Marlon Brando put his all into this impassioned, expertly acted and crafted VistaVision western spectacle. Has it been overlooked because of the scarcity of quality presentations? Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, Ben Johnson and Slim Pickens are unforgettable, as are the Big Sur locations.
The Criterion Collection 844
1961 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 141 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date November 22, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Pina Pellicer, Larry Duran, Sam Gilman, Míriam Colón, Timothy Carey, Margarita Cordova, Elisha Cook Jr., Rodolfo Acosta, Joan Petrone, Joe Dominguez, Tom Webb, Ray Teal, John Dierkes, Philip Ahn, Hank Worden, Clem Harvey, William Forrest, Mina Martinez.
Cinematography Charles Lang. Jr.
Film Editor Archie Marshek
Original Music Hugo Friedhofer
Written by Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham from the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider
Produced by Frank P. Rosenberg
Directed by Marlon Brando
There are a number of reasons why one of the best westerns ever made is overlooked in ‘favorites’ lists and critical discussions. Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks simply wasn’t available in a quality presentation for many years, unless one happened to catch a battered-but-still-fantastic Technicolor print at a museum or repertory house screening. For a while, I heard jokes that it was a Marlon Brando vanity piece, an opportunity for him to mumble dialogue, preen his plumage, and engage in yet another masochistic torture ritual. Perhaps it was too upscale and mainstream to become a cult item. Like George Stevens’ Shane, this show stood apart from the genre, an item too precious to be discussed with the contemporary westerns of a Budd Boetticher, who didn’t have the luxury of a 2-years-plus production schedule and unending patience from Paramount. Brando was able to re-shoot every problematic scene six ways from Sunday. Boetticher, Arthur Penn and Sam Peckinpah’s westerns printed the first couple of takes and moved on.
I first caught One-Eyed Jacks on television, where it seemed greatly diminished, but then in a revival screening with a print full of splices. On a big screen, the Technicolor leaps out at one; each shot has the feel of a studio product polished to perfection. Knowing little about the movie, I imagined it was another actor’s showcase, and that a great cameraman and crew surely worked out the hard stuff and Brando laid back and took the credit. Apparently that’s not true at all. The great method actor took writing and directing seriously. That he took so long to make the movie was surely bad news for Paramount and his investors, but the final result is a thing of great beauty. Unlike so many actors that ‘want to do it all,’ Marlon Brando is a good director, both of actors and of the camera.
If you think westerns are a lower form of cinema, the transcendent One-Eyed Jacks might change your mind.
As we learn from Toby Roan’s excellent making-of featurette, Marlon Brando took forever to choose a story and run it through several top screenwriters. Major input came from Sam Peckinpah, and the project floated for a time with Stanley Kubrick as director. In terms of the final writers and some of the casting, the movie still bears Kubrick’s fingerprints. The story takes on a bitter personal feud between outlaws, based roughly on the historical Pat Garrett and William Bonney. The thoroughly unscrupulous thief Rio (Brando) takes the partnership in earnest, until his best friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) abandons him during a getaway. Rio is captured and spends five years in a Mexican jail swearing revenge. He escapes with a new amigo, Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) and joins with the less trustworthy thieves Bob Amory (Ben Johnson) and Harvey Johnson (Sam Gillman) to rob the bank in the beautiful costal town of Monterey, California. Rio is less concerned about the money then he is with the sheriff of Monterey, who happens to be a reformed Dad Longworth. When the thieves arrive, a festival delays their robbery scheme. But Rio also meets Longworth’s adopted daughter Luisa (Pina Pellicer of Roberto Gavaldón’s Macario). His initial plan is to use Luisa as part of his revenge, but he instead falls in love.
One-Eyed Jacks is solid moviemaking on all levels. Brando proves himself a fine dramatist and director of actors. We expect great work when he and Karl Malden are together, and he’s also uncommonly sensitive when performing with Pina Pellicer and the great Katy Jurado, who plays Luisa’s mother María. The movie has its share of traditional genre actors: Ben Johnson, Elisha Cook Jr., Hank Worden, John Dierkes. Brando helps them perform better than we’ve ever seen them. Ben Johnson finds depths that he probably didn’t know were there — even his perspiration seems to be performing true to character. Second-string jailer Tim is played by a former cowboy extra, Clem Harvey. He’s so natural in his bits with the great Slim Pickens that we expect to find out that he’s been in dozens of movies. Nope, the reason he looks familiar is that he’s got an awkward close-up in the classic Johnny Guitar — where his one big line on camera is dubbed by somebody else.
Brando plays the story not so much for forward momentum as character intensity. But there’s no slack; we’re always ‘in the moment’ set before us. The scenes between Rio and Dad Longworth are like poker games, with Rio seeing through Dad’s hearty bluff. But Rio’s relationship with Luisa puts the movie into heartbreaking emotional territory. We’ve seen Rio trifle with other women, using his best Don Juan tricks, and since it’s Brando acting like a hurt puppy, we can see how Rio (and Brando, for that matter) could talk his way into most any woman’s bed. But clues all along testify to Rio’s inner values, such as the way he cheats so that Dad Longworth gets the best opportunity to escape. Rio reformation by Luisa’s virtue is a gimmick as old as the moral atonements of silent westerns, but it works.
What Peckinpah lost and Leone never quite discovered is that audiences deeply want a break or two from cynical realism. Brando pulls it off with ease, but it’s his so-called ‘inexperienced’ co-star that makes it all work. Pina Pellicer’s Luisa is crushed when, seduced and betrayed, she has to ask, “You lie?” We expect her to collapse in tears, but her strength shows her to be Rio’s superior: “You only shame yourself.” Pellicer’s every scene is precious, and not just because she plays the vulnerable virgin. She also takes the movie away from Katy Jurado, and that’s not easy to do. The exposition about the Longworth marriage — Dad found María in the street and gave her daughter a name and a home, etc. — is almost superfluous. The way María maintains her pride and independence shifts the moral center of One-Eyed Jacks away from the leading characters.
Maybe Brando developed a David Lean complex, but waiting for the right waves and taking advantage of a dust storm results in some sensational images — as if Zabriskie Point and the Big Sur coastline weren’t beautiful enough on their own. The matching between locations and Farciot Edouart’s precise process photography is excellent. The painfully beautiful images have a big effect on the dramatic scenes, but it’s Hugo Friedhofer’s music score that pushes several of them into genuine tearjerker status. I always overlook Friedhofer’s score for Ace in the Hole, thinking it’s from Miklos Rozsa. Here his main melody at the end of a measure takes a wistful turn, that feels like the aural equivalent of tears welling up in one’s eyes.
One-Eyed Jacks is a VistaVision film, reportedly the last; that Brando shot so much of the expensive footage might be what put Paramount off the process permanently. The potentially best large-format process ever, VistaVision lasted all of seven years. In the 1980s the cameras all came out of mothballs to be used for special effects, and with the advent of hi-res video, they went back into mothballs again.
I don’t understand why so many writers say that Brando was ‘plagued’ with studio problems. Any studio that will allow a production to swell to three or four times its contracted budget can’t be blamed for interfering, and contracts always stipulated the right to control the final cut and ask for re-shoots. I imagine that Brando had his way with the production schedule in much the same way Rio overcomes modest Señoritas, by batting his eyes and turning on the charm. I personally think the original ending would have made the film a miserable downer. And it’s a shame that Lisa Lu’s performance was lost, but did we really need to see Rio abuse yet another female admirer? [ A cameraman once told me that on the Brando film he worked on, Marlon made sure there were plenty of attractive women in bit parts. When an assistant reported that he’d found a seventh actress to fill out the roster, Brando said she would be a waste of money, as he always rests on Sundays. It was a joke, but there had to be some truth to it. ]
In its final form this show is surely long enough. If Paramount had done to One-Eyed Jacks what Columbia did to Peckinpah’s Major Dundee, the story would begin with Rio and his cohorts arriving in Monterey, and the film’s entire first section would be reduced to a few ragged flashbacks. Brando’s show plays better than ever now, and is an extremely welcome addition to the Criterion stable of classic westerns. The first-time viewer reaction is going to be, “Now that’s a real movie.”
