Criterion Corner: One-Eyed Jacks (1961) - Reviewed

Cursed from its inception and the only film that Brando would ever direct, One-Eyed Jacks is an anti-western Oedipal potboiler.  Running millions over budget and months behind schedule, due to Brando's notorious perfectionism, the film was recently given a beautiful blu ray transfer by The Criterion Collection.  Featuring a handful of intense performances, evocative coastal cinematography, and swift, brutal violence, One-Eyed Jacks is a brooding examination of the specious grandeur of the western protagonist. 

Stanley Kubrick was initially attached to direct a script penned by Rod Serling and Sam Peckinpah.  After various setbacks, Brando fired Kubrick, hired Guy Trosper to revamp the script, and put himself in the director's chair, telling the story of a double crossed bank runner named Rio,  who escapes from prison and begins an undisciplined vendetta, setting his sights on the Sheriff's virginal stepdaughter and planning to confront his betrayal in a lethal showdown.  Rio's crusade is upended by a series of treacheries in which Freudian truths are revealed and the hypocritical nature of the gunslinger is deconstructed with unrepentant bloodshed.

The result is a film that is fractured and turbulent, mirroring Brando's consummate Primadonna theatrics.  His performance shows the beginnings of what would be his greatest roles, delivering a transformative turn that can't seem to escape its own gravity. Rio is a man trapped by flaws and overwhelmed by his sorrow, and Brando's delivery revels in an existential wonderland, choosing the gun over redemption at every turn.

Go ahead. Put your tongue on one of these here frozen bars. 

Pina Pellicer supports as Rio's star crossed lover, Louisa.  Despite her budding romance being poisoned from its shoreline origin, her stormy chemistry with Brando is perhaps the film's most overlooked attribute, both actors commit to the flippant romance with a sense of natural attraction that overcomes the script's pointed lack of depth. Larry Duran gives a wonderful turn as the film's most redeeming character, Chico, while Karl Malden steals the limelight with his "villainous" turn as Dad.  Despite the ridiculously coy naming convention, his character is the most complex persona in Brando's vision.  Longworth is clearly a compromised man, given his actions, but he presents as someone who understands his nature and goes to great lengths to deny it, committing unnecessary atrocities in the name of righteousness.  In the end, the merit of his soul is left to the viewer to judge, a theme that persists throughout the film. 

Charles Lang's Oscar nominated cinematography is astounding, immediately offsetting the disjointed quality of the narrative  Bolstered by Brando's anal tendencies, every scene is perfectly captured, with sea foam blues and crimson reds bathing the screen in every frame.  Robert Brenton and Sam Comer's set decoration bears mention, presenting the sandy streets of Monterey as a civilized pearl in the unsettled West.  There is no dust or tumbleweeds on the streets and the town presents as the perfect mixture of blooming American culture and fading Mexican architecture.  Yvonne Wood's elusive costume design begins with Rio dressed as a playful bandit and then transitions into a refined killer, adorned in gaudy cravat scarfs and simple blazers, carrying the trope of red equaling danger to material heights. 

Call me Olive Oil again! I dare ya!!!

Ultimately, One-Eyed Jacks comes together in an anti-climax, and this is the film's heart.  During an age where the American Cowboy was synonymous with the trappings of a nation always ahead of the eight ball, Brando's debut was a scathing, and downright vicious dissection of the immaculate white hat.  There are no heroes and no real villains, only victims of chance and circumstance, each of them wayward desperadoes desperate to finish what they started.  Brando's final cut was over four hours long and he walked away from the project, letting the studios chop it down to 141 minutes.  The final version, and the only one known to exist, is a compromised masterwork, presenting the struggles of the West as inevitable byproducts of a tarnished ideal of sovereign entitlement.  Rio's inability to let the past go doesn't doom him, but it also doesn't offer him salvation, condemning him to and endless outlaw purgatory. 

Available now for digital rental and on a recently released Criterion Collection blu ray, One-Eyed Jacks is an essential piece of Western cinema.  A deeply flawed exercise in ego, it will frustrate and entice you in equal amounts.  The important thing to bear in mind when viewing is that the ego involved belonged to one of the most legendary talents to ever grace the screen, and it is reflected in every fiber of this remarkable directorial effort.  

Are you game? Share this review.


-Kyle Jonathan