Playing for a week at Film Forum in a new 4K restoration, One-Eyed Jacks, the sole film that features Marlon Brando both in front of and behind the camera, was first released in 1961, the beginning of the decade when the totemic Method actor’s career grew increasingly subordinate to his political activism and ever-byzantine personal life. The supernova era of the early 1950s, the years of A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, was long past; in One-Eyed Jacks, a strange, tumid, engrossing western, psychic damage leaves a messier stain than the harm caused by bullets or fists. The film buzzes with the anxieties and puzzling affect of its director and star; as Patricia Bosworth writes in Marlon Brando, her 2001 biography, One-Eyed Jacks “probably contains the most accurate
on-screen portrait of Brando at the time,
a man with an unforgettable face about to spoil and grow fat, a man seemingly incapable or unwilling to project love or desire to anyone else on the screen.”
A project of Brando’s own company, Pennebaker Productions (the name a tribute to his beloved mom, née Dorothy Julia Pennebaker), One-Eyed Jacks was to have been directed by Stanley Kubrick, who eventually threw up his hands over the screenplay; he left and signed on to do Spartacus. (Another casualty was original co-screenwriter Sam Peckinpah; the script, based on The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, Charles Neider’s 1956 novel, a loose retelling of the life of Billy the Kid, was eventually credited to Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham.) According to Brando in his autobiography, Songs My Mother Taught Me (1994), after Kubrick decamped, the star sent the script to several filmmakers, including Elia Kazan, the stage and screen director most closely associated with the actor’s stratospheric rise. All declined: “No one wanted to do it,” Brando writes, “so I had to direct it myself. We shot most of it at Big Sur and on the Monterey peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs.”
Those magnificent Pacific-coast locations, shot by Charles Lang, make Brando’s film the rare western to prominently feature ocean views; the sound of the crash of waves and the squawk of seagulls is only one unexpected element in this highly idiosyncratic project. Even more surprising — and alluring — is our first look at the star/director himself: His face slathered with bronzer (a taupe hue that seems to get lighter as the film progresses), Brando, playing bank robber Rio, slowly takes a few bites of banana, tossing the uneaten portion onto a scale.
It’s a deceptively casual, Method-y gesture, and the first of several allusions to appetite. “You’re getting too fat to run,” jokes fellow bandit Dad Longworth (Karl Malden, who co-starred with Brando in the stage and screen versions of Streetcar and On the Waterfront) to Rio before the betrayal that sets the revenge plot in motion. “You get up, you big tub of guts,” Rio snarls at a lawman played by Slim Pickens, whom he’ll later fat-shame again with this declaration: “You’re the one with the gut.”
Are these unscripted lines from a notoriously weight-struggling performer, who spared no excess while directing One-Eyed Jacks? “I tried to figure out what to do as I went along,” Brando writes in his memoir. “[Trosper] and I constantly improvised and rewrote between shots and setups, often hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute. Some scenes I shot over and over again from different angles with different dialogue and action because I didn’t know what I was doing.” By the time he completed One-Eyed Jacks, the shooting for which began in early December 1958 and ended six months later, Brando had more than 1 million feet of film — bloat that executives at Paramount drastically slimmed down. Brando’s rough cut was five hours long; the released version runs at just under half that.
However truncated, One-Eyed Jacks is still ineradicably marked by the torments and unresolved traumas of its maker. The transparent onscreen Oedipal conflict mirrors Brando’s fractious relationship with his own father, whom the actor unwisely appointed as head of Pennebaker Productions: Dad Longworth refers to Rio as “Kid”; the younger outlaw will spend most of the movie plotting to kill Dad, whose treachery led to Rio’s five years behind bars. In the movie’s most masochistic set piece, Dad, now a sheriff, flogs Rio as the whole town watches. The brigand, adorned with a long paisley scarf that makes him look like a coxcomb cowboy, refuses to cry out no matter how severe the lashing; according to Bosworth, Brando dislocated his shoulder while demonstrating to Malden how to snap the whip.
While the fictional mortification of Brando’s flesh has its own outlandish appeal, One-Eyed Jacks is haunted and deepened by an actual death that occurred not too long after its release. Playing Louisa, Dad’s stepdaughter and Rio’s lover, Mexican actress Pina Pellicer speaks with unbearable hurt and yearning. Physically dwarfed by Brando, the tiny, frail woman nonetheless overshadows him in every scene they share. “Take care of yourself because I’m so afraid to lose you,” Louisa says to Rio before he rides off. A few years after delivering this line, Pellicer — who killed herself, at age thirty, in 1964 — would be lost to us forever.
Directed by Marlon Brando
Film Forum, October 14–20