Blu-Ray Review – One-Eyed Jacks
Marlon Brando’s first and only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks (1961) has been inducted into the Criterion Collection (Spine #844). Once lost to public domain, the film has been updated with restored visuals and audio, and comes with a handful of supplemental material to provide context for this unusual and troubled production. So let’s jump right in and see what we have.
One-Eyed Jacks tells the story of Rio (Brando) and his quest for revenge against his one time friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). After robbing a Mexican bank, Dad abandons Rio to Mexican authorities, resulting in Rio getting locked up for five years. After escaping prison, Rio becomes obsessed with searching out and punishing Dad for running off. Things take a turn when Rio discovers that Dad – apparently using the money from the robbery – has become the local sheriff of Monterey, California. By all appearances, Sheriff Longworth is seen as an upstanding citizen – he married a Mexican woman (Katy Jurado) and is the primary father figure to his stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer).
This set up is indicative of Brando’s desire to create a Western that pushes against the conventions of the genre (at least at the time). We have a central protagonist that’s a criminal and a villain who takes the façade of righteous morality. Brando tried to subvert every familiar cliché, from the revenge tale to the romance of the Wild West. Rio is not a good person. His central motivation is to make another man suffer. But instead of just killing him (as one would expect), Brando dances around it, delaying the action to the point of annoyance. To fill in these gaps, we’re introduced to a side plot in which Rio seduces Louisa. Does he do this as revenge against Dad, or does he truly care about Louisa? The answer is left ambiguous, but it does add to the mounting tension between Rio and Dad.
One-Eyed Jacks maybe more remembered for its troubled production than for its storytelling. Brando took over directing duties after Stanley Kubrick left for unknown reasons. The budget exploded as Brando’s indecision and production delays eventually forced the studio to take control. While there is a sense of style and craft, the issues behind the camera show. There’s a noticeable lack of continuity between scenes – even though Brando shot a million feet of footage (his original cut reportedly ran for 5+ hours) the studio still went back and did extensive reshoots. One scene between two characters will start off on location then suddenly transport into an obvious studio setting. The editing chops the narrative as though there are two heads butting against each other: Brando’s rebellion and the studio’s insistence to tell a straight story.
What’s left is an uneven but fascinating result. Although Brando would disown the film for not being his vision, there are bits and pieces that draw us in. Of course, the acting is top notch. Karl Malden is excellent as a slimy weasel, and Pina Pellicer (in her first English-speaking role) provides weight to her character even though she’s used as a pawn in a larger scheme. But let’s not be confused here – this is the “Marlon Brando Show” through and through. Like many of his other roles, Brando inserts a balance between soft vulnerability and spontaneous animal magnetism. We see his deeper seeded psychology. The fact that the villain is named “Dad” cannot be a just a coincidence, and Rio bedding Dad’s stepdaughter points toward a more complex (if not troubling) undercurrent. It’s these contrasting themes that make One-Eyed Jacks curious despite all the problems that went in creating it.
In collaboration with Universal Studios and The Film Foundation (under consult with Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg), this transfer was created from the original 35mm, 8-perforation VistaVision negative. Criterion has a reputation for excellent restorations, but here they have truly stepped up their game. This is one of the best looking blu ray releases they have. Charles Lang’s cinematography has no noticeable specks or noise anywhere, colors and details are so crystal clear that it looks like it could have been shot this year. This was a film that fell into public domain, stuck in grocery store bargain bins, and yet now we have it in near pristine condition. If anyone doubts the standard Criterion has in making their releases look, all they have to do is see this.
The audio was remastered from the original 35mm monaural soundtrack. There are no noticeable clicks, hums, or hisses. However, I did find the audio – especially during dialogue scenes – to be rather quiet. I’m not sure if that has to do with the type of television I was hearing it from, but at times I did turn the volume up to make out what some characters were saying. Not a deal breaker, but something I did notice after awhile.
This release comes with a handful of supplemental material that gave me a more rounded appreciation for what Brando was trying to do. The introduction by Martin Scorsese is short and doesn’t provide too much information. However, the three major pieces are invaluable. “A Million Feet of Film” is a half hour video essay from One-Eyed Jacks enthusiast Toby Roan, tracing in detail the rocky production history. Filmmaker and critic David Cairns narrates “I Ain’t Hung Yet”, another half hour essay where Cairns points out the different themes and Brando’s stylistic flourishes. There’s also audio recordings of Brando trying to work out the nuances of the picture in his head compared to the final product. These recordings are especially compelling if one has seen the documentary Listen to Me Marlon (2015) which also featured Brando recording his inner thoughts and feelings.
The lack of a commentary is a big missed opportunity. Because of the unique circumstances, it would have been nice to get a feature length commentary guiding us through. Maybe the video essays and audio recordings are so strong that a commentary wasn’t needed. Howard Hampton’s written essay (in the booklet) goes over a lot of what is already covered in the video essays but includes some further insight, comparing Brando’s directorial choices to foreign filmmakers.
One-Eyed Jacks would have been a “so so” viewing experience if it weren’t for the extra features. It gave me further understanding into what made Brando’s directorial debut stand out on it’s own. Does the importance of the supplements act as an indicator of the film’s quality? Perhaps. I see this release more as a historical document than anything else, but I mean that as a good thing.