Friday, January 19, 2007

Film Review #77: One-Eyed Jacks
Director: Marlon Brando
Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado

We first meet Rio (Marlon Brando) lounging elegantly against a counter, eating a banana. After he drops the peel, the camera pulls back. He’s covering two women with his six-shooter as Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) empties the bank’s gold into saddle-bags. Though 1880s Sonora, Mexico is a likely enough spot for a 1961 Hollywood Western, the story will move to Monterey, California – as several characters pointedly remark, those 800 miles are a long way from Sonora.

Back in the bank, one of Rio’s hostages tries to hide a diamond ring in her bag; Rio smirks and takes it. As soon as he starts walking, Rio’s spurs jingle. Whether it’s fancy spurs or prisoner’s chains, some musical sound usually accompanies Rio’s movements. There’s the rushing wind too, rustling his long neck-scarves. Later, the Pacific’s crashing surf is a backdrop. It’s always a fresh revelation to see the young Brando. (In one scene he drops cat-like over a second-floor balcony.) But One-Eyed Jacks also shows him tattered and smelly from a prison break, his back bloodied by a public flogging and his gun hand smashed with a rifle butt. One-Eyed Jacks is much more than a vanity project, and as a young thug in gaudy, ill-gotten finery, Rio merges with biker Johnny in The Wild One (1953), even achieves an Alpha Dog immediacy.

One-Eyed Jacks is the only movie Marlon Brando ever directed, and its first scenes quickly sadden you about that fact. While he gets the action rolling, he packs in rich details of visual style, sound and character that unfold and echo throughout, like that ring Rio steals and the differing ways he and Dad approach women. Before long, a Mexican posse traps them; Dad abandons Rio to five years of prison and “picking the maggots out of the sores on my ankles every morning.” A gorgeously-shot sequence sets this pursuit and capture in a swirling dust-storm that literally dissolves the landscape and story expectations along with it.

Five years later Rio arrives in Monterey. Dad Longworth is now the sheriff, lounging in a hammock on his own ill-gotten porch by the beach. Like some sleazily charismatic ex-addict preacher, Dad brags, “Everybody knows I was a bandit once.” Dad has a Mexican wife (Katy Jurado) and step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Part of the film’s suspense and contemporary punch is its complex working out of Rio’s plan for revenge in tandem with his evolving relationship with Louisa. This film is remarkably like James Marsh’s 2006 film The King, about a modern-day half-Mexican, Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal), abandoned by his now respectable preacher father, whose revenge includes impregnating his half-sister. As David Sterritt writes in Guiltless Pleasures, much of Rio’s story is about performance, rehearsing, bluffing and reinvention – like the Wild West itself. His exchanges with Dad sizzle with anger. But Rio’s struggle to get real means that neither Rio nor we know for some time whether he really loves Louisa.

That swirling dust in Sonora made Dad’s betrayal less genre-bound, more universal. Moving to the Pacific coast accomplishes more. Classic Hollywood Westerns were set in landscapes of grandeur, mountains or (once John Ford started using Monument Valley) generic deserts or prairies often simply labeled Texas or Mexico. Part of revising Westerns was changing and cramping the place – landmark efforts like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), for example, both occur in Pacific Northwest forests. Moving Rio’s story to Monterey highlights often absent historical Spanish California (several characters display anti-Mexican racism; Rio hides out with immigrant Japanese fishermen up the coast). It also backs that mythical endless frontier right up against the surf. This is a surprisingly relevant image about the outcome of national dreams – just have a look at last year’s modern-day California riff on the Western, Down in the Valley.

For years, critics called the Western movie dead. But in a post-9/11 world looking more and more like the Wild West, we’re also seeing HBO’s Deadwood, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Australian John Hillcoate’s brilliant The Proposition, and the upcoming Seraphim Falls. Brando starred in four other Westerns too, but of them all One-Eyed Jacks is perhaps most a film for today.

Besides earlier VHS editions, One-Eyed Jacks has been released on DVD at least ten times between 1999 & 2003. This review was written for Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth; it ran in the 1/18/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.