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of One-Eyed Jacks is going to be the western fan’s salvation this Thanksgiving. Universal, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and the Film Foundation helped rescue it from technical P.D.status, which had kept it in bargain bins for twenty years. My old Paramount laserdisc, purchased around 1995 or 1996, was the last time it looked good. Taken directly from 8-perf VistaVision elements, the new 4K restoration has already circulated at a few festivals, whetting collector interest. It looks and sounds splendid, and nobody has monkeyed with its nigh- perfect monaural soundtrack.
My only complaint is a bit of historical vandalism at the opening and closing. The movie surely began and ended with Paramount logos, but they’ve been removed. Universal did the right thing with Psycho by eventually restoring its stylized Paramount logo, but here a Universal logo has been slapped on the front. At the finish, instead of the Paramount logo to make us dwell a moment about the lovely last live-action scene, the fade-out is followed by an immediate fade-up on restoration credits, as the music tails off. It’s essentially ditching out of the movie before it’s finished, adding unwelcome new text to read. Is nobody sensitive to stuff like this? Too bad this couldn’t have been handled in a classier manner. I’ll content myself with the excellent restoration job that comes between.
Other websites have instead tried to stir up a controversy about One-Eyed Jacks’ aspect ratio, as if there were a substantive difference between 1.75:1 and 1.78:1. Perhaps the web screaming about the show’s perfectly adequate 1.85:1 ratio are generated to drum up talk about the release. I know that some studio execs love to use these tempests in a thimble to discount the input of outsiders. A lady executive at MGM used to call them ‘DVD weenies.’
Criterion disc producer Abbey Lustgarten achieves the impossible: she obtained a new special extra that features Marlon Brando’s voice. It’s a collection of audio recordings, story notes about specific scenes. Brandophiles can be expected to be extremely curious. I think the other extras will sate the needs of Brando followers and western film fans. Toby Roan is reportedly writing a book about the making of Brando’s movie. Some of his research is compiled here in a handsome new short docu. David Cairns contributes a precise visual essay that Points out the movie’s grace notes, suggesting reasons for Brando’s visual choices. The only thing that didn’t wash with me was his theory of the use of rear projection, which I think can be better explained with the usual reason, that it was policy for many exterior dialogue scenes. The wild bluffs and beach at Monterey-Big Sur make delicate lighting, acting moods and audio recording nigh impossible. Cairns compensates by offering us a needed appreciation of the accomplished actress Pina Pellicer.
The original, graphic-oriented trailer is present as well. Once one gets beyond its origami-puzzle aspects (where’s Route 60?), the insert foldout rewards us with a perceptive essay by Howard Hampton. He sees the seduction of Luisa as a vicious act that puts Rio’s twisted psychology in Luis Buñuel territory, whereas I’d argue that Rio is just doin’ what comes naturally, and that his revenge obsession begins to crumble the moment Luisa enters the picture. The right love, you know, can cure most anything.
The only lump I see in Paramount’s alterations is the final shot fired by Dad Longworth — it really has the feeling that it hit somebody. At the last fade-out, I’m still looking for some sign that Luisa is going to faint and collapse, even though she’s obviously in fine shape in the preceding dialogue scene. Knowing what we know about the changed ending, One-Eyed Jacks carries the hint of a Greek tragedy, averted.
Supplements: New introduction by Martin Scorsese; Marlon Brando script development voice recording notes; making-of video essay by Toby Roan; analytical video essay by David Cairns; trailer; insert foldout essay by Howard Hampton
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 10, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson