Considered one of the greatest actors ever, Marlon Brando’s greatest works are often cited as A Street Car Named Desire, Viva Zapata, or his two Oscar winning performances: On The Waterfront and The Godfather. Popular opinion remains divisive on Brando’ s other works after the 1950s, especially during his lackluster era of the 1960s. He was deemed as box office poison and no longer America’s answer to Britain’s Laurence Olivier. At this point Brando had more hits than misses at the box office and his focus on the Civil Rights Movement deepened his dissatisfaction with Hollywood.
One-Eyed Jacks, known for being Brando’s only directed film, and notorious for its numerous problems and bloated budget, has gradually received the recognition it deserves through the years. While the film became a box office failure during its original run, contemporary critics and audiences consider it an overlooked gem. For years, the film was a poorly transferred DVD destined for the bargain bin. The anticipated restoration finally came to fruition after Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg took it upon themselves to guide the restoration process for the 54th New York Film Festival and Criterion considered it culturally important.
It is astounding to experience the quality and polish of the final product. Early on in the development cycle, Paramount reportedly fired a young Stanley Kubrick (or he left to complete Lolita depending on the source), allowed an inexperienced and volatile Brando to take over, and the studio had to finish the edits when Brando grew tired of the editing process. These turn of events allowed the allure of the film to transcend the screen. The legend of the film is riddled with wonder, countless insightful subplots, and shocking and humorous stories. Stories worth noting include Kubrick’s preference for Spencer Tracy in the role of Dad Longworth, but Brando ignored him and let longtime screen partner Karl Malden fill the role. Furthermore, Brando would wait for the “perfect wave” so that the horses galloping by can be perfectly captured on film. His insistence to wait days for these waves coupled with the constant movement of the heavy Vista Vision camera and the accompanying crew also caused several delays and generated animosity on set. This project became an embodiment of the Brando signature in virtually every aspect. Like his celebrity status, his demands and unpredictable nature molded the film’s legacy. The film went from an expected 12 week shot to 6 months, he exhausted the entire crew with his on the fly revisions, and reportedly used over one million feet of film stock during editing. His frustrating demeanor did not get him the ending he sought for, however. Paramount went for the general release ending and Brando apparently had a 3.5+ hour cut with a morbid ending. Unfortunately, the negatives for the deleted scenes were never found. Nonetheless, the 2.5 hour running time is enough to showcase the director’s unique approach to the well-established Western genre.
Thematically, One-Eyed Jacks marked the end of the escapism and thrill of the Western genre. No longer a monochromatic depiction of characterization, this film explored the emotional inclinations to act immorally. It was a step in the right direction for more freedom in filming, and made light of the overuse of the general Western formula. Brando’s character of Rio is a bandit holding onto a vendetta in a straightforward revenge plot and for the salvation of one’s honour. The beauty of the story is found in Brando’s electric, brooding method acting that gives the film life. In what could have been a dull cliché, we are given a sophisticated effort by Brando with a supporting cast perfectly curated to his talent. From the disaster of the development cycle came a product that ought to be remembered as fondly as his more notable efforts. The explosive and erratic Rio is humanized through his limitations. Rather than achieving redemption and being rewarded, Rio is tormented by his own ambitions. The inalienable desire for retribution through his old methods puts him in similar danger. Falling in love during this moment elucidates his hasty decisions than any real possibility for changing his ways. Rio’s actions bring out reactions from the other characters that surprise the audiences with moments of sadism, revenge, and violence. Like his directing style, Brando’s character causes an irreversible ripple effect. As director, the filming process was painful and dragged on by his dominance, but the dual role allowed Brando the actor to be in control of every moment. His lines and actions in each screen demand our attention–this was Brando at his best.
Aesthetically, for a first time director Brando gave the film some breathtaking scenes. The experience is illuminated by memorable sites along the beach and a vibrancy of colours in the town settings. For all the dust and sand, the waves and colourful clothing perfectly contrast the desolate backgrounds. Despite Vista Vision’s limitations with close ups, the camera provides a balance of wide angled scenes and the essential close ups without an overbearing amount of grain and blurriness in the background. As one of very few Westerns taking place at seaside, it sets a memorable standard. Criterion’s 4k restoration offers a lush, crisp transfer, which help Brando’s original vision become fully experienced and realized.
Known also as Vista Vision’s last produced film, this also marked the end of Brando’s facade of unquestioned stardom. The 1950s allowed Brando be an innovator with a string of critical and box office successes. His personal problems and dissolution with the celebrity status bestowed upon him left filmgoers with an unmotivated actor that merely went with the motions. Not until 1972’s The Godfather do we see a Brando back in form, and it is disheartening to look back at the potential the 1960s had for him. If One-Eyed Jacks was any indication in 1961, then a motivated Brando could have continued his 1950s momentum into the 1960s, or at least give directing one more go.
This article was written by Daniel Centeno, a writer for dusk magazine.