Friday, March 9, 2007
It has been hailed by Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, it is the only film directed by one of the most famous actors in film history and it signaled the rise of a more violent and cynical cinema, but for some reason Marlon Brando's One Eyed Jacks has never really gotten its due.
The main reason for its continuing dismissal in some circles is that it remains a compromised film. After a gruelling six months worth of shooting Marlon Brando either ran out of steam while editing, or the film was finally just taken away from him or most likely, both. It is known for sure that Brando's original five hour cut was whittled down to the 141 minutes we have now and the incredibly bleak ending was changed. Brando would comment on it's release that it was no longer his film but he would still get a Director's Guild nomination, which he would lose to Robert Wise.
Even in it's compromised state One Eyed Jacks remains a visionary film and a totally unique one. It's impact can be felt in the American Westerns that followed by Sam Peckinpah, Monte Hellman and Arthur Penn; and also in the European westerns that would gain such prominence just a few years later. One Eyed Jacks seems like a clear precursor, not only to Sergio Leone, to a breed of mystical European Westerns like Sergio Corbucci's The Grand Silence and Enzo Castellari's Keoma.
It all started out as a novel called The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. Sam Peckinpah optioned the book and wrote the original script, much of which made its way into the final product. Peckinpah was soon replaced after not seeing eye to eye with Brando, as was original director Stanley Kubrick. Brando decided to take the film on himself and he set out to create a piece of art that was 'gray and human'.
Brando surrounded himself with some of the finest character actors in Hollywood, including his friend Karl Malden. The astonishing cast would feature Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens, Larry Duran and Timothy Carey. Talented Mexican actors Katy Jurado and Pina Pellicer also signed up.
Shooting was originally scheduled for just a month in California's beautiful Big Sur but six months later Brando had shot almost seven times as much footage as most films. This was said to have shown his inexperience but when you watch the film you can see what Brando had in mind. The film is filled with multi-shot and multi-angled takes, as though Brando wanted to conceivably get every bit of emotion out of his actors that he could. Watching One Eyed Jacks now, even in its mutilated state, one always feels they are watching something very controlled and thought out. The production is fascinating in it's obsessive detail, but it's easy to see that this would have been a hard shoot for everyone (doubly so for Brando as he was subjecting himself as an actor to his obsessiveness as director).
The film's plot is simple, Brando is Rio and he is best friends with his robbing buddy Dad (Karl Malden in one of his great performances). Dad betrays Rio and Rio is sent to prison for five years. In that time Dad becomes a sheriff and Rio becomes more and more obsessed with revenge. The film could have played like a simple revenge tale but Brando turns it into a haunting, existential and masochistic nightmare.
Brando gives one of his loneliest and intense performances as Rio. Often shooting himself positioned slightly away from the other cast and often in close up to heighten the sense of isolation his character is going through. This is a man who never really gets out of the prison he was stuck in for five years. Much like Soderbergh's The Limey we are presented with a character essentially seeking revenge on himself and the audience follows him down his path knowing he'll never find the justice necessary to ease his pain.
The film's most famous moment is undoubtedly the whipping scene. Easily one of the most brutal scenes filmed up to that point in American cinema, the prolonged whipping literally brings Brando and the audience to it's knees. The film is also uncommonly tender at times and the scenes between Brando and the young Pina Pellicer are unforgettable. The moment when Brando admits that he lied to her and took her virtue just as part of his revenge on her stepfather (Malden) is one of his great moments and Pina's comment of, "You only shame yourself" is heartbreaking.
The lovely Pina Pellicer would take her own life just three years after shooting this film. It was a tragic loss and her performance in One Eyed Jacks is splendidly vulnerable and she would be awarded the best actress award at the San Sebastian film festival. She brings a tenderness out in Brando that few other actresses ever could.
Brando is magnificent throughout the entire film. His Rio is one of the most complex and multi-layered parts he ever played. He was also at the peak of his physical beauty here and the slightly added weight he had put on only adds to it. He cuts an imposing, muscular figure throughout the film and along with Elvis he remains the most masculine and beautiful man that ever appeared in front of a camera.
The film falls apart at the end. This is where the studio interference really hurt it and the last shot feels cheap and hollow, like it's from a different film.
It would perform decently at the box office but the wonderful cinematography of Charles Lang got the film its only Oscar nomination.
Brando was reportedly deeply disturbed by the studio interference and would never direct again. He was entering into ten years of some of his most underrated and sincere work, even if the films were often nowhere near as good as he was.
Ten years after One Eyed Jacks Brando would get the roles in The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris that would solidify him as the greatest of all actors. After Tango he stopped giving his heart to us and I often think of his later career and life in comparison to the shot in One Eyed Jacks when he realizes Dad has betrayed him. He's alone on top of a hill and a dust storm is developing around him, the wind is blowing and we see him looking and then we see the realization on his face that he's been left behind. It is one of the loneliest and most isolating moments in all of American cinema, and the look on Brando's face tells us more about the man than any mumbled interview or biography could ever hope to.
Just a few years after One Eyed Jacks left theaters Monte Hellman would deliver Ride In The Whirlwind and Sergio Leone would unleash A Fistful Of Dollars. Sam Peckinpah finally got to make something resembling his version of The Authentic Death Of Hendry Jones in 1973. Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid would share similar traits and scenes with One Eyed Jacks, have a troubled shooting and also be taken away and recut by the studio.
And the missing One Eyed Jacks footage? Legend has it that it was destroyed by Brando himself but I hold out a hope that it's still out there just waiting for someone to discover it. Chances are that if Brando said he destroyed it, then it is still around. This was a man who chose to tell us the truth only in his films and he was never more honest than he was in One Eyed Jacks.