As Martin Scorsese says in the introduction recorded for this Blu-ray, One-Eyed Jacks serves as a bridge between old and new Hollywood. Broadly speaking, old Hollywood was firstly concerned with filmmaking as a business with attractions to keep audiences enticed, such as movie stars, Technicolor, and VistaVision—all of which are incorporated into One-Eyed Jacks. By contrast, new Hollywood, often associated with directors such as Scorsese, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola, and others, was self-consciously occupied with personal expression, which it achieved by using the genre strictures of old Hollywood productions as a bedrock foundation, a safe space from which expressionism could grow and take root.
One-Eyed Jacks is a deeply introspective western, with most of the hallmarks of the genre, that’s viscerally eaten up with the alienation of its director-actor, Marlon Brando. Contemporary audiences who know Brando less by his acting than by his tabloid reputation as a prodigious indulger, a man given to bountiful food and women, who was prone to endless re-takes on sets, might be astonished by the sense of authorial control that he exhibits here, both as filmmaker and star. The authorship of the film is somewhat debatable, of course, as Brando shot miles of footage, went over budget, and reportedly turned in a five-and-a-half-hour cut that was shortened by Paramount and tamed with reshoots. What scans in the surviving One-Eyed Jacks, however, is a sense of orchestrated chaos and blooming obsession. Brando and his collaborators revel in psychological textures that retrospectively suggest a merging of the sensibilities of John Ford and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Brando is a master of pared image and gesture, encoding behavior in playfully overt symbolism. The film opens on his character, Rio, robbing a Mexican bank with older mentor Dad (Karl Malden). Rio lounges in the bank, almost as if enjoying a summer idyll, placing two banana peels on a golden scale, mocking the “scales of justice.” In a few gestures, Brando establishes Rio’s coiled ferocity and naïveté, setting up one of the pervading tensions of the narrative: the nature of Rio’s morality. Rio’s a sentimental scoundrel, one of Brando’s many wounded man-children who’s betrayed by an authority figure and set emotionally adrift, and the filmmaker oscillates wildly between the protagonist’s senses of fairness and entitlement.
One-Eyed Jacks broadly retells the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, in which an outlaw goes straight and pursues his former ally. Dad abandons Rio in the Mexican desert, which Brando renders in astonishingly intense wind-swept tableaus that synonymize Rio’s entrapment and heartbreak. Years later, after a bold ellipsis, Rio escapes prison and tracks Dad down to Monterey, discerning this information in one of the film’s greatest scenes. Sitting in a nearly empty bar, Rio is approached by Bob Emory (Ben Johnson) about a bank heist, which the men discuss in poetically terse stanzas of one-upmanship. Bob baits Rio with knowledge of Dad’s whereabouts, and Brando conveys Rio’s curiosity with a sigh of accommodation that’s so pregnant with emotion yet so submerged that it’s purposefully comical. This is Brando at the peak of his powers, playing with an audience’s expectations of the moment, while coloring in contours of personality between the lines.
In a routine film, it would take Rio another hour of running time to find Dad, building our anticipation of a shoot-out. Instead, Rio casually comes upon Dad, riding onto the latter’s prosperous property in an iconic landscape shot, which is framed from a low vantage point so as to emphasize Rio’s almost spectral presence—a hallucinatory effect that’s blown up to operatic extremes with the heightened sounds of the waves crashing against the coast. For reasons never entirely known to the audience, Rio doesn’t engage Dad in conflict right away. Rio chooses a vengeance of seducing Dad’s stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer), which ignites an implicitly incestuous war between Rio and Dad that’s more neurotic than Rio’s grudge over Dad’s initial abandonment, steering the film into a sexual-political terrain that suggests a blend of Dangerous Liaisons and Cape Fear. Rio and Dad’s new rivalry reaches its true apex with Dad’s sexually overheated torture of Rio in the town square, culminating in a castration: the brutal crushing of Rio’s dueling hand.
The plot mutates so many times as to render itself irrelevant, liberating One-Eyed Jacks from traditional genre mechanisms. It’s a running joke how long it takes for Rio and Dad to consummate their death match, despite having no actual impediments to the task, which is yet another signifier of their unresolved psychological freight. Brando rhymes landscape shots with equally epic close-ups of faces, fashioning an essay on bitter male propriety. The wandering of the narrative is the narrative, as it roots the audience in the men’s unstable emotional dimensions. The vast, lush internality of Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood’s westerns, of all of the films of new Hollywood, and of modern psychological dramas such as The Master and The Immigrant, is almost unthinkable without Brando’s brilliant precedent.
One-Eyed Jacks has been in public domain long enough to inspire many infamously and dispiritingly faded cheapie DVDs, designed to court your western-loving dad's eye in a discount Walmart bin. Working with Universal Pictures and filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, Criterion has restored to the film its epic formal majesty. The Technicolor is ravishing, with deep reds and blacks, and multifaceted browns and grays. The clarity of this restoration also reminds one of the intoxicating sense of detail that VistaVision can provide. Facial contours, obviously important to a study of faces, are pristine and tactile. The soundtrack resounds with booming body, which is particularly evident when rendering the waves crashing against the California coastline. A gorgeous and important restoration.
The supplements on this disc are sparse but astutely assembled. An introduction by Scorsese justifiably sets the tone for One-Eyed Jacks as an unheralded masterwork, while two new video essays respectively discuss the film’s troubled, quite storied production background and symbolism. Both essays are short, inspiring wishes for a deeper dive into the subject matter, but crisply contextualize the production. Best, though, are excerpts of video diaries recorded by Marlon Brando, in which he discusses character motivation throughout the script. Brando’s bursts of profanity and straight-to-the-bone pragmatism shine fascinating light on his own mind and the acting process at large. The theatrical trailer and an essay by film critic Howard Hampton round out the package.
Marlon Brando's underrated, vastly influential psychological western is finally accorded proper respect, and allowed to let its unhinged freak flag fly.