One-Eyed Jacks

Some films can be extraordinarily difficult to write about; they may be overly complex or annoyingly abstract, their essence forever dancing tantalizingly beyond your grasp. Alternatively, there may be other factors involved, some quality which draws and fascinates you, making them easy to admire yet hard to truly love. That’s the position I find myself in when it comes to One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando’s one and only shot at directing. The visuals and theme appeal to me, and certain passages are beautifully realized. Still, when I look at it overall, I could never include it as one of my favorites.

The story (based on the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones) is very loosely based on Billy the Kid. It concerns two men – Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) – bank robbers plying their trade in Sonora in Mexico. Running from the army and carrying the proceeds of their latest hold-up, Longworth sets off to find fresh mounts for both of them. However, his inherent greed gets the better of him and he leaves Rio stranded. Leaping forward five years, we see the younger man breaking out of his Mexican prison. And he has but one thought in mind, revenge. His search eventually takes him across the border to Monterey, where Longworth has built a respectable new life for himself. The former outlaw has gained a wife and stepdaughter (Katy Jurado and Pina Pellicer respectively) and got himself elected sheriff. As the title suggests, both men only reveal a little of themselves to those around them. In Longworth’s case his law-breaking past is common knowledge, but his fear and sadism are carefully concealed beneath a veneer of bluff amiability. Rio too is adept at playing his cards close to his chest, and lulls his old partner into thinking that he bears no grudges. For all that, the animosity on side and distrust on the other cannot remain buried for long. The catalyst comes in the form of Longworth’s stepdaughter, and the passion she arouses in Rio. While his initial seduction of her seems primarily motivated by a desire to strike at Longworth’s cozy domestic set-up, it’s clear enough that his true feelings run deeper. Either way, it sets in motion a series of events that will inevitably lead to a violent and final confrontation between the two adversaries.

The film’s path to the cinema screen was a long and complicated one – Sam Peckinpah worked on the first draft of the script before being removed, and Stanley Kubrick was down to direct it until he too was replaced. So it fell to Brando, and his fingerprints are all over what we now have. Intensity is a word that’s frequently bandied around when this man’s name is spoken, and One-Eyed Jacks has some of that, a sort of relentless quality in its storytelling. But, and this is part of the issue I have with the film, there’s a labored feel about parts of it too. It’s said that Brando had accumulated over five hours of footage when he finished shooting, and the form we have today is still fairly lengthy. Charles Lang was the cinematographer and there’s no question of the beauty of some of the images – the Mexican and Californian locations look simply breathtaking at times. Still, Brando allows it to drift too much for my taste. The long period of recovery at the coast, after Longworth humiliates Rio and mutilates his gun hand, feels drawn out. Sure it allows time for the character of Rio to adjust to new circumstances and offers him the opportunity to reevaluate his plans, but it also slows the pace.

I’m going to be honest here and admit that, for one reason or another, Brando is an actor I’ve never warmed to. I guess a lot of it comes down to the fact that method acting often presents me with a problem. There is, by definition, something studied about it, a lack of spontaneity perhaps. All the preparation and internal reflection seems, to me at least, to steal a little of the honesty from a performance, especially where emotions are involved. There can be no question about Brando’s screen presence, and there are times when he is powerfully effective – he absolutely nails the simmering rage and indignation, and the scene on the veranda as he shares a tequila with Malden, and they smoothly tell each other lies, is played to perfection. Yet it’s the moments of truth which ring slightly hollow for me; Rio’s admission of deceit as he reclines on the beach with Louisa, and his later reaction to the news that he’s to become a father. These are key character moments, scenes where genuine, heartfelt honesty is required, and I’m not sure it’s achieved.

Malden, on the other hand, comes away better. This may be partly down to his role being more complex; he’s clearly a villain, and a deeply unpleasant one at that, but there are all kinds of undercurrents. Dad Longworth is a master of deception – a professional in the art in comparison to Rio’s half-hearted hoodwinking of gullible women – a pompous, jealous sadist masking his rotten core with a facade of bonhomie. And underpinning all that is his fear and cowardice. Malden conveys all of this quite effortlessly and by the end of the movie you feel that you know something of the real man. Of the supporting cast, three figures stand out – Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens (Peckinpah would use these two in one of the most heartrendingly beautiful scenes a decade later in the flawed yet magnificent Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) and Ben Johnson. Jurado was blessed with a pair of the most soulful and expressive eyes you could hope to find, and she was able to evoke pride, dignity, pain and any emotion called for with consummate ease. He role as Malden’s wife afforded the opportunity to do just that and she seized it. Pickens always had that unpolished air about him that was ideal for down to earth types but could be equally effective, as is the case in this film, in portraying vaguely sinister yokels. And of course Johnson (like Pickens) was a natural cowboy who never gave a bad performance. Flitting in and out of the picture, all too briefly in most cases, are such notable character actors as Elisha Cook Jr, John Dierkes, Ray Teal and Timothy Carey.

