The motion picture that starts its own tradition of greatness.
The first and only film ever directed by Marlon Brando, 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks is, in many ways, what you would expect a movie directed by Marlon Brando to look like: gorgeous, lyrical, thoughtful, ponderous, pretentious, bloated. It’s the kind of movie that received mixed-to-negative press when it was released 50 years ago but has, in the years since, gained a reputation for greatness; Mark Frankel of Turner Classic Movies refers to it as “the Heaven’s Gate of its day.” That makes it the perfect choice for inclusion into the Criterion Collection, a label with a long history of releasing not just certified classics but also those films deserving reappraisal.
Brando plays Rio, aka “The Kid, who along with his partner “Dad” (Karl Malden, Cat O’Nine Tails), pull off a daring robbery in Mexico, but Dad betrays Rio and makes off with the money while Rio is arrested by the Mexican police and put in jail for five years. He eventually escapes and sets off in search of Dad to exact his revenge and pull off another score, but along the way is sidetracked when he finds Dad having taken a new position as sheriff of a California town, now married with a stepdaughter (Pina Pellicer), a beautiful Mexican girl with whom Rio falls in love. Torn between his desire for revenge and his love for Louisa, Rio must also contend with being beaten, tortured, framed and locked up again on his way to finding either redemption or a clearer path to hell.
One-Eyed Jacks had a fascinating road to the screen — one with an insane pedigree. The novel on which it is based, Charles Neider’s The Authentic Death of Henry Jones, was originally adapted for film by none other than Rod Serling. His script was tossed and the movie was rewritten by Sam Peckinpah, with Stanley Kubrick attached to direct. Both were eventually fired and Brando stepped in to direct, with the final screenplay credited to Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham. Brando’s original cut of the film ran close to five hours, and when the studio balked he walked away from the movie. Brando gotta Brando. It was recut by the studio down to its current 2.5-hour running time and its ending was reshot. While plenty of good movies have survived multiple scripts and directors being hired before falling through, the kind of post-production pains One-Eyed Jacks went through rarely bodes well for a movie’s quality. That the released version ends up being interesting at worst and pretty good at best is a minor miracle. It’s a revenge plot that’s been covered at least a dozen times in other films — some better, some worse — but brought to life thanks to Brando’s fascination with finding beauty in the world, whether it’s in nature or in human beings.
And yet there are still passages of One-Eyed Jacks that are a total slog. While Brando is playing an antihero, he can’t resist the temptation to make himself more of a romantic cowboy poet than any sort of believably bad guy. At two and a half hours, the movie still feels incredibly long and padded; I can’t imagine what a five hour cut would look like (though it’s entirely possible that this is a case of editors removing texture in the interest of only plot, which isn’t quite enough to sustain a movie of this length). The morality is never quite as grey as Brando seems to think: the villain who is named sheriff and the murderous thief who’s actually a “good” guy. One-Eyed Jacks presents itself as being ambiguous when it comes to ideas of right and wrong, but never really gets below the surface of what these things mean or how they are acted out in human behavior. Still, the cast is strong, the locations are lovely and the Vistavision photography quite beautiful. Sometimes that’s all I can ask of a western.
Criterion’s new Blu-ray of One-Eyed Jacks gives the movie a total HD makeover, with a new 4K scan that premiered at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival and was overseen by none other than Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. The new 1080p transfer restores the film to how it should look after years of compromised releases. The natural locations look gorgeous and colors are rich, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that skin tones often look somewhat waxy; this could be a result of either the makeup or the photography, though, and shouldn’t be blamed on flaws of what is otherwise a stunning restoration. The only audio option is an LCPM mono track, but it delivers the dialogue and effects with a surprising amount of range and contains none of the hissing or distortion that can sometimes plague older films. While there aren’t quite as many bonus features as there once was on Criterion discs, there is a decent enough amount of supplemental material that fans of the movie ought to be satisfied. Director Martin Scorsese offers a brief video introduction, while historians David Cairns and Toby Roan each contribute separate video essays on the film, its production and its legacy. Brando himself can be heard in a collection of audio-only interviews that run about 30 minutes total, most which seem to have been recorded prior to the movie’s production. Finally, the original trailer is included, as it Criterion’s usual booklet containing photos and essays.
I don’t know that One-Eyed Jacks is a great western, but it is a singular one and belongs on the list of fascinating, often challenging works made by filmmakers who only ever made one film (a list that also includes Charles Laughton for Night of the Hunter and Herk Harvey for Carnival of Souls). Criterion’s treatment may not successfully place it among the all-time greats, but it certainly does make the case that this is a film worthy of closer examination. The 4K restoration is beautiful, and while recent revelations in the news have completed soured me on the man, the movie is good enough to make me wish that Marlon Brando had directed at least one more film.