Vintage View: One Eyed Jacks (1961, dir. Marlon Brando)

OneEyedJacks-posterbThe name Marlon Brando is not necessarily one synonymous with the Western genre and yet he made six of them throughout his illustrious career. One of these, One Eyed Jacks (1961), was the only film he directed. Fraught with problems pre and post-production, the budget reportedly grew from $1.8 to $6 million, its two month shooting time was extended to six months and the film’s finished edit had an original running time of five hours before a Paramount executive made the decision to heavily cut the duration for release. It may have had its issues behind the scenes, but on-screen it remains one of the most memorable films ever produced.

This quirky Revenge-Western, based upon Charles Neider’s The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, tells the story of partners-in-crime; bank robbers Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) and Rio Kid (Brando). It is 1880 and they are running from the law in Sonora, Mexico when Dad double-crosses Kid after their latest heist, and leaves him to be captured. Kid spends five years in prison plotting his revenge before he can make his escape. When he does finally run into his old mentor, vengeance of the gun-toting variety is problematic, as Dad is now Sheriff and married with a step-daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer), towards whom he displays an obvious attraction. Rio, noticing the stolen, lustful glances, seeks retribution by seducing her. Although never the intention, he falls in love and must survive Dad’s wrath in doing so; a rage which involves a very public flogging and brutal trigger-finger breaking.

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Malden and Brando collaborated on three projects, arguably some of Brando’s best: Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and On the Waterfront (1954), and Brando’s Western. Here, some may say cast against type, Malden displays a repugnancy in his performance as well-spoken Dad, a man dripping in piety and sanctimony. He exudes the seductive and paralysing power of the father figure in the diegetic space; the surrogate patriarch to Rio Kid – a young man putting a hard face on his sensitivities in order to defeat the self-righteous and judgemental Longworth. This aspect of the script seemingly resonated with actor-director Brando, whose contentious and volatile relationship with his own father was reputed to be part of his motivation for making the film, thereby allowing the transposition of feelings or ‘emotional mechanics’ on screen in keeping with his erudition as a student of the Constantin Stanislavski Method. Brando’s performance combines the manipulative, impulsive traits of a child while oozing ambivalent sexuality. Rio is a relatively non-violent cowboy, polished and clean shaven, one who would rather exert his virility by seducing women than attend the saloon with his compadres. He is internally emotive and visibly tough; the explosive and volatile temper can dissolve as quickly into tears and sympathy or laughter.

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Visually, the film employs a lot of fluid camera movement and some of the tracking and panning shots are simply beautiful, courtesy of Charles Lang Jnr’s cinematography, in a film which relies upon John Ford-esque framing and takes evident inspiration from Sam Peckinpah. One Eyed Jacks is replete with Brando’s over-indulgent mise-en-scène and meticulous eye-for-detail. Martin Scorsese lauds this Western as one of the greatest ever made and you know what, with a film of this calibre, who am I to argue?

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