ONE-EYED JACKS, HAMLET AND DOING THE FATHER'S DIRTY WORK - 5 minute read
A newly restored version of Marlon Brando's only film as a director, One-Eyed Jacks, has been released. Here's why it matters.
I watched One-Eyed Jacks this weekend, for the first time. Its notoriety is based on the fact that it’s the only film directed by Marlon Brando. My way to it was via Alex Cox, the film director and writer who positions it as a jumping off point for his foray into the mad, bad and dangerous world of Italian Westerns, in his brilliant book 10,000 Ways To Die. I bought a DVD of One-Eyed Jacks a few years ago, tried to watch it but was instantly turned off by something that just didn’t seem right. I have no recollection of what it was that I objected to, specifically, but it has always bothered me that I never gave the film a proper chance.
I have re-read 10,000 Ways To Die many times. Italian or ‘Spaghetti’ Westerns, as they used to be known, have always haunted me. I first saw A Fistful Of Dollars and the sequel For A Few Dollars More when I was about ten years old. I had a friend who got a VCR way before most of us and he had recorded these two films off the TV. My VCR-owning friend and I watched a lot of films that were probably unsuitable - including Jaws I recall - but the ones that really stood out were the Italian Westerns. I started to form a mild obsession with how these things were made. Or rather a lifelong and powerful curiosity as to what went on behind the camera as well as a visceral fascination with the ultra-violent, X-rated activities that went on in front.
These Italian-produced, often Spanish-shot films were nasty, twisted stories without any recognisable heroes. It was through this impressionable lens that I first heard the music of Ennio Morricone, part Shadows, part Rawhide, part what-the-fuck. Through this lens I marvelled at those extraordinary wide angle shots and extreme close ups, those title sequences, the howling, whining ricochets that seemed to erupt off every gunshot, the terrible dubbing, and above all the dirty, sweaty menace that oozed from every frame. My favourite was For A Few Dollars More. The way the inebriated villain Indio leant back and closed his eyes in a a filthy, leering close up burnt itself into my brain, where it remains to this day.
When Alex Cox's book was published, I pounced on it. Cox is a very good writer: his uninflected prose has a sort of punk rock Hemingway feel to it, masking a deep, passionate and insightful film intelligence. He loves these crazy films and he makes no apologies for it. Cox completely understands the radical nature of the Italian Westerns - how they both celebrated and subverted the classic American genre as typified by the John Wayne era big budget tentpoles. His analysis is loving, fair and surprising. Which brings us back to Marlon Brando and One-Eyed Jacks.
Off the bat Alex Cox connects Brando’s film to Hamlet. And in doing so he also ties it together with Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and, because it was an unauthorised adaptation of the Japanese movie, A Fistful Of Dollars. He connects them all through a very simple and important observation - that in each of these stories the ‘hero’ makes the decision to not act - or to wait before acting - in such a way as to seal his fate, of sorts. In doing so, he unassumingly tackles one of the strangest story-models in fiction. Hamlet, which must be one of the English language’s greatest plays - is so great in part because the hero refuses to be rushed. The exhilaration and suspense of the narrative lies in the fact that once Hamlet identifies his mission - to avenge his father’s death - he goes about stalling and delaying it for the next two hours of stage-time. In One-Eyed-Jacks, Brando’s ‘Rio’ aka ‘The Kid’, does the same. It’s not that he is indecisive, it’s more like he feels the longer he sticks around, the more inevitable his fate is going to be. In fact, so ‘inevitable’ does this story feel, that we are surprised when he doesn’t die at the end. Rio’s last minute escape is an oddly fake moment in a film that, despite its ‘50s studio film disguise, is actually a violent, gripping revenge saga that feels most like a tragedy, and therefore demands its hero’s death.
Waiting around is one of One-Eyed Jacks’ recurrent motifs. Brando is caught at the start literally waiting around - trying unsuccessfully to defend a ridge after robbing a bank. It sets a pattern where he is repeatedly captured for staying just a little bit too long somewhere, allowing himself to be overwhelmed by law enforcement. Five years later he escapes from Mexican prison (the horrible details of which he elegantly reveals for the first time towards the end of the second act - rats crawling over his belly etc). Why does he wait five years? It’s almost as if he wants to suffer.
This becomes another theme in the film - the way Rio seems to accept suffering as an inevitable part of his existence, none more memorably than when ‘Dad’ (played by Karl Malden) publicly flogs him before crushing Rio’s gun hand with the butt of a pistol. Rio refuses to make a single sound while Dad punishes him sadistically. The climactic hand crushing is a merciless detail that then goes on to become a core motif of the Italian Western. The hero’s hands are often pulverised by a bad guy to make sure that when the final showdown ensues, the hero will be at a major disadvantage. Sergio Corbucci - the other great director of Italian Westerns - was especially fond of this. In Django the eponymous hero's hands are crushed to pulp and in Il Grande Silenzio, Silence’s gun hand is plunged into hot coals before either hero will stage their last stand.
Anyway, back to Hamlet, and suffering. The connection Cox makes between the Danish prince and Rio is compelling and profound. And it connects to another strong theme in the stories: fathers and sons. Or to be more specific, the violence fathers wittingly and unwittingly inflict on their sons. In Hamlet, the prince is told by his father’s ghost of his father’s horrifying fate at the hands of Hamlet’s uncle. Rather than warn his son off the obvious (ie revenge) - and therefore spare his life - the ghost enlists Hamlet in a strategy for vengeance: “So art thou to revenge…”. This sets up the inevitable - as defined by the Greek concept of tragedy - whereby Hamlet will seal his own fate by embarking on what soon becomes a suicidal plan. But what’s important to remember is that the instigator for this fate is not Hamlet but Hamlet’s father. Again, the ghost’s advice isn’t “flee, before the same thing happens to you, my precious and only son” - it’s “stick around and do my dirty work”. Grief-stricken, Hamlet agrees to this plan. But, what’s so brilliant about Shakespeare’s version, is the next days and weeks of the action concern him doing everything but avenge his father’s death. He gets close at one point - when he stalks his Uncle’s prayers - but manages to talk himself out of it. Only when he is literally so angry and helpless that he has no other choice does he finally do the deed. And that’s what makes this story so powerful and so moving - Hamlet tries to resist his fate, on some level. But so forceful is the paternal command, he eventually succumbs. This is exactly what happens to Rio in One-Eyed Jacks.
In Brando’s film, Rio does not have an Uncle or a murdered father. Instead he has a partner, Karl Malden’s ‘Dad’ Longworth. Longworth is much older than Rio and is clearly a surrogate father figure, as his nickname blatantly confirms. What ensues is a powerful, Freudian drama where we see the father first sacrifice the son (Dad abandons Rio, ensuring his capture and incarceration) and then, once Brando returns to avenge this crime, we see the father ask that the son remain silent. Dad Longworth pleas with Rio for forgiveness, having reinvented himself as a pillar of the community. This is a bold metaphor for the father who tells his son: “I know I am a fraud and I have already betrayed you, but please can we make this our secret?”. In both Hamlet and Brando’s movie, the fate of the son is sealed by the actions and instructions of the father, actions/instructions that the son must keep close to his chest till he has fulfilled them.
One-Eyed Jacks parallels Hamlet in another way. In both stories the hero deliberately sabotages his only chance of happiness. Hamlet’s cruelty towards Ophelia sends her to her suicidal death, and him to a kind of madness. In One-Eyed Jacks, Rio lies and manipulates Louisa, who happens to be ‘respectable’ Dad’s adopted daughter, simply so he can sleep with her. But she is so forcefully honest, strong and without judgement (and heartbroken by his self-loathing), Rio cannot stop himself falling in love with her. However, like Hamlet, all of the actions Rio takes - including an incredibly cruel scene on the morning after they make love - push her away. It needs to be said that Pina Pellicer’s performance here matches Brando’s frame for frame. Much has been written of Karl Malden and Brando’s compatibility on screen; Pellicer’s portrayal of Louisa is one of Western cinema’s most haunting and under-acknowledged. She brings an indescribable sorrow to her scenes, devoid of artifice or melodrama. And Brando the director seems to know this as he makes no attempt to divert or upstage her, instead allowing as much screen-time to her, especially in close up, as is possible without imbalancing things. A sad footnote to this tale that mirrors Hamlet: after only seven screen credits Pina Pellicer committed suicide at the age of thirty.
The theme of sacrifice - or more specifically the father sacrificing the son - mirrors the Bible, or course. In the story of Isaac we have Abraham poised to murder his own child before God changes his mind. In the New Testament, God’s only son is born simply so that he can die - a sacrificial lamb offered up by his own father to humanity for the sake of their own sinfulness. A secular reading of this could be: the father is willing to sacrifice his own son for the sake of something or someone other than the son’s own wellbeing. You could be even more specific here and say that God sacrifices Jesus so that people will keep believing in God. He substitutes his son for him, ensuring his own immortality and his son’s certain suffering.
With this in mind, both Hamlet and One-Eyed Jacks are stories in which the father sacrifices the son so that people will keep believing in him. In Hamlet the old King wants his kingdom aka his legacy to remain intact, hence Hamlet must kill his uncle. In One-Eyed Jacks, Rio must die so that everyone still believes in Dad Longworth, pillar of the community (aka local deity). Both fathers are concerned with legacy, and both then trigger a long waiting game while the son ponders his fate and eventually succumbs to it, just like Jesus did.
If we take a quick look at Brando’s own life, we see another clear parallel that perhaps shaped his attraction to this material and assisted him in making such a good film. Brando’s father was a philandering wife-beater. He also beat the young Marlon, as Brando recalls in the excellent documentary Listen To Me Marlon. Brando’s mother, he tells us, was the loving, creative presence in his life, but she was also in his own words “the town drunk”, whom he repeatedly had to collect from jail after her being arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. The love she gave to him, therefore, was fraught and conditional. And the ‘love’ his father showed him - if it existed at all - was buried beneath violence and violation. Before he could even leave home and explore the world for himself, Brando’s own wellbeing had been sacrificed. Deep-rooted self-loathing, ambivalence towards women and a slow-burn, self-destructive streak were all embedded from birth. When Rio narrows his eyes as he contemplates Dad’s murder, we see the eyes of Marlon Brando considering patricide for real. It’s these moments, along with the sudden explosions of anger, that make Brando’s work in this film so mesmerising. It’s all there, no faking is required. When the scene needs Brando/Rio to erupt, he does, like a volcano, bearing his bottom teeth and flashing his eyes. It’s really something to behold: it’s wild, it’s frightening and it’s not really anything that looks like acting. It’s his father-wound revealed, and it’s deep. What we often forget is that for some, like Brando, these wounds were real. And the toll it took on him is the story that biographers, gossip columnists and cineastes are so drawn to.
