Bright Lights Film Journal

Favorite Screenwriting Device No. 42 – The Sympathetic Listener

Zooey Deschanel (above) and Casey Affleck (below) in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Much has been written about the scene in There Will Be Blood in which Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) confesses his innermost feelings to his purported half-brother, Henry Brands (Kevin J. O’Connor). “I have a competition in me,” says Plainview, “I want no else to succeed. I hate most people” The Brands character serves a number of functions in Anderson’s film. Among other things, he represents a potential for a positive human connection that Plainview never quite achieves. But his primary function is that of a sounding board, an excuse for Plainview to explain himself, much as a Shakespeare character like Hamlet or Iago might explain himself by talking directly to the audience.

I thought of that scene while watching Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. The character of saloon girl Dorothy Evans (Zooey Deschanel) appears to have no other purpose than to: (a) add a touch of feminine beauty to a mostly all-male film, and (b) serve as a sounding bound for Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) to explain his motives. “Why did you kill him?” she asks. And Ford answers, “He was gonna kill me … And the reward money … You know what I expected? Applause. I was only 20 years old then. I couldn’t see how it would look to people.” Brands in There Will be Blood and Evans in The Assassination seem to come out of the same drawer in the screenwriter’s cabinet of tricks, the one marked, “Sympathetic Listeners.”

Don’t get me wrong. I liked The Assassination of Jesse James quite a bit. (Its Oscar nominations for Roger Deakins’ cinematography and Casey Affleck’s performance are well deserved.) I also wonder if there is any historical basis for this saloon gal girlfriend? There is a similar character in Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) of which Dominik’s epic film is a virtual – though uncredited – remake. However, the saloon girl in Fuller’s film has a different name, Cynthy Waters, and a much more important role. Ford kills Jesse for her – so that he and she can use the reward money to buy a farm. The way Dominik introduces his saloon girl in The Assassination of Jesse James recalls yet another Fuller film, Shock Corridor (1963), in which we see the hero’s stripper girlfriend (played by Constance Towers) emerge from a fan of white feathers almost exactly like the ones flourished by Deschanel in Dominik’s film. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of admiration.

Barbara Britton as Cynthy and John Ireland as Robert Ford in I Shot Jesse James.