Monday, June 28, 2010


Academy Award Winning actor Marlon Brando directed one movie during his prestigious 50-year career in Hollywood. Brando's Pennebaker Productions decided that a western might be a worthwhile investment since westerns had been profitable during the 1950s. The company shelled out $40,000 for the rights to author Charles Neider’s seminal western novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones” and several scenarists came and went before “One-Eyed Jacks” (***1/2 out of ****) was completed. Among the scenarists were a young Sam Peckinpah, but novelist Calder Willingham replaced Peckinpah. This amoral western melodrama dealt with the themes of friendship, greed, deception, betrayal, and revenge. The troubled production history of this splendid horse opera casts a shadow over its artistry. First, Brando created several legends about his use of six or more takes for a scene. Second, the story goes that the star waited for the most dramatic waves to break on the shore. Brando toiled for six months on “One-Eyed Jacks.” Initially, “Paths of Glory” helmer Stanley Kubrick started out as the director. Artistic differences arose between Brando and Kubrick that prompted Kubrick’s dismissal. Reportedly, Kubrick preferred Spencer Tracy over Karl Malden as the villainous Dad Longworth. Brando objected on the basis, however, that Pennebaker Productions had already paid Malden the sum of $300-thousand. Afterward, when nobody stepped forward to helm the film, Brando decided he would try. Paramount executives should have had their heads examined for letting a temperamental actor like Brando call the shots on a film.

Three American outlaws, Rio (Marlon Brando of “Julius Caesar”), Dad Longworth (Karl Malden of “Baby Doll”), and Doc (perennial character actor Hank Worden of “Red River”) hold up a Mexican bank. Dad and Doc ride off to shack up with prostitutes in a bordello, while Rio heads off to romance a refined lady at her hacienda. Mexican Rurale captain (Rodolfo Acosta of “Hondo”) leads a posse to the bordello and they kill Doc when they raid the place. Dad slips out by the window with his gun, but he forgets his boots. Dad rides off to alert Rio. Together they light out into desert with the Rurales on their trail. Rio loses his horse and has to double up on Dad’s mount. They take refuge on a hill and exchange gunfire with the Rurales. Our heroes decide that one of them must round up fresh horses so they can escape from the Rurales. Rio draws two bullets and grips them in his fist. Interestingly, our protagonist lets Dad win and Dad sets out for fresh horses while Rio holds up the Rurales. Dad rides into a tiny ranch and buys a horse. He is shifting the gold coins around in his fist when he decides to leave Rio to the Rurales. Eventually, the Rurales surround Rio and he surrenders. He spends the next five years in a stinking Sonora Prison, while Dad lives high off the hog in Monterey, California, where he has gotten himself elected sheriff. Moreover, Dad has married Maria (Katy Jurado of “High Noon”) and adopted Maria’s daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer of “Macario”) as his own. He owns a house about 10 miles out of town.

Rio and Chico Modesto (Larry Duran of “Viva Zapata!”) break out of the Sonora Prison. They are in a cantina when Bob Amory (Ben Johnson of “Rio Grande”) approaches Rio about robbing a bank in Monterey. Rio learns Dad Longworth is the town lawman. Rio visits Dad before Amory and his sidekick, Harvey Johnson (Sam Gilman of “The Young Lions”), show up in Monterey. Initially, Dad believes Rio has come to kill him for double-crossing him back in Sonora. Rio doesn’t want to shoot Dad. Rio explains he gave the Rurales the slip and eluded them. Dad introduces Rio to his family and Louisa takes an immediate interest in him. Later, Rio guns down a drunken man in a Monterey bar, Howard Tetley (Timothy Carey of “The Killing”), who was abusing a helpless woman. Dad has had enough of Rio. Primarily, Dad is angry because Louisa spent the night on the beach with Rio. Dad’s sleazy Deputy Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens of “Rocky Mountain”) has had his eye on Louisa and hates Rio. Dad arrests Rio for killing Tetley. Disarming Rio, Dad lashes his wrists to a horse’s hitching rack. Wielding a bullwhip on Rio, Dad sends him to his knees. Dad reverses a shotgun and smashes the butt of the weapon against Rio’s right hand to destroy his hand.

Rio and company flee Monterey, but our protagonist is even more determined to kill Dad. Rio recuperates on the beach and gets back the use of his gun hand. Bob and company ride into town to rob the bank. The robbery is a bust, but a little girl dies during the shoot-out. Rio is riding back to town when Dad’s deputies arrest him. Although Rio had no part in the robbery, Dad locks him up and prepares the gallows for his inevitable hanging. Louisa tries to smuggle a derringer into Rio by hiding it in a bowl of soup, but Lon discovers the firearm. He escorts Louisa from the jail and Rio smashes up his bunk for a piece of wood attached to a strap thathe can use to sling out at the table in front of his cell. Lon has forgotten about the derringer and left it on the table. Brando generates some great suspense as Rio repeatedly tries to get the derringer. At the same time that Rio is trying to get the derringer, Dad is taking a liesurely ride along the beach back into town. Rio bluffs Lon with the derringer when he returns. What Lon doesn't know is that the derringer contains no bullets. Rio escapes from jail and shoots it out in the town plaza with Dad. They confront each other with a water fountain between them and Rio slips around behind Dad and shoots him in the back. After he rides out of town, Rio and Louisa rein up and discuss their future together. Rio must clear out of the territory, but he plans to return in the spring when Louisa gives birth to his child.

The striking locales set “One-Eyed Jacks” apart from most westerns. When Brando left the production, he had filmed about five hours of footage and assembled his own cut. Paramount whittled the unwieldy opus down to two hours and forty-one minutes. Interestingly, the title refers to the two sides of a jack rabbit's face. Rio brags that he knows who the real Dad is and he isn't the man who duped the town of Monterey. Financial woes aside, “One-Eyed Jacks” qualifies a good, often compelling western about two bad men who clash at the outset over stolen gold. One lands in a filthy Sonora prison, while the other one ends up in California with a badge on his chest. The cast is stupendous, particularly Malden who plays a thoroughly treacherous dastard. Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, Timothy Carey, and Pina Pellicer all contribute memorable performances, but it is “The Magnificent Seven” lenser Charles Lang who makes the scenic Monterey coast with his crashing surf and the rugged Mexican locations look absolutely dazzling. Unfortunately, the studio shots involving back projection detract from Lang’s visual real-world composition. Indeed, Brando himself received a nomination for Best Director. Sadly, “One-Eyed Jacks” never recouped its negative cost, the amount that it took to produce this exotic western.

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