by Mike Dub
As the 1950s drew to a close, Marlon Brando was about to enter the next decade about as hot as anyone has ever been. In the seven years leading up to his directorial debut (and finale), One-Eyed Jacks, Brando had become the toast of Hollywood. Beautiful and brilliant, he was equally adored by critics, audiences, and his fellow filmmakers – Brando had been nominated for Best Actor an astounding five times out of the previous six years. He was at the peak of his power.
It shouldn’t be too big a surprise, then, that he decided to try his hand at directing. With One-Eyed Jacks, Brando found what seemed like a perfect fit. A revisionist western in which he could continue to perpetuate his outsider, anti-hero persona, the film is equally influenced by the psychological 1950s westerns of Anthony Mann and the dysfunctional family theatrics of the plays of Tennessee Williams. The end result, though compromised by studio re-cutting (though, brought about because of Brando’s self-destructive stubbornness), is a solid effort with the kinds of rich, textured performances you would expect to come from a film directed by an actor’s actor like Brando.
Brando casts himself as Rio, a young bank robber, who begins the film in partnership with his elder mentor, the not-so-subtley nicknamed “Dad,” (the great, underappreciated Karl Malden). In the opening scene, the pair are surrounded by lawmen; their only chance of escape is for one of them to ride to the next town and bring back fresh horses. Rio draws the short stick, and Dad escapes with the loot, but when he has the opportunity to go back for Rio, he turns the other way, leaving Rio to fend for himself.
Five years later, Rio escapes from prison with revenge on his mind. He tracks down Dad, who has settled in a small town, gone straight, stopped drinking, and married a good Mexican woman who has a teenage daughter for whom he acts as a father. He has even been elected sheriff.
The majority of the film is a tense, psychological game of chicken between the two. Like poker players, Rio and Dad communicate through bluffs, mistruths, and sometimes even the truth, which cannot be trusted anymore than lies. Material like this must be an actor’s dream: deciding how much a character knows and when he knows it, playing a man who tries to hide everything but still communicate his psychology to the audience.
Though the film is visually pretty stiff, the performances are wonderful to watch. Brando and Malden play off each other like the good friends they were, approaching their performance with equal vigor. In an early scene Rio and Dad meet for the first time since Rio’s capture. As they lie to each other about what happened that fateful day, it feels like we are watching two cardsharps trying to read each other at the beginning of a high stakes poker game.
Somewhat ironically, as the film progresses, it is Malden who climbs into the showy, explosive performance, overshadowing Brando’s toned-down, introspective role. Turning away from traditional good/evil dynamics in westerns, Malden’s Dad seems to be a decent person, burdened by a single, abhorrent act of greed and his responsibility as a father. Constantly confused but always suspicious, in some ways a biting caricature of the paranoid, domestically confined father of the 1950s, Dad’s oafish joviality when Rio first reenters his life turns to sadistic violence when Rio threatens the sanctity of his daughter.
That Malden got the flashy role, and goes all out with it, is a testament to Brando the director. Whatever the size of his ego, we can see in the dynamic performances of the two leads that he was most interested in making a good film, getting the best out of everyone involved, and turning in a unique product. The first two hours of the movie are likely pretty close to what Brando wanted.
Unfortunately, during the final twenty minutes, the film completely falls apart. The studio editors seemed to pretend that One-Eyed Jacks was a traditional western, editing it for clarity and closure. As a result, the film washes away the ambiguity of its characters, and all basic logic is thrown out the window. Otherwise smart characters suddenly behave like idiots. Worse, performances are thrown off kilter when characters are suddenly shocked by information that they had seemed to suspect earlier. And a film that, despite its length, never felt too slow, suddenly seems like it will never end.
Much of the fault lies with Brando, who gave his studio an initial cut that was five hours long. Probably out of indecisiveness rather than obstinacy, the rookie director more or less threw his hands up in a Wellesian flourish and simply lamented the end product. Karl Malden would later say, “If we’d made it the way Marlon wanted it to be made, like a Greek tragedy, it could have been a breakthrough western.“ It may not be great film overall, but it’s a great actor’s piece. It’s also a signal that Brando was still as ambitious as ever, though his star was about to dim.
Join us on Monday for Daniel Barnes’ review of the second film of our Brando in the Dark Ages Festival, The Chase, from 1966, co-starring very young Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, directed by Arthur Penn.