By Tony Williams.
In his 2015 detailed and definitive study The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Paul Seydor lamented the fact that then available copies of the only film Marlon Brando directed were from inferior sources and hoped to see “a proper, responsible restoration and release, preferably on Blu-Ray” (1). Fortunately, it happened sooner rather than later and this magnificent film, available on both Blu-Ray and DVD, is now accessible in the restored version it deserves. Despite the inferior copies previously in circulation, memorable images of the unusual Monterey locations with its anachronistic non-generic Western “perfect waves” evoked surrealistic mise-en-scene elements reminiscent of not just the early work of the Beach Boys and the dark Californian landscapes in the later works of Ross McDonald but also the potential of a unique talent in the area of directing. Film International Contributing Editor Christopher Sharrett regards it as “Brando’s greatest accomplishment…as a true auteur – acting in, helping to write, and directing the film – with his sensibility as well as brooding, outraged magnetic countenance more visible here than in other work simply because the project was so personal” (2). One Eyed Jacks is a different type of western transcending standard Hollywood generic formulas and anticipating later developments in the European and American arenas. It also revealed the contemporary possibility of a different avenue away from mainstream constraints in film and television.
The beginning of this project and the involvement of Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick are well known and need not be dwelled on further. What really needs to be celebrated is not just this excellent visual restoration but also other unique elements in this DVD package. In his brief introduction Martin Scorsese notes that One-Eyed Jacks was not just the last Hollywood studio film shot in Vista Vision but also one that formed a bridge between Old and New Hollywood. Produced by Brando’s independent company Pennebaker Films, the film is based on Charles Neider’s novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, a reworking of the Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid legend for which Peckinpah wrote a first draft screenplay dated November 11, 1957, and was later reworked by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham. The project was taken over by Brando to direct after the departures of Kubrick and Peckinpah. However, Hollywood also decided to surround the novice actor-director with professionals such as producer Frank P. Rosenberg and cinematographer Charles Lang to guarantee smooth production. This did not happen, and the film took much longer to make as well as going massively over budget. Although stories circulated about Brando’s supposed egotism and his spending hours waiting for the perfect waves to appear, Toby Roan in his video essay notes that this new director was probably conscientious about the fact that the waves in one sequence had to match those seen in the previous day’s footage. Much improvisation went into the film that transferred into the screenplay so Brando was undoubtedly using theatrically familiar techniques to make performances resonate so that they would not resemble corporate Hollywood studio assembly line product.
One of the attractive features of this DVD are extracts from voice recordings Brando made during the course of production that meticulously reveal the hard work involved in thinking through elements of the story, most of which will be either changed or totally discarded by the time of filming. Among these are Rio’s escape from the Rurales in one of the earlier screenplay versions, Dad’s accidental encounter with Rio in the town, Modesto’s creation of a diversion to allow Rio and Louisa to leave the fiesta unnoticed, the aftermath of the bank robbery where the townspeople hang Bob Emory by his ankles and set his wounded body on fire, a priest praying for the vengeful Dad’s soul, and the climactic deaths of Rio and Dad. Brando discusses on tape the wounding of Rio by Dad’s last bullet and the posse finishing the job in a brutal manner. One ending of the film had a priest deliver a positive funeral oration for Dad very much evoking the ending of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943).
Brando explicitly criticizes the hypocrisy of contemporary America in reference to certain scenes, but he does not mention other significant images that have classical Hollywood parallels. The casting of Ben Johnson as Bob Emory evokes his work with John Ford with one shot in the Chinese fishing village seeing the actor engaged in the same stretched leg posture as Henry Fonda in that celebrated image from My Darling Clementine (1947). Ford regular Hank Worden, dispatched ten minutes into the film, may foreshadow Peckinpah’s later realization that the world of this director was long gone as he noted acoustically with ironic renderings of “Shall we Gather at the River” in Major Dundee (1965) and The Wild Bunch (1969). Also, the added scene shot in March 1960 which shows Rio arriving at Doc’s home, on horseback in long shot framed through verandah bars, presents the reclining Dad with a similar ominous quality as that opening shot from The Searchers (1956). Bars separate both antagonists for us to question who is really the prisoner in an expected showdown that never happens thus destroying another western cliché. Conscious choices were made in the casting with Brando’s Kazan associate Karl Malden for the role of Doc rather than Kubrick’s preference for Spencer Tracy. Brando also saw the value of retaining Kubrick actors such as Timothy Carey and Elisha Cook Jr in the same way that Kubrick did with Anthony Mann veterans John Ireland and Charles McGraw in Spartacus (1960). Things often change during the course of development, and it is fascinating to listen to Brando’s thoughts concerning ideas that could have worked like the lynching of Bob and others that were far too problematic for coherent realization such as the Night of the Fiesta diversion. The second revised June 6, 1959 screenplay of the film actually ends with the death of Louisa, who’s shot by the dying Doc’s last random bullet, also noted by Toby Roan in his feature contribution “A Million Feet of Film.”
