Marlon Brando is one of film history’s most iconic stars. When you think of him you may think of his iconic early work in films such as in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Julius Caesar (1953), On the Waterfront (1954), or as Superman’s old man, or most likely as Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1972). You probably do not envisage him as a gunslinger in a Western. But that is exactly what he is in One Eyed Jacks (1961). Not only that, he also directs, taking over from Stanley Kubrick who was originally slated for the gig.
The film opens with Brando’s Rio involved in a bank heist with his partner Dad Longworth in Mexico. Dad betrays the Kid which leads to Brando’s character spending five long years in a Mexican jail before escaping. Once he does so, the Kid only has one thing on his mind – revenge. This whole early Mexico-set section is extremely exhilarating, with a lot of gunslinging style action. Of course once Rio tracks Longworth down, things get a little complicated. Firstly by the fact that Longworth is now the local sheriff in Monterey California and Rio and his new mates have their hopes set on robbing the local bank. Secondly, and more importantly, because Longworth now has a gorgeous stepdaughter who Brando’s character has an immediate connection with. The murder of a beloved stepfather is generally not the way to a lady’s heart. The setup is brilliant, and the film’s rather lengthy running time (two hours and twenty minutes) allows time to explore all the possible narrative ramifications fully.
Thematically this film is extremely dense for a genre piece such as a Western. The film is all about justice; how it should be administered, miscarriages of it and how to respond when you do not get it. There is an early explicit reference to the scales of justice which make this clear. This exploration of justice morphs into something much more. Whilst the notion of a hero having to choose between the girl and an act of violent vengeance is not an original one, this handles it really interestingly. Rio has mulled over getting back at Longworth for five long years. Not only that, the Sheriff gives him many a reason throughout the film to deserve a good slapping. And underpinning all of this is the broadest of themes, one that underpins most films and certainly a vast majority of genre film – good vs. evil and the many shades of grey in between. This all feeds into one pertinent phrase of the Rio’s as he justifies what he intends to do to Longworth: “It ain’t murder, that’s just standing up”.
Brando’s central performance in this film is incredible, illustrating why he is considered one of the greatest film actors of all. If there is an actor with better delivery than him, I have not seen them. He makes you feel every word and every emotion, from seething to heartfelt. The dialogue in the film is excellent, none of the cringeworthiness often associated with the genre. There is plenty of ‘tough talk’ between the cowboys, which is where the cringe usually comes in, but here it is both well written and especially well delivered. The audience is made to feel that these are some truly tough blokes who would have no qualms about taking the course of action they threaten. Brando is not alone in delivering a fine performance though and he is especially well supported by Karl Malden as Dad Longworth. The first meeting between the two after Rio escapes from jail is extremely tense, and the two fine actors keep the audience right on edge about how events are going to play out. Malden’s Longworth also grows into quite the arch villain by the end of the film. For much of the film it is difficult to read the character’s intentions, but when he goes full tilt bad guy, it is great to watch and offers the perfect foil for Brando’s brooding Rio. Also massive credit to Pina Pellicer as Rio’s love interest Louisa. The love story subplot is well handled and offers a big shot of emotion to a film that could have been too rough and tumble without it. With a poorer actress than Pellicer filling the role, this part of the film would not have been as engaging and would have brought the whole film down with it.
Not only does this film show off Brando’s well known acting skills, it also proves that he was a very fine and very clever director. There are a number of sequences which show this starkly. The first of these comes early on in a big set piece on a mountain where Rio and Dad battle the Federales. It would have been hard for a novice director not to get carried away, but the epic scenery of the desert hills are balanced well with the close in shooting and fighting. In fact the whole film shows that Brando is adept at shooting fight scenes, with some good hand to hand combat in the necessary barroom brawls. The other big set piece that shows Brando’s skill behind the camera sees his Rio being publicly whipped painfully and embarrassingly. The camera starts head on to Brando which makes the whipping look incredibly realistic and painful. The shot is then alternated with close-ups of both Rio’s face, and Dad’s who is doling out the punishment. This allows the gamut of emotions to be shown from Rio’s pain and embarrassment to the the joy and release that Dad is getting from the turn of events. Based on the evidence on display here it is disappointing that Brando would never direct another film after this one.
This is an unforgiving and dare I say it masculine film which is right up there with my absolute favourite Westerns. I’m talking Stagecoach (1939) and Shane (1953) level quality. This is widely available so if you are looking for a cracking Western, or even just an incredible Marlon Brando performance you have not seen, you cannot go past this.
Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter
Luckily, as with many great films of yesteryear, this can be watched in decent quality, for free on Youtube. Check it out here: