Brando stars in and directs whopping, overlooked 1961 western that cries out for iconic status
It’s one of the sharpest shoot-outs in western history. Early morning in a rough Monterey saloon and angst-ridden bandit Rio (Marlon Brando) has just pulped heavyweight boozer Howard Tetley (Timothy Carey) for abusing a young Flamenco dancer. Tetley, groggy, on the floor, reaches out, grabs a shotgun, cocks it and points at Rio who, with preternatural cool, drops down gracefully, dodges Tetley’s shot and, simultaneously spinning round a saloon pillar, mercilessly, excessively, riddles Tetley with five of the best. Efficient, brutal and beautiful?welcome to the world of One Eyed Jacks.
Overloaded with cultural baggage, often to the point of being overlooked, One Eyed Jacks has always been an anomaly in the western canon. For a start, there’s the fabulous lineage. Based on an adapted script by B-movie producer Frank Rosenberg and The Twilight Zone’s Rod Serling, it was the typically mythic tale of best-buddy bank robbers Rio and Longworth (to be played by Karl Malden), the latter’s double-cross, and Rio’s all-consuming desire for vengeance. The screenplay was first re-written in 1960 by a rising TV writer/director called Sam Peckinpah and then by Rosenberg’s newly hired tyro director, Stanley Kubrick, who duly fired Peckinpah and brought in his own writer, Calder Willingham (Paths Of Glory). After six months of pre-production, Kubrick ‘left’ the movie over ‘creative differences’ and star Brando assumed directorial duties, shooting a whopping one million feet of film, pushing a 60-day shooting schedule up to 180, a $2m budget up to $6m, and eventually handing the movie’s backers, Paramount Pictures, a massive, unwieldy four-hour director’s cut.
Which is usually where the story ends. Which is to neglect the fact that One Eyed Jacks, even in its current 141-minute studio cut, is a classic in its own right, and deserves a place up there with Shane, The Searchers, The Wild Bunch and the best of the iconic Hollywood westerns.
For this is a movie, perhaps due to the legacy of both Kubrick and Peckinpah, that bristles with a level of moral ambiguity that the likes of Ford and Hawks rarely displayed. Yes, Longworth betrays Rio by leaving him for a posse of Federales, but he does so impulsively, and is subsequently wracked with guilt. When Rio finally tracks his nemesis down, Longworth has become Monterey’s deeply moral town sheriff. The two men meet, Longworth lies about the betrayal, then Rio lies in return and, in a subplot worthy of its own movie, Rio lies to Longworth’s delicate daughter Louisa (the otherworldly Pinar Pellicer, who committed suicide in 1964), seduces her, and then hates himself for his own lies. By the final reel, the concepts of hero and villain have become so muddied that whoever rides into the sunset without a fatal bullet wound is simply declared the winner.
Brando and Malden, two Actors Studio show-offs, are in Method heaven here. Malden, while bull-whipping a tethered Brando, is fantastically creepy, grinning and savouring each crack as he both avenges and perversely channels the seduction of his own daughter. Brando, meanwhile, deftly takes casual cool right to the edge of comatose chic, munching on a banana during the opening bank robbery, speaking through gritted toothpicks and generally slouching masterfully throughout.
And what of Brando the director? Naturally, he shoots himself gorgeously, often tilting his pristine white hat back so that his immaculate head appears to be framed by a halo, like a Renaissance saint. Or else he’s done in perfect profile, with that trademark Brando nose dripping down sharply from the bridge, a powerful visual counterpoint to Malden’s bulbous honker. Otherwise, he displays a gift with character actors and gives Ford regular Ben Johnson one of the meatiest roles of his career (as bad-apple bandit Bob Amory), ditto Slim Pickens, and ditto High Noon’s Katy Jurado. He doesn’t shy away from the script’s darker, Peckinpah-esque elements (the callous slaying of a young girl), while he also has an eye for bright incidental detail, like the diverting Mexican fiesta, complete with long Flamenco routines.
We can only guess at what other distracting diversions lie in the Paramount vaults, but in the meantime we can acknowledge the classic that remains, and savour a hint of the gifted director behind it.