Since 1978, 50s Western blogger Roan has actively researched material about the making of One-Eyed Jacks, and his 22-minute video essay contributions are welcome. He documents the development of this project since 1958 with its different titles and involvement of personalities such as Peckinpah, Kubrick, Trosper, and Willingham. Roan notes that Brando based much of his performance on Ben Johnson’s speech and mannerisms though he undoubtedly transformed it in his own distinctive way. One Eyed-Jacks is very much an actor’s film, catching the star at the peak of his abilities before he started his problematic decline. However, as two later films with Coppola and Bertolucci revealed, Brando was still capable of delivering distinctive performances and he was often unjustly maligned for mannerisms he brought to the role of Don Corleone. Here I must personally set the record straight since on my first East Coat American trip in 1979 I wandered into an Italian area of Providence, Rhode Island, and heard one of its inhabitants speak exactly the same way Brando did in The Godfather. For films he was interested in, the actor definitely engaged in extensive preparation and research. Roan notes that Brando, Malden, and Katy Jurado were encouraged to engage in improvisations that Brando often transferred on to the written page of a daily screenplay.
Location shooting began on Monterey during December 1958, with the crew moving to Paramount in June 1959, but the entire production lasted longer that Brando’s marriage to Anna Kashfi. Shot sequences were cut such as Rio’s drunken assault on a Chinese woman (Lisa Lu) with the last location being Zabriskie Point in Death Valley depicting Rio and Dad’s flight from the Rurales. However, by this time, Brando began to overeat and his stomach certainly does not resembles the slim physique he has for most of the film. In January 1960, rough cuts ranged from five to eight hours with the budget rising from $1. 8 million to $6 million. The film premiered on March 30, 1961, and it took years for the studio to recover its costs. Brando dismissed the project entirely, and it has taken over fifty years for the film to gain the recognition it deserves.
In his 23-minute video essay, “I Ain’t Hung Yet”, David Cairns delivers shrewd assessments of this hitherto neglected film as an “assault on the citadel of cliché.” Despite Brando’s search for the essence of the film he was directing, he had the foresight to surround himself with the right actors needed for the story’s dramatic soul. He elicited superb performances from stage veterans such as Malden, Hollywood alumni such as Johnson and Katy Jurado (also known for her roles in Mexican cinema), or Kubrick regulars such as Carey and Cook. By casting Larry Duran as Modesto, Brando probably wanted to acknowledge the role of his double in Viva Zapata! (1952). Cairns appropriately concludes his video essay by noting that One Eyed Jacks “heroically fails to be conventional” and its role in opening up the floodgates for later films that would critique standard formulas in their own distinctive ways.
Last, but not least, is the booklet essay “Zen Nihilism” by Howard Hampton. It is one of the best essays accompanying a DVD I’ve ever read with specific sentences complementing the film’s surrealistic visual style. The final sentence of the first paragraph aptly describes Brando’s introduction as blurring “the line between the teddy-boy-ish magnetism of the outlaw biker Johnny in The Wild One (1953) and the quizzical simian charm of a Polo Lounge Caligula in a fancy sombrero and a silk cravat.” Since one DVD Company has already accused me of using too many spoilers in a previous review, I will refrain from further citations and just quote the above as a sample of so many delights that are rarely found in most accompanying booklets.
- Paul Seydor, The Authentic Death and Contentious Afterlife of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid: The Untold Story of Peckinpah’s Last Western Film. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2015, p. 323. See also http://filmint.nu/?p=15074.
- Christopher Sharrett, One-Eyed Jacks,” Cineaste 42.2 (2017), p. 56.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the English Department of Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film International, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh UP, 2016).