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One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

by on 2011/06/17

“Forget it? Not as long as I breathe.”

* * * *

I first saw On the Waterfront in a film class at university. Prior to that, my only exposure to Marlon Brando came from wags and two-bit comedians making fun of his fondness for Big Macs and soufflé.

After seeing Waterfront, I realized they all deserved a sound lashing with a delicate white ladies glove.

Brando is a bronzed, mumbling demigod. This is proven empirically (yes, empirically) by his work both as director and star of One-Eyed Jacks.

I realize as we wend our way through western month that I’d rather watch a crappy western than a perfectly executed romance any day of the week. And I’ve been exposed to some pretty crappy westerns this month and well, my whole film viewing life.

That’s why when I watch a really outstanding western, my dusty tumbleweed heart sings.

One-Eyed Jacks is just such a beast.

Brando plays Rio, a bank robber, compulsive liar and all-round bad man. His partner in crime is Dad Longworth, played by Karl Malden.

Seeing Malden playing a whoring, boozing, cheating criminal was disconcerting to say the least. I grew up with Malden as a straight-arrow cop from the Streets of San Francisco, not to mention that he was the crusading Catholic priest in his earlier collaboration with Brando in Waterfront.

Malden’s Dad is not so essentially decent. In fact, he’s mean, selfish and vengeful. So too is his friend Rio. When they rob a bank and find themselves on the run from a posse of Mexican Rurales and short a horse, Dad leaves Rio in the middle of the desert with the promise he’ll be back with another horse and half of Rio’s share.

Hmmm. Loot …loyalty? Loyalty …loot?

Dad doesn’t keep his word.

Rio winds up festering and seething  (literally) in prison, vowing revenge. And when Brando seethes, the film boils. Rio takes his mean, selfish, vengeful crusade on the road in his hunt for Dad.

You have to see Brando to believe how cool he is in this movie. Brando oozes medically unsafe amounts of charisma simply eating a banana during a bank robbery scene. In fact, I realize that the preceding sentence sounds ridiculous. However, I defy you to watch the opening sequence and tell me you don’t agree.

Most entertaining of all is Brando’s way with the women of this film. His chosen prey are the virtuous, proper and chaste. His ploy is to tell them he’s on an important assignment with the “government,” that he hasn’t has time to settle down (he’s so alone), and that they are so very, very special that he wants to give them a piece of jewelry given to him by his mother “before she died.” (He keeps a pockeful of stolen rings and assorted other trinkets lifted from other women).

And 60% of the time, it works every time.

Louisa, played with lovely simplicity by Pina Pellicer, is Dad’s lovely, nubile step-daughter. Dad’s turned his life around in the intervening years and become a respectable if boozy sheriff in Monterey, CA.

At the “reconciliation dinner” with Sheriff Dad, the look Brando gives Louisa is like watching a Komodo dragon eyeing a lost lamb covered in barbecue sauce stumbling over the rocks.

Visually stunning, great music, quirky, intricate storytelling …and Brando, Brando, Brando, One-Eyed Jacks tops my list of favourite westerns in the ongoing history of my love affair with the genre.

* * * *

141 minutes

Unrated but packed to the barn roof with smoldering sensuality, public floggings and bloody violence

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