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.