Combustible Celluloid
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With: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Ben Johnson, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Slim Pickens, Larry Duran, Sam Gilman, Timothy Carey, Miriam Colon, Elisha Cook, Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, Tom Webb, Ray Teal, John Dierkes, Philip Ahn, Margarita Cordova, Hank Worden
Written by: Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, based on a novel by Charles Neider
Directed by: Marlon Brando
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 141
Date: 03/30/1961

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Wild Card

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks (1961), is, of course, the great actor's one and only attempt at directing. It had a famously weird, troubled production, with Sam Peckinpah taking a crack at an early screenplay, and Stanley Kubrick originally scheduled to direct. When Brando, took over, he reportedly shot mountains of footage, as if unable or unwilling to decide on anything concrete. The movie also fell into the public domain and for years was only available to see in bleached-out bargain bin tapes and DVDs. Many critics complain of the film's being "fragmented," as if it bursts to life only intermittently and the rest is fat and filler. But in 2016, the film was restored from its original VistaVision negative, and for the first time in decades it has the depth and clarity it deserves. I had seen it before, on one of those inferior transfers, and I was nonetheless already a fan. But looking at it on the Criterion Blu-ray release, it now appears to me to be one of the greatest Westerns of all time.

Based on a novel by Charles Neider, One-Eyed Jacks is essentially a revenge story on the surface, and a father-son story underneath. Rio (Brando) and "Dad" Longworth (Karl Malden) are professional bank robbers. The movie opens with Rio eating a banana and placing the peels on a scale. The camera pulls back to reveal that they are in the middle of a robbery. Things go wrong and they are surrounded with only one horse between them. Dad rides for help, promising to return, but escapes with the gold for himself. Rio goes to jail. Five years later, Rio escapes and pledges to kill Dad. After searching high and low, and teaming with a new pair of bank robbers — Bob Amory (Ben Johnson) and Harvey Johnson (Sam Gilman) — he learns that Dad is now sheriff of Monterey.

Rio finally confronts Dad. Dad lies about trying to get help that day, and the pair becomes tentative friends again. Dad invites Rio to dinner and to meet his family, his wife Maria (Katy Jurado, from High Noon) and his stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer, a striking newcomer, who died, apparently by suicide, only a few years later at age 30). Rio is instantly attracted to Louisa and she to him. He learns that the next day is the Fiesta, and that the bank will be closed anyway, so Rio takes the opportunity to seduce Louisa. After the Fiesta, Rio shoots and kills a man named Howard Tetley (the psychopathic character actor Timothy Carey, who was perhaps a holdover from Kubrick) for manhandling a beautiful Flamenco dancer (Margarita Cordova). Dad catches him, whips him, and breaks his shooting hand.

Weeks go by as Rio waits for his hand to mend and practices shooting. Bob and Harvey double-cross him, and he winds up in jail. This leads, of course, to the final showdown. It must be added that more great character actors are here, such as Slim Pickens as "Lon," the deputy, and Elisha Cook Jr. as a brave but foolish bank clerk. It's all too obvious that "Dad" is Rio's surrogate father, a man he is constantly thinking about and who defines Rio's existence, for good and for bad. (Brando reportedly had troubles with his own father.) Moreover, it's interesting to think that Dad and Rio are romantically linked with a mother and a daughter, making it even a little more official familial unit. The final showdown between "father" and "son" portrayed not as noble, nor satisfying, but quick and sloppy and even somewhat unfair. There is no easy solution for this relationship.

The revenge is so thick in this movie that you can taste it. When Louisa asks Rio to forget all about "Dad," and to run away with her and start life over, Brando's face ignites; he can't. He simply can't, and we can feel it before he even speaks the words. It helps that Malden's motivations are understandable. He's not a one-dimensional bad guy; we might even hope, from time to time, that the two men might make up and become friends again. He's a worthy adversary, and it's an epic conflict.

Brando said that with this film, his aim was to avoid cliches. He wanted psychological realism, and emotions that felt real, and I think he achieved that, not only in the revenge story, but in the love story. Rio and Louisa's initial contact is based on lies, but as the lies are stripped away, their connection slowly becomes more believable and more intense. There isn't a single motivation in the movie that feels false or motivated only by plot. Visually, Brando conjures up some lovely vistas, and while he does seem to favor medium shots and close-ups on actors, it's because he understands acting best of all and is trying to get close to the soul.

The following year, 1962, was notable for Westerns that signaled the end of the Old West, specifically Sam Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. These two movies were so potent that writers began proclaiming the death of the Western genre itself. Even though it was shot in 1960 and released in 1961, I think we can safely include One-Eyed Jacks in this cycle, a bridge between classic bread-and-butter Westerns, and a newer, kind of psychological movie. The best Westerns teeter near the chasm of the untamed and the civilized, dealing with all the benefits and drawbacks of each. Certainly the potency of Brando's hatred and love in this film (as well as his troubles offscreen) signal both a beginning and an end.

Criterion's Blu-ray, with its reconstructed transfer and uncompressed monaural soundtrack, gave me chills, as I saw things in this movie for the first time. It's an essential piece of Western history. It includes two video essays, an audio recording by Brando, and an introduction by Martin Scorsese who, along with Steven Spielberg, supervised the restoration. Howard Hampton provides the liner notes essay.

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