For some of us longtime aficionados of Marlon Brando, there was a touch of disappointment and dismay amid the many tributes to the great actor on his death last week.
Disappointment because the only film he ever directed was mentioned in those tributes mostly as an example of his legendary excesses. But that movie, "One-Eyed Jacks," is more than that; it is a majestic and explosive piece of work.
The oversight is perhaps understandable. "Jacks," released in 1961, came at the end of Brando's most exciting acting period and marked the beginning of a slide into self-indulgence and cynicism from which his reputation would not recover until the release of "The Godfather" in 1972. Long before "Jacks" hit the theaters, it was famous as a cinematic money pit in which its star had wallowed and romped, seemingly with no restraint.
It cost the then-staggering sum of $6 million -- three times its original budget -- in part because of Brando's insistence on filming hundreds of takes, improvising dialogue and fight scenes, and firing the original director, Stanley Kubrick. Brando never forgave Paramount for re-cutting the picture to 141 minutes and not letting it run the five hours he wanted.
All that might have been forgiven had "One-Eyed Jacks" clicked with the public. It never really did. Audiences stayed away in droves, and Brando was blamed by Hollywood for squandering his talents and Paramount's money on an unbankable vanity production. A year later he would compound those sins with his bizarrely fatuous Fletcher-Christian-as-fop performance in "Mutiny on the Bounty," a film that cost even more and did further damage to his career. For those who remembered his incandescent presence in "On the Waterfront," it was a tragic descent.
But for some of us, "One-Eyed Jacks" remains a breathtaking accomplishment. Whatever demons were unleashed during its production, it remains today a film of mesmerizing dramatic power and one of the most beautifully filmed westerns ever made. It was shot in Death Valley and on the Monterey Peninsula, and Charles Lang Jr. was nominated for an Oscar for his color cinematography. Lang captured stunning horseback scenes against the thundering surf and pine-shaded sand hills of Big Sur country. When was another western ever filmed on the beach?
The plot is relatively simple. Rio (Brando) is a bank robber in 1880 Mexico whose partner Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) makes off with their loot, leaving Rio to be captured and suffer five years in a prison in Sonora. When he escapes, Rio tracks Longworth to Monterey, where the former bandit has hidden his past beneath a mask of respectability. He now has a wife and stepdaughter and, as the town sheriff, parades as the defender of peace and justice. The suspense involves just how Rio will exact his revenge.
Brando is never less than mesmerizing in his on-screen journey from charming rogue to explosive avenger, and there is nothing in his career, not even "Viva Zapata" or "On the Waterfront," to match the savage power of his fight scenes or the cold fury of his resolve. Near the climax of the film, he sneers out one of the great lines beloved by all Brando impersonators: "Get up, you scum-suckin' pig!"
Yet what is perhaps even more impressive than his performances are those Brando draws from the rest of his cast. Malden, always interesting as an actor, has never given a better performance than in evoking the two-faced corruption of Longworth, whom he manages to make irredeemably evil and intensely human at the same time. Slim Pickens has made a career of playing laughable and loathsome characters. His portrait of Lon, Longworth's tooth-picking deputy, is a tour de force of craven despicability.
As much as it toys with the conventions of the western, "One-Eyed Jacks" transcends the genre to become a cinematic meditation on human character. There is no other film remotely like it. Yet there's an eerie foreshadowing of a later Brando visible in the film's first scene.
The movie opens with a shot of Brando as Rio, eating a banana. Gradually the camera pulls back to show him consuming the banana while seated on a bank counter with a pistol, waiting for frightened tellers to fill his saddlebag with money. In a deliciously Brando bit of stage business, he tosses part of the banana peel on one pan of a gold scale, then tosses the rest on the other pan to balance it (Scales of justice! Get it?).
For a second he keeps chewing, and with his mouth full suddenly there's a moment where you see a hint of an old mafia don with a mouthful of orange. For a moment, we can glimpse Don Corleone playing in a tomato garden with his grandson a few minutes before he's going to die.
"One-Eyed Jacks" is available on VHS and DVD.