As already pointed out, the studio movie cannot end with the hero’s death, so instead of the more satisfying and Greek ending we expect - namely Rio’s violent demise - our hero gets to kill Dad and then, it seems, make an arrangement to meet up with Louisa once their baby is born, and we assume the heat has died down a little. The one element of this that is really moving is how Brando’s Rio reacts to the unconditional love offered to him by Louisa. It’s totally surprising - he has just butchered her step father - and yet the promise of a child, of some kind of future - the sheer optimism of this - Brando communicates beautifully. That said, we don’t for a minute believe these two lovers are going to be reunited. As Dad points out late in the film, Rio has been trying to get himself killed his whole life. He may have escaped this time, but it won’t be long before he meets a bloody end. Brando knows that, we suspect, and so probably does Rio, despite the gorgeous sunset he rides off into.
One-Eyed Jacks has been written about mainly in relation to its troubled production. Sam Peckinpah penned the first screenplay from the book. Stanley Kubrick was hired and then fired from directing. Or maybe he left of his own accord, depending on whose account you read. Then, with Brando helming, the film went over schedule and over budget. Apparently he lost interest in the edit, and the studio took over the film. For years it has languished, cropped and butchered on home video. All of this is unfortunate, not because of the mishaps - a lot of films are plagued with conflict, compromise and disappointment - but because it eclipses the film itself. Although apparently European critics were quite nice about the film, with the San Sebastian film festival awarding the film and Pellicer a prize, it’s rarely mentioned in discussions about great westerns and mostly regarded as a footnote to Brando’s patchy career. This isn’t helped by the fact that Brando himself was dismissive of the whole thing: “I tried directing once. It was a drag.”
A few years ago, two princes of the New Hollywood - Scorsese and Spielberg - stepped in and restored the original ‘Vistavision’ negative of One-Eyed Jacks and re-released the film. This is the version I saw - a 4K remaster on Blu Ray. It was stunning. The crisp image, remastered sound and correct aspect ratio transformed the experience in front of my eyes. While the film contains elements specific to the period - an over-whelming reliance on bombastic score combined with some dodgy back projection, and a peculiar reliance on dissolves - the film still managed to bewitch and enchant me. At the centre of this is Brando’s surprisingly gregarious Rio, a nuanced character capable of great charm, even a big winning smile from time to time, alongside those flashes of deep melancholy, self-loathing and sudden explosions into anger and violence. It’s a very well shot film; some of the setups are stunningly good. And the story - usually the first casualty of a studio hatchet job - is clear, complex and gripping. While The Searchers has long been heralded as perhaps the greatest of the studio Westerns, I would put Brando’s film alongside it for complexity of character and story. Sure, Ford was probably the better director, but The Searchers has its own horrifying rear projection and another massive score that can sometimes drown out the subtlety. At the core of both films though, is a morally challenging narrative about flawed and sometimes hateful characters who represent the best and worst of the mythical Western ‘hero’. And it should be said that Brando’s is the far more sympathetic film when it comes to the non-white characters. Ford’s ‘Indians’ are fairly one-dimensional, brutal savages, whereas Brando saves some of his most tender and compassionate moments for Dad’s Mexican wife Maria and her daughter Louisa.
In an era where the cinematic experience is undergoing a crisis of confidence and every film idea is immediately greeted with “Could you do this as a TV series?”, One-Eyed Jacks presents itself for reappraisal as the perfect example of the stand-alone cinematic experience. It’s a contained story that requires no prologue and no coda. Marlon Brando’s Rio is a tragic hero, self-destructive and deeply flawed, but gifted with a determination and a soulfulness that hints at a man capable of great tenderness and even redemption. But he’s also a man for whom violence is a way of life; in several scenes we see him confused as to who should be on the receiving end of it. He is incredibly cruel to Louisa, the only really good person in the whole film. And yet he spares the life of Slim Pickens’ callous and lecherous Dedrick, the one character we can all agree has it coming. Alongside this it’s a handsome film - big shots, bit vistas and scorching closeups. Brando has never looked so beautiful; signs of his debauchery were only beginning to show. At its core though is this waiting, this pent-up, agonising delay to the inevitable, when the sins of the father will indeed be placed upon the son, no matter how hard he tries (or not) to escape from under them.
There's some good additional information, including Sam Peckinpah's original draft of the script available at the wonderful Cinephilia and Beyond.
Alex Cox's 10,000 Ways To Die available here.
Il Grande Silenzio opening credits here.