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The Missouri Breaks (1976)

by on 2012/06/10

“Damn… I don’t know why they had to put Canada way up here.”

* * * *

I spent a few summers in Montana as a kid. My uncle changed his name to sound less outrageously Slavic and found work on a ranch called Big Sky. His family enjoyed roping calves, riding horses and shooting rabbits.

I noticed that Montana, like Alberta, had big open spaces, enormous skylines and was a haven for rugged individualists, isolationists and crackpots.

Filmed in Montana, The Missouri Breaks has a whole lot of the same sort of folks.

It is a movie about horse thieves and ranchers. There are crackpots in both camps.

While it may sound like a pretty standard Western storyline, it isn’t. It is a layered, psychological drama that happens to have some cowboys and horses in it. The Missouri Breaks is what happens when you make a Western with a really clever script by Thomas McGuane and put director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) at the helm.

I bought the movie for one reason only. It had both Marlon Brando (One-Eyed Jacks) and Jack Nicholson (Chinatown) on the cover. I had to see what would happen with that pairing.

Did I mention the bit about Montana and crackpots? Well, Marlon Brando is full-on, batshit crazy in this role. I mean it. Horse-kissing, harmonica blowing, bubble bath-taking crazy. White hair flying, Brando affects an Irish lilt in is portrayal of Lee Clayton, a regulator, or hired gun who is brought into town by successful ranch David Braxton, played by talented Alberta-born actor John McLiam.

Clayton is a notorious sniper who has a knack for killing horse thieves. When he isn’t singing love songs to his horse, calling his donkey a harlot or dressed like a granny, he’s hot on the trail of Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) a horse thief disguised as a dirt farmer and next-door neighbour to the ranching patriarch Braxton.

Seeing Brando and Nicholson share a screen was something to behold. I am not a huge fan of Nicholson – he of the maniacal grin – but I liked him a whole lot in this movie.

Brando was raving and unpredictable. I thought I saw a flicker of surprise more than once in his fellow players’ eyes – making me wonder whether Brando wasn’t improvising most of his lines. I looked it up but found only an account of Marlon Brando taking a bite out of a live frog while filming. After seeing this movie, that didn’t surprise me in the least.

Nicholson and Brando together were like watching a sneering mongoose and thick, ancient cobra locked in combat.

The Missouri Breaks is also about gang dynamics. This film puts a camera in the rustlers’ hideaway and let’s us learn about all about the brotherhood of thieves. Harry Dean Stanton (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me) plays Calvin, the woeful-eyed voice of reason. Randy Quaid (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation) is the affable buffoon.

Another complicated character is Jane Braxton (Kathleen Lloyd), the