Monday, September 17, 2012

Reeling Backward: "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961)

I didn't think I'd like "One-Eyed Jacks." It was directed by Marlon Brando at the precipice of his acting career, right before he slid off into a decade-long fallow period revived only by "The Godfather" in 1972. He had never directed before, and never stepped behind the camera again. Usually, that sort of thing happens for a good reason.

All in all, it has the ingredients of an overstuffed vanity project, a la Kevin Costner's "The Postman."

Early on, the film's languid pace (2 hours and 20 minutes) and Brando's mush-mouthed delivery of lines seemed to confirm my suspicions. But soon the film won me over with its curious mix of Western mythology, revenge story and romance.

It's perhaps the actor's most distilled expression of his persona as a performer, a moody wash of resentment and pride. His gunslinger Rio is the apotheosis of Brando's young rebel roles, now grown a little older and more cautious. He's not always quite sure what he wants or what the right thing to do is, but whatever path he chooses Rio commits to with all-consuming passion.

In his late 30s, Brando was no longer the smoldering screen presence of the 1950s. His torso had started to thicken, his jawline soften, and if his hairline wasn't yet fleeing back across his head, it was at least looking for the exits.

Set in the dusty foothills of Baja California and then moving to the idyllic seaside town of Monterey, "One-Eyed Jacks" is about a friendship gone bad.

Rio and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are longtime roustabouts robbing banks and having a good time. Dad is considerably older, a veteran bandit who picked up Rio when he was a kid and taught him the ropes. Even though he's far surpassed him as a gunman, Rio still looks up to Dad, who's starting to lose a step.

In Brando's close-mouthed, Southern-fried vernacular, "Dad" comes out sounding like "Ndahd." The same can be said for the rest of Rio's speech, which Brando delivers like he's chewing over every syllable and reluctant to spit it out.

A heist goes bad, the lawmen have them pinned on a mountain peak with only one spent horse and a rifle between them, and Rio suggests one of them hightail it down to a little ranch they know about nearby, pick up a pair of fresh horses and save the day. They opt to leave it to chance to see who rides off with the gold while the other waits.

Rio suggests Dad pick which of his hands is holding the bullet, but rigs it by pulling a cartridge from his gun belt so Dad will be the one to ride. Why? Perhaps he figures the older, slower Dad deserves a break. Maybe Rio figures that Dad, lacking a hat or shoes from their hasty getaway, won't last in the broiling heat. Or maybe he just loves Dad and trusts him.

In any case, Dad gets a fresh horse and then flees with the gold, leaving Rio to be captured by the Federales. Before he's taken in, the posse stops by the ranch where Rio learns of Dad's betrayal.

Flash five years later. After busting out of the Sonora prison with a Mexican pal (Larry Duran), Rio begins searching for Dad to exact his revenge. Along the way he throws in with Bob Armory (Ben Johnson), a quietly malevolent sort who wants to knock over the fat bank in Monterey.

Turns out that's where Dad has gone to ground, reforming his ways and even being elected sheriff. He's also married a widow named Maria (Katy Jurado) with a teen daughter, Louisa.

She's played by Mexican actress Pina Pellicer, who had a short but memorable career kicked off by her performance in "One-Eyed Jacks." With her thin, sallow face and languid eyes, Pellicer had a dark, unconventional beauty for her era. She also managed to instill more depth and emotion in the dialogue than screenwriters Calder Willingham and Guy Trosper did. Sadly, she committed suicide three years later.

The genesis of the screenplay is a little fuzzy, with Willingham, Trosper, Stanley Kubrick and Brando himself all contributing drafts at various points. It's a very, very loose adaptation of the novel "The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones" by Charles Neider.

It's at this point that the plot goes kind of sideways, but things get really interesting. Rio, Bob and their crew ride into town, but Rio peels off for a visit at Dad's place. Dad lies to him about the circumstances of his betrayal, and introduces him to his family, with an immediate spark between Rio and Louisa.

Now, this sounds like an exceptionally lousy way to go about robbing a bank. But Rio is less concerned about getting rich than getting even -- or, at the very least, getting satisfaction for being treated so shabbily by his best friend.

After a huge carnival party, which Rio uses as a cover to seduce Louisa and deflower her as a way to get back at Dad, the gunman realizes he doesn't really know what the wants. At various points Rio means to kill Dad, or run off with Louisa, but things don't quite work out.

After Rio kills a drunk in a fair fight, Dad uses the incident as an excuse to take revenge for Louisa. He beats Rio to a pulp, flays his back to shreds with a whip, and pulverizes his gun  hand with the butt of a rifle. Rio spends a couple months at a nearby fishing village healing up, with Bob and his partner growing increasingly frustrated. They signed on for a rich bank scheme, not a Shakespearean revenge drama.

Bob finally robs the bank without Rio, shooting a girl bystander and getting killed himself in the process, but Dad uses it as an excuse to hang Rio and rid himself of his troubles. Malden's steely, internal performance suggests that Dad doesn't really hate Rio, but he despises that his presence reminds Dad of his own failings.

Rio, for his own part, is incensed that Dad has managed to turn his life around as easily as flipping over a poker card. "You're a one-eyed jack around here, Dad. I seen the other side of your face," he accuses.

Also notable is Slim Pickens as Dad's jackal of a deputy, Lon, who has designs on Louisa. Pickens usually played bumbling, cartoonish characters, but he's chilling here.

Like other novice directors, Brando made the wise choice to hire a veteran cinematographer, Charles Lang, to handle the visual look of the picture. The result, nominated for an Oscar, has a scuffed-up kind of a beauty, vivid colors mixed with off-putting close-ups.

The most interesting thing to me about "One-Eyed Jacks" is that it relies more on the power of inference than overt depictions to demonstrate the internal workings of its characters, especially Rio and Dad. Rio is such a deviation from the classic Western protagonist, in that he's a man of action who often isn't sure how to act.

Six-shooter characters, even when they aren't supposed to be heroic, are often defined by their single-minded pursuit of a goal -- think John Wayne in "The Searchers." Rio is more akin to Brando's urban characters of the '50s, torn apart by misdirected passion and existential angst.

3.5 stars out of four

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