One-Eyed Jacks has long been a staple of the cheap public domain DVD, and there have been some extremely ropey presentations over the years. I’m not sure if there’s been what you might call a definitive edition released yet but some are clearly superior to others. I have the Spanish DVD released a few years back by Sony/Impulso and it’s not bad in my opinion. The film is presented 1.85:1 anamorphic and looks pretty good. I’ve seen other widescreen editions (mostly derived from the old Laserdisc transfer, I think) where the colors were washed out and weak. My Spanish disc is acceptably sharp and the colors generally look richer. Released in the 60s but with more than a little 50s flavor about it, not least in the redemptive curve undertaken by Brando’s character, One-Eyed Jacks is something of an enigmatic movie. I’ve never been able to fully make my mind up about it, and that hasn’t changed. Love it, loathe it, or anything in between, western fans owe it to themselves to check it out and see if they can decide.

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38 thoughts on “One-Eyed Jacks

  1. What wonderful way to the start the year, Colin. Aye, a bit of a troublesome film that fascinates. Can you imagine Brando attempting to perform for the many-take likes of Stanley Kubrick or David Fincher? I think something, or someone, would break in the process. Another marvelous western review, my friend.

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    • Thanks, Michael. It’s Brando’s film all the way alright, for better or worse. I believe, although I may end up being corrected on this, that the falling out with Kubrick was mainly over the casting of Malden’s role. I think you may be right and a clash of wills and personalities would have ensued anyway though.

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  2. This is one I want to revisit. Half hoping a nice studio edition is put together based on it being Brando’s only film as director. I have the official VHS from Paramount but haven’t bothered picking up any of the public domain editions. One of those titles you have to wonder if there is more footage floating around. Generally I have always liked this film for the record. positives outweigh any negatives.

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  3. Terrific review Colin of a difficult film – like you, I have never warmed to it and doubt that I have sat all the way through it more than twice over the decades. I like Brando in lots of films, from STREETCAR and THE CHASE to even lighter fare such as GUYS AND DOLLS (I would include AUGUST MOON but haven’t seen it in ages and have no idea how the decidedly controversial casting would play now) – but this one always seemed self-indulgent to an unnecessary degree. Like his version of BOUNTY, this just seemed overblown despite lots of good things along the way. May one day …

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    • That’s pretty close to my own feelings, Sergio. I like parts of it – some of them very much indeed – but I can’t embrace it as fully as I’d like to. As you and others have said, there are a number of very positive elements and I think it’s a significant film. It all comes back to Brando though, and much depends on how one responds to him. Again I agree that he can be so impressive and yet also somehow self-indulgent. A fascinating figure really.
      I’m glad you mentioned The Chase – Arthur Penn is a director I haven’t always been enamored of but that movie impressed me last time I saw it. I’m going to give it another watch over the next few days.

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        • Arthur Penn again. To be honest, I haven’t seen that film yet. I didn’t especially like either of Penn’s other two westerns so have never been in any hurry to see that,

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            • Both films have their fans but neither one works well for me. Hoffman rarely engages me, I’m afraid. And Newman was extremely mannered, as sometimes happened early in his career. I don’t get on well with method acting, I suppose.

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            • “The Left Handed Gun” is one of the few Paul Newman films I can’t watch. I spent a day with Newman way back when. He giggled when chatting up films like “Left Handed Gun” and “The Silver Chalice”. He was quite a nice guy.

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              • That’s interesting to hear of Newman’s thoughts on some of his early roles. Generally, I liked him as an actor and think he quickly moved on from the weaker stuff. The Left Handed Gun is tough going mainly due to that performance by Newman although John Denher’s good work almost compensates.

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  4. This was a favorite movie for me when I was a teenage girl. I was very enamored of Brando and wasn’t really picky. Now, I can’t watch it at all. Garry has never been fond of the movie. He doesn’t like Brando as a western character. Too much angst. More than 50 years since I fist saw it, I find the movie kind of creepy.

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    • That’s interesting to hear how your opinion of the film has shifted over the years. It’s probably 20+ years since I first caught it and I don’t feel I’ve altered my position on it radically in that time.
      I certainly understand Garry’s grounds for disliking it, and I think I know where you’re coming from too – the atmosphere is, at times, rarefied and I can well believe some may find that off-putting.

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    • No, I’ve never liked “One Eye Jacks” and blame it squarely on Brando. But hold on. It has exquisite photography, especially those surf scenes. Malden’s villain is delightful, reminiscent of his turn with Steve McQueen in “Nevada Smith”. Brando’s excesses drive me nuts. It’s hard, mebbe sacrilegeous for me to bad mouth a western. There’s a good film in here but Brando should’ve handed the reins over to someone else.

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      • Yes, the Brando effect, both behind and in front of the camera is a big part of the problem for me. Maybe if someone else had been in the director’s chair, it could have been tightened up a little at a few critical points. And maybe Brando could have been coaxed into toning down the brooding a bit too.

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  5. I couldn’t agree more with your review. As mentioned, I was drawn by its theme but some how it meanders along to my disappointment. Best regards.

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    • I think a lot may feel something similar, Chris. It takes its time telling the story, and does so very attractively for the most part, but there is a certain looseness that creeps in.

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  6. Never seen it, and I don’t even have a good excuse given its existence in the public domain, however the cut I saw on the Internet Archive gave it a juicy running time of 2 hours, 21 minutes, and that’s some investment for a film that from your description struggles to justify its length – it sounds like indulgence to me. I’m certainly tempted to watch it for Katy Jurado, as you say great big sad eyes, so this is one of those bookmarked for a viewing shortly. Great write-up.

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    • Yes, that’s the running time indeed. In truth, it doesn’t drag at any point but does take its time in places. Don’t let that put you off though – I’d urge anyone who likes westerns to give it a chance. There are plenty of positives and you may like it more than you expect.

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  7. Great post! In a lot of ways, Colin, I share your opinion of this movie. But there’s something about it that fascinates me, and has since I first saw it on TV over 30 years ago.

    As I get further along with my book on it (https://www.facebook.com/AMillionFeetOfFilm?ref=hl), it somehow becomes even more fascinating — to the point that how good it is as a movie doesn’t seem to matter anymore. Comparing Brando’s intentions with Paramount’s re-cutting is quite a task.

    I still haven’t seen the Spanish DVD. Most seem to agree with you that it’s the best around.

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    • I thought you’d chime in on this at some point, Toby. I don’t know if you feel I’ve been harsh in my criticisms of some aspects of the film; I honestly do have mixed feelings about it and quite agree with your comment about the fascination it holds.
      I’m very keen to see your book when it does come out and what you allude to here about the differing intentions of director and studio is tantalizing to say the least.
      There have been rumors going round the last few days that Criterion are going to put the film out this year – have you seen or heard those?

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      • You weren’t too harsh at all — it’s a movie with plenty of faults. It’s more a mess than it is a masterpiece, but that fluctuates from scene to scene!

        I have NOT heard anything concrete about Criterion monkeying with it. That rumor seems to pop up every so often — I hope it means they’re at least thinking about it. Its rights might be fouled up — some say it is NOT in the public domain, belonging to Brando’s estate, who haven’t bothered with doing anything about all those crappy DVDs out there. I’ve looked into it and gotten a different answer depending on where I look or who I ask.

        What’s more, with its rights open to debate, I can’t see anybody investing much in a new transfer, much less a real restoration, when any jackleg video company out there can swipe it and sell it for two bucks. Not a real cool situation for a movie so many people want a nice copy of.

        I think Brando’s version of One-Eyed Jacks was going to be a great film, and there’s quite a bit of it still to be seen in the Paramount version (they left a lot of it alone). It still would’ve been indulgent and a bit bloated, but it was certainly gonna be a Western like no other.

        Was afraid that diving into the book project would spoil my fondness for the movie, but it’s only made me appreciate it more. Knowing how scenes were supposed to work, or what someone was supposed to say, gives you plenty to think through with each viewing (an example: http://tinyurl.com/p3z44hv).

        When the book’s done, you’re on my list of people to show it to before it goes out.

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        • That’s a marvelous link – it changes the whole dynamic of the movie. That alteration would given us something far richer indeed, although I feel that at least a shade of that remains in Malden’s character as we’re used to seeing him.

          I only mentioned the Criterion stuff because lots of folks were speculating that one of the visual clues in the New Year teaser pointed to the film. I’d love to see them take it on but, as you say, films like that are a big gamble due to the confusion over rights.

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          • Knowing how the Rio/Dad “reunion” scene was intended to play, Dad’s behavior through the rest of the film takes on a whole new meaning — especially the scenes with Malden and his family at home.

            And, of course, he was to accidentally shoot Louisa as she and Rio made their escape.

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            • Absolutely, it puts a whole new slant on so much of the film. I’m left wishing they had left that as intended now. As for the ending, I had heard/read about that before, and again I think it might have been at least a more interesting way to finish it off.

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  8. Another favorite. I wrote an article about it for Cinema Retro magazine. Vol. 10, No. 30. I have the Pioneer laserdisc and a player that still works. That oddly seems to still be the best for viewing. I contacted Criterion last fall and they said they had no plans to release it. I hope that changes someday soon. The film has a lot of fans. I dug Brando’s performance and direction and wish they could restore the five hour version. : )

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    • Frankly, I’d be delighted (despite the reservations I have for the film overall) to see the current cut fully restored and presented on Blu-ray with a raft of interesting extras.

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    • A good deal does depend on how you react to Brando, I think. However, it is a film with some beautiful visuals and I wouldn’t mind giving it another go in the new Hi-Def formats that have become available sine I wrote this piece.

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