooded spirits of the darkness. How's that for poetry? Trust me, Deakins's visual work is much more poetic, and dramatic. Kudos are also owed to art director Troy Sizemore and everyone else who contributed to the film's classic look. This is only Dominik's second feature. That may look like he's far ahead of where Fuller was when he made his Ford movie, but the older director's overall record is still something Dominik can only aspire to match for now. At least Dominik can say he made one of the best American films of 2007, that best of many recent years for American film. He has me looking forward to his future work.

Cinematography by Roger Deakins. How hasn't he won an Oscar yet?

Whether there's more to say about Robert Ford is another story. Based on what I've read recently I'd say there's room for another version that focuses on his adventures after James and his fatal feud with the real Kelly (or O'Kelly). What Dominik's film in particular tells me is that there's room yet for another full-scale account of Jesse James, whose most recent major biographer described him as an "American Terrorist." There may not be room anymore in the American consciousness for Jesse James the folk hero (see Henry King's 1939 saga for that), but if we still tell stories about James, Bob Ford will still "eat of Jesse's bread and sleep in Jesse's bed" as a footnote of American folklore.


Sam Juliano said...

"The film does leave room for speculation, but the vibe I got was more parricidal than homoerotic."

Aye Samuel, I have the same vibe here, regardless of those Eclipse liner notes. And yeah, the same broad conclusions about Robert Ford are reached in both films. Of course, that's where the similarities end of course, as Dominick's film is suffused with metaphysical elements and seemingly New Age sensibilities, all packaged in an exquisite visual feast, negotiated by the great Roger Deakins (whom you rightly lament here nas Oscarless). And indeed, the narrative arc of JESSE JAMES often veers away from Ford.

This is an absolutely amazing study here in concept and execution. Congratulations.

Samuel Wilson said...

Sam, I can't say that I found "New Age" elements in The Assassination, but that's really a point in Dominik's favor. If anything it works best as a blend of Western and psychological thriller in its exploration of the James gang's collective pathology. It makes me want to rewatch The Long Riders for comparison purposes.