in Criterion Month

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

As we make our way through this month-long journey through the Criterion catalog, it seems we’re running into some common threads scattered throughout our picks. Which appears to be the case today, as One-Eyed Jacks, much like L’Avventura is a film that seems to be about something, but then gets lost along the way (which I realize is kind of a vague commonality, but whatevs). Anyways, the difference with L’Avventura, is that its disregard for its plot seems intentional. In One-Eyed Jacks, however, this seems like a byproduct of a film that just went through too many rewrites in preproduction combined with an inexperienced director at the helm known for his indulgences.

This director of course being Marlon Brando, a man who towered over the entire acting profession in the ’50s, and by 1961 was wielding enough star power to helm his first (and only) picture. The road to shooting One-Eyed Jacks was a somewhat tumultuous one, as the Charles Neider novel it was based on was first adapted by Rod Serling (of Twilight Zone fame) and Sam Peckinpah (of drunken violent cantankerousness fame), before a final draft was finalized between writers Guy Trosper, Calder Willingham, and Brando himself. In addition, Stanley Kubrick was originally hired to direct, which makes it hard not to imagine the theoretical Kubrick version in your head while watching One-Eyed Jacks. Though it’s probably not fair to judge Marlon Brando’s directorial eye against that of arguably the greatest film director that ever lived.

But enough of the behind the scenes shenanigans that informed One-Eyed Jacks. Basically what this film is, is a revenge story. It begins with an awesome shot of Rio (played by Brando) eating a banana in a saloon (fittingly, there’s a lot of shots in this film of Brando eating, which I found amusing every time). He then meets up with his mentor, who’s not-so-subtly named Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and the two of them do what any cowboy outlaws in a Western movie would do – they rob a bank. The robbery goes successfully, but through sheer bad luck, Dad ends up taking the haul of cash, while Rio is cornered by a band of Mexican police and ends up in jail.

Cut to five years later, and Rio is grizzled and free from prison, with the seeds of revenge clearly growing in his skull, since Dad did nothing to prevent Rio’s capture. Rio finally tracks down Dad, who has surprisingly settled down as the sheriff of a newly settled Monterey, California, with a wife and step-daughter. Which, seems like a great set-up for a revenge story, especially when the person seeking the revenge is someone with the smoldering intensity of Brando. But somehow the film loses sight of this.

First of all, One-Eyed Jacks gets fairly caught up in a bank robbery plotline, that clearly is related to Dad, since he’s the sheriff of the town, but never really cashes in on the two’s personal history. Also, a lot of the movie is dedicated to a romance between Rio and Dad’s stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), that I’m never sure if we’re supposed to read as manipulation or an actual legitimate romance. But either way, it never seems to affect Dad the way it should for the stakes to feel as high as they should. Also, I’ll admit I had a hard time looking at Pellicer’s performance the same after reading that it was the actress’s only American film role, as she committed suicide three years later at the age of 30.

So even though the film’s main revenge plotline really never comes together (the final showdown between Rio and Dad is a little underwhelming), there is still plenty to respect about this film. For one, it looks gorgeous. Of course, a lot of the Westerns from this time that were shot on location in the vast expanses of America’s Southwestern region tend to look pretty breathtaking, but One-Eyed Jacks in particular has a lot of great imagery.

For one, setting it in the seaside town of Monterey leads to plenty of fantastic looking shots of its characters set against these vistas where the land meets the sea (supposedly Brando spent hours waiting to set up the film’s ocean shots so they looked just right). Also, the fact that it was Paramount’s final film to be shot in Vistavision, which offers a crystal clear, expansive look to its locations and characters, helps. Which also makes it come as no surprise that despite the film’s disappointing critical and box office reception, cinematographer Charles Lang was nominated for an Oscar for his work on One-Eyed Jacks.

Also, there are several stand-out scenes that involve a kind of unquenchable masculinity that’s bubbling just beneath the surface of the film. The ones I’m thinking of are two bar fight scenes, as well as a whipping scene and a particularly brutal gunfight. In that regard, the film does feel a bit ahead of its time, in that there’s something a bit harsher and more raw than your average Western from the time, though they could clearly only go so far under a studio-financed production. Needless to say, it’s probably a film Quentin Tarantino has at least some affinity for.

All in all, I’d say this film fits the definition of a “Criterion curiosity”. Meaning I can see why Criterion would release this film, since it’s got plenty going for it (and also probably wasn’t hard to secure the rights to, since it was in the public domain for a while), but it’s far from a masterpiece. Supposedly, Brando shot dozens of hours of unused footage of One-Eyed Jacks, with the original cut clocking in at roughly five hours. Which makes me wonder if this film would be better if it was longer, or if it was actually shorter than it’s already lengthy 141-minute running time.

Because, the way the film was released, it clearly has way too much time devoted to its side-plots, so it might’ve been better if it had trimmed those. Or maybe the film would’ve felt more fleshed out with everything in there plus more scenes relating to the Rio-Dad dynamic. I don’t know. And I suppose One-Eyed Jacks is doomed to live on as a film filled with “what if’s”, since due to its underwhelming reception, it ended up being the only film Marlon Brando ever directed. Which is a bit of a shame, since he clearly shows a lot of promise here. Hell, the kid coulda been a contender in the director’s chair, but instead merely settled for being the world’s most eccentric movie star.