One-Eyed Jacks came out in 1961 and effectively ruined Marlon Brando. He’d come to the project as an actor and a producer, prepped it for six months with Stanley Kubrick, and took over the director’s chair when, after a long souring of relations between the two men, Kubrick reportedly left the production with the words, “Go fuck yourself, Marlon.”
Brando went over schedule and over budget and delivered a film that the studio considered unreleasable: a three-plus hour downbeat Western with sporadic violence, complex characterizations, and a tragic ending. The film went through reshoots and extensive editing before it was released to middling business. Brando never directed another film, and his performances after this one became increasingly scattershot. Though he had artistic triumphs still to come (The Godfather, Last Tango In Paris), as author/director Peter Bogdanovich later observed “One-Eyed Jacks was perhaps the last time Brando acted out of a true commitment and uncynical passion for the material.”
One-Eyed Jacks remains a film of deep fascination, a film that shows Brando engaged in a way we would never see him engaged again. If it is an imperfect film—a hastily added “happy ending” feels tacked on—its flaws do little to take away from its main achievement: it is startlingly original.
Brando plays a bank robber known only as Rio, a smiling charmer who leads a gang along with his longtime friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). After a south-of-the-border heist goes wrong, Rio is betrayed by Longworth and spends five years in a Mexican prison. When he busts out and goes looking for his revenge, he tracks down Longworth and finds him settled down, living as a well respected sheriff and married to a Mexican woman named Maria (Katy Jurado). Rio approaches Longworth, claims to have no hard feelings, but plans a retribution that includes robbing the local bank and “ruining” Longworth’s beloved stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) before killing the sheriff.
If film noir is as much an attitude of defeatism as it is a style or a genre, then one can observe the way it attaches itself to a host genre (like, say, the Western or the musical) and twists that genre into a fearful, obsessive, twitchy version of itself. Some Western noirs (like Walsh’s Pursued or Mann’s The Furies) go all-in in terms of style and theme, but by the ’60s the noir ethos had spread all over the place. One-Eyed Jacks is a big, outdoor Western with sweeping Technicolor vistas, but it feels unlike any other Western ever made.
To take one example: much of the film takes place by the ocean, along the Monterey peninsula. It’s as if the relentless westward expansion of previous Westerns has brought us to the edge of the world, where the continuous “flapping of them waves” (as one character puts it) is a constant reminder of eternity, the nothing at the edge of everything. What Brando does here is to make a Western landscape as distinctive as Ford’s Monument Valley or Mann’s mountain ranges.
His work with his actors is simply impeccable. As Longworth, Karl Malden delivers one of his best performances, creating a man who is at once the arch villain of the piece but also a strangely sympathetic character in his own right. We sense in Malden’s slow brewing intensity Longworth’s defining characteristic: his profound ability to lie to himself. It’s a tricky performance, to indicate to the audience that you’re lying to the people around you because, at your core, you can’t be honest with yourself.
As Longworth’s wife Maria, Katy Jurado (High Noon) is perfect as a woman who married for security as much as for love, only to see both start to crumble as her husband’s past catches up to him. And, as Louisa, Pina Pellicer is a marvel. The actress is so thin and frail (and no one’s idea of the leading lady of a Western—no one except Brando), you wonder at first if she’s supposed to be sickly. But it is this very fragility that makes her so compelling. When Brando seduces her to get back at Longworth, you hate him for it. And so does he, which is the point, after all.
The rest of the cast is filled out with the best character actors around: Ben Johnson as another of Rio’s conniving partners; Slim Pickens as Longworth’s grotesque hick deputy (the marvel of Slim Pickens is how he could switch from being comic to creepy without seeming to change anything); Tim Carey as a drunken scumbag who winds up on Rio’s bad side. Hell, even good old Elisha Cook Jr. shows up for a bit part as an ill-fated bank teller.
At the center of it all is Brando himself. In 1961, at the age of 37, he was one of the biggest stars in the world, and One-Eyed Jacks finds him in all his ambiguous glory. Ambiguity was at the heart of his talent, at the heart of his person, really, and it’s at the heart of his film. He’s hulking and masculine but, at the same time, graceful and sensual. Brando’s own sexual ambivalence seemed to fill most of his performances (culminating, and perhaps exhausting itself, in Last Tango In Paris), and it pervades this one. I won’t belabor the point, though I must mention that the scene where he makes Slim Pickens get down on all fours while he stands behind him with a gun positioned waist high is a scene that reads unmistakably as sexual humiliation. This is not to necessarily suggest a gay subtext (although that argument has been made before) but to suggest that the entire film feels like a conscious skewing of the traditional Western. No cliché escapes Brando-the-director’s scrutiny, starting with the character played by Brando-the-actor. He doesn’t want us to be completely on Rio’s side. The character is as quiet as a Gary Cooper hero, but the difference is that Brando always seems to be scheming. His charm seems like the cool surface of a nasty undercurrent.
I don’t know how much of the very great accomplishment that is One-Eyed Jacks to attribute to Stanley Kubrick (it feels a lot like the kind of Western he would have made), nor how much credit we should give the writers (Calder Willingham and Guy Trosper, who adapted Charles Neider’s novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones). Early work on the screenplay had been done by Sam Peckinpah, further muddying the issue. Hopefully someone somewhere is working on a deluxe box set of the film that will recover Brando’s original cut and include a great “making of” documentary to sort out all these issues.
What is certain is this, though: from start to finish, Brando was the key creative force on One-Eyed Jacks. It was his baby. When it was released to bad reviews and indifferent box office, it was Brando who took the blame, and it was Brando who seemed most disillusioned in the fallout. Since the film has lasted, and has grown in reputation, and seems today to have presaged the mature work of Peckinpah and Leone and Eastwood, it is Brando who should take the bow for its long overdue curtain call.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.