The Wild One

Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?

Whadda you got?

James Dean was not the first American teenager nor was he the first screen rebel, with or without a cause. Sure we all know that but one would be forgiven for thinking it were actually so if some commentaries on the development of social issues in the movies are held to be true. Disaffected youth had, to a greater or lesser extent, been present on screen for a much longer time; you could make a case for some of the pre-war crime/gangster movies, and a far stronger one for later noir-style disillusionment such as They Live by Night (courtesy of Nicholas Ray, who would of course cast the aforementioned Dean in his most iconic role) or Lewis’ Gun Crazy. No, young people had been butting heads with society for quite a while but the 1950s with the attendant changes of the aftermath of the war seemed to make the phenomenon appear, if not unprecedented, at least more marked. The Wild One (1953), while it no longer retains the same impact, must have provoked a reaction at the time both for its frank approach to its subject matter and the style and attitude of the star.

The opening is one of those ominous warnings about the events about to unfold being extreme yet perhaps indicative of some as yet ill-defined social malaise. And then the bikes and their riders appear and power their way towards the camera. Front and center is Johnny (Marlon Brando), looking tough and insolent in black leather and aviator shades. The bikers ride into a small town in the midst of a race, strutting and swaggering and soon being told to be on their way by the anonymous face of the law. They do so, but the next town they arrive in gets to host them a little longer. The bulk of the movie plays out here, as Johnny’s rival Chino (Lee Marvin) turns up and duly encourages further displays of machismo and bravado. While the bikers become increasingly foolish in their boorishness, the locals (or a group with the local population) let their own boorishness grow ever more vindictive and mean. At the heart of it all is Johnny, simultaneously detached and driven, proud of his outlaw, outsider status yet also drawn to the sweet respectability of waitress Kathie (Mary Murphy).

The Wild One was inspired by events in the town of Hollister in 1947, when a motorcycle gang brought chaos  to the small settlement with no apparent explanation. This is essentially what’s going on in this movie, an outbreak of seemingly inexplicable anti-social behavior, a rejection of the comfortable affluence and respectability which characterized the decade following the end of the war in the US. Laslo Benedek, who had a long and wide-ranging career  in television was the director and provided some nice moody visuals, particularly the scenes taking place during the climactic evening. Still, the fingerprints which are even more in evidence are those of producer Stanley Kramer. He is best known for his message films and The Wild One is the type of vehicle you’d expect him to be involved with even without seeing his name attached to the credits.

Without wishing to belittle any of the other members, and there is a long and solid supporting cast, the film mainly revolves around four people – Brando, Marvin, Murphy and Robert Keith. Of these, Brando is obviously the focus; I can only imagine how different his persona was when he came on the scene in the post-war years. That mumbling, brooding Method approach to his art was always going to mark him out in a world still dominated by naturalistic and theatrically trained performers. Frankly, it’s not a style I’m overly fond of and I suspect that how one reacts to The Wild One will be strongly influenced by how one takes to Brando. Marvin was a terrific foil to Brando’s mannered intensity, the brash exuberance still feeling fresh, elemental and somehow more real. Similarly, Murphy’s demure classiness offers another point of contrast, and a very appealing one too. And last but not last, is the quiet presence of Keith, serving up a finely judged study of weakness and self-doubt. As for those supporting players, Will Wright, Ray Teal, Jay C Flippen and Timothy Carey are just a few of the familiar and reliable faces on show.

The Wild One is now another of the consistently strong series of Dual format Blu-ray/DVD releases from Powerhouse/Indicator in the UK. Although I don’t have any other Hi-Def release of the movie to make a comparison I feel this is a very strong presentation – it’s clean and sharp, has excellent contrast and the blacks look appropriately black. So, no issues on that score. The supplements are, as usual, copious and worthwhile. Jeanine Basinger provides the commentary track and there’s a brief introduction by Karen Kramer. Then there are a number of featurettes: one on the films and its history with the BBFC, another on the events in Hollister that gave rise to the story, and finally there’s a piece on Brando. Furthermore, there’s a Super 8 version of the movie included alongside the trailer and a gallery. The accompanying booklet runs to a satisfying 40 pages and includes an article by Kat Ellinger, an article from 1955 by director Benedek on the movie, a piece by Leslie Halliwell and comments from critics of the time.

The Wild One is a well-made, pacy and influential film. I can’t claim it’s a great favorite of mine but that’s at least partly down to my own ambivalence to Brando as an actor and shouldn’t be taken as any dismissal of the artistic and intellectual merits of the movie. For those who appreciate Brando’s work more the film will probably be a more satisfying experience. That aside, it’s a good movie and the new release is a top quality one, something which is now typical of Indicator.

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.