So I went back to Grandpa Sarris's well after seeing my first few Fuller films, and I was surprised at this comment:
Andrew Sarris wrote:
His first film, I Shot Jesse James, was constructed almost entirely in close-ups of an oppressive intensity the cinema had not experienced since Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.
Unless my memory of Dreyer is shadier than I reckon, that comparison seems a mite overstated. Jesse James
begins and ends with close-ups, and is shot mostly at medium distance (thanks to the small interior sets), but I don't remember any "oppressive intensity" other than a few choice scenes where Fuller closes in on John Ireland's face. To compare it to Joan of Arc
's actually oppressive use of close-ups seems an exaggeration.
So then I read Dave Kehr's Eclipse review where he offered this clarification:
Dave Kehr wrote:
Now that the extreme close-up has become, more or less, the basic unit of expression in American filmmaking, it is hard to recapture the impact that Mr. Fuller’s gigantic close-ups had in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Such gargantuan images had been reserved almost exclusively for Greta Garbo (and were often ridiculed by contemporary reviewers). But for Mr. Fuller, these shots represented a pressing new urgency, a need to force his audience to identify completely with his protagonists and experience the drama of his films as his heroes did: as a series of difficult choices and conflicting emotions.
"...a pressing new urgency" is a very similar phrase to "oppressive intensity." I've seen lots of films from the 40s and 50s, and I can buy that the close-up was not a common tool in many of them, but I have trouble believing that Jesse James
's usage of close-ups was all that different from, to pick a few contemporary films, Hitchcock's in Rope
and Under Capricorn
(despite the long takes), Huston's in Treasure of the Sierra Madre
, Reed's in The Third Man
, or Dassin's in Night and the City
. Was I not paying enough attention? Am I remembering all of these films as having more close-ups than they actually had? Did Fuller do something with the close-up in this flick that I just missed?