Director: Marlon Brando / Screenplay: Guy Trosper & Calder Willingham (from novel by Charles Neider) / Editing: Archie Marshek / DP: Charles Lang / Score: Hugo Friedhofer
Cast: Marlon Brando / Karl Malden / Katy Jurado / Ben Johnson / Slim Pickens / Larry Duran / Sam Gilman / Nina Pellicer
Blame it on Rio…
I wonder if, when he looked back over his long and idiosyncratic career, Marlon Brando ever regretted directing just the one picture? Then again, maybe it was enough to ‘scratch the itch’… Watch this sparkling restoration of One-Eyed Jacks, and you believe either version is possible. For here is a man as undisciplined behind the camera as in-front; a man so deep into his own mythos, that he’s lost the game before it begins.
Oh, don’t run away thinking I’m about to call Jacks the apex of Brando’s career – far from it – but there’s enough in here, to see why it was considered a worthy candidate for reappraisal.
I learn that it was Brando’s idea from the off. Back in 1957 or thereabouts, he announced that he ‘wanted to do a Western’: a decision that made sense, given the genre’s then-ballooning popularity. A pulp-novel based on the life of Billy the Kid was adapted by Sam Peckinpah and offered to Brando, who liked its premise enough to court none-other than Stanley Kubrick as its Director. Kubrick was, by then, deep in-prep for what would become Lolita (1962) but was sufficiently troubled by Peckinpah’s script to have Calder Willingham undertake a rewrite. In the event, Kubrick would walk away over casting disagreements, leaving things in-limbo: that is, until Brando got the idea of directing himself.
If we’re talking about myth, it’s only fair to mention the other reading of this experience: that Brando had himself in-mind to direct, long before Kubrick’s departure, so set the wheels in-motion to ensure it happened. I can see the attraction: after all, there’d be no-one around to rein-in his worst impulses…
The result? One-Eyed Jacks is a Western unlike any other. A film with a ‘Old Hollywood’ production & budget, wedded to a ‘New Hollywood’ morality and with novel locations thrown-into the mix.
Jacks opens its account as it means to go on: with a bored, almost nonchalant-looking Brando as Rio, perched on the serving counter of a bank. While his two associates rob the place, Rio’s content just sitting there, eating bananas and tossing their skins onto a pair of weighing scales. You just know he pinched the fruit from the set-caterers, to give him something to do in that scene.
In my review of On the Waterfront (1954), I covered Brando’s adherence to the Stanislavsky ‘Method’ of acting, so I won’t cover it here. Suffice to say, that its disciples give naturalistic performances enhanced – and emboldened – in the pursuit of whatever ‘truth’ underpins a scene. That is, ‘truths’ uncovered through improvisation beyond the written script. It needn’t concern us that bananas probably weren’t available in that flyblown Mexican town – hell, in Mexico entire, circa 1880. All we see, is what Brando wants us to see: a hungry man might eat bananas during a bank robbery, if his only job was to subdue the civilians and keep an eye on the front door…
Rio’s so relaxed, that even as they’re leaving with saddlebags bursting with plunder, he has time to prise a wedding ring from a Señorita who’d just hidden it, hoping he hadn’t seen her deception. Of course he had; he’s just been biding his time, for it’s not just casual thievery: the rogue has a plan. While his buddies opt to lose themselves in a flea-ridden bordello, Rio rides on to the home of an (unchaperoned) rich girl whom, it transpires, he’s been wooing.
She seems oblivious to his dubious charms. Look at the ridiculous way he holds the sherry glass: that’s Method telling us – showing us – that he’s unused to such refinement, see? Anyway, her diffidence only lasts until he produces the aforementioned ring, with some waffle about it having belonged to his late mother. Being young, naïve and somewhat dim, she falls for it…
Talk of falling, brings us back to the others in Rio’s, err, trio… The pursuing Caballeros have them cornered in no-time; shooting one in the back without hesitation. That leaves Karl Malden as Dad Longworth to flee the willing bosom of his favourite girl in such haste, that he forgets his boots.
Karl Malden as a villain? Nope. Not buying it, He might’ve been capable of going toe-to-toe with Brando when it came to Method, but he’s woefully miscast here. There’s a softness behind Malden’s eyes that neither he – nor us – can overlook. Still, he gets away – barefoot – and crashes Brando’s tête-à-tête with the news. What does Rio do? Why, he wrests that ring from the girl’s finger and bolts like a cad in a costumed melodrama. One never knows when fortune might allow the replaying of that trick…
The inevitable chase that ensues, ends with Rio & Dad out of options, atop a wind-blasted hill. With one horse D.O.A., they draw lots to see who gets to ride-out for fresh mounts. Being the better shot (and Marlon Brando for crying out loud), Rio loads the draw in Dad’s favour and stays behind: a fateful decision that ends with his capture, news of what Dad really did and five years in chokey in that order.
So much for the Prologue: thirty minutes and enough material to fill-out a Western by itself, but Rio’s just getting started. Next, we see him and Chico (Larry Duran) break-out of prison. With the nitty-gritty swept away by movie magic, we catch-up with them reclothed in suitable attire, well-fed and with Rio pissed over what happened back there on the hill. His one thought? Track-down and kill Dad for his betrayal (thus opening up a can of Oedipal worms we’ll return to, later).
Fate intervenes when he and Chico fall-in with another gang, led by Bob Amory (Ben Johnson). Amory’s looking to rob a ‘fat bank’ in distant California. The twist? Dad’s now the town’s Sherriff. Rio can’t resist. Not that you’d ever guess he was thrilled by the prospect. By this point, Brando seems incapable of little more than bouts of intense mumbling; as I said, there’s no-one around with the clout to call-time. No wonder, that after just five days into production, things were already two weeks behind schedule…
So, the new band of desperadoes arrive at Monterey in an undeniably epic shot as they ride a coast trail, with dramatic white surf breaking in the background. Beauty, it turns out, is a constant theme of the picture (and the photographing of it, one reason for the delays). Brando and DP Charles Lang, have an eye for natural drama and revel in the locations: when was the last time you saw a seaside Western? They’ve giving us new things to look at in Jacks, alright, so it’s a shame when proceedings move to a reunion with Dad and his new family, including step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Dad might be the Sherriff, but it means little to Rio. Even the lies that Dad tells about how he got away, are swept-aside by an instant – and mutual – attraction between Rio & Louisa. It’s not the ring-trick this time, but a (costly) pendant that works the charm for our boy, on a deserted, moonlit beach during the town’s Fiesta.
After a lengthy spell of navel-gazing and exposition, the film’s second act ends with Rio cleaning the clock of the town’s drunk. The killing’s not entirely unexpected, it turns-out, but Dad has to ensure that justice is seen to be done, so he whips Rio out of town: the casting-out of the Prodigal Son. Act Three, has Rio and the gang wait six weeks in a stinking fishing village up the coast; a place for Rio’s broken gun-hand to mend and time for tensions to surface.
Come the fateful day, Rio opts to sit-out the robbery in-favour of an illicit rendezvous with the (pregnant) Louisa; she’s pleading with him to imagine a happy future for them both, which I struggled to believe. He might be a fink with a heart of gold, but he’s still a fink. Sure enough, Rio ends-up in jail for being an accomplice to the robbery; he wasn’t even in town at the time, but it’s all the excuse Dad needs to nip the Rio problem in the bud, no matter the fallout close-to-home.
At a little over a 140 minutes, the picture’s longer than usual, but consider what was lost from Brando’s initial cut of over five hours! When his own procrastination in the cutting room threatened the film’s eventual release, Paramount took over. Their first act was to parachute-in veteran editor Archie Marshek to prune the melange into some kind of shape. Next, they arranged re-shoots for a new ending; perhaps having realised that the original – Louisa’s suicide – was a tad downbeat to ensure healthy box-office. So, we get the rounding-up of the Oedipal plot-line and a final, optimistic shot that the film hadn’t earned to that point.
It’s to Jacks credit then, that Marshek was able to make sense of it all. That said, the action is too sporadic; padded-out with sub-plots that go nowhere and just soak-up momentum. There’s too much going on, with insufficient time for much of it to be wholly resolved, with the result that it’s a film with an identity crisis.
One-Eyed Jacks is an important curio, with both eyes on the future of Hollywood, rather than looking to its past. But it can’t escape the constraints of the Studio. The young directors who’d appear later in the decade, would be doing everything in their power, to work outside The System as a way of retaining control.
Born too early, Brando was a creature of the Studio and couldn’t escape. After quadrupling the budget on his debut feature, The Suits wanted their money back. Forget the myth, then: maybe that’s the truth after all.
When given the chance to direct, Brando turned out to have feet of clay: and he used them to stomp all over One-Eyed Jacks…
‘Get up, you scum-sucking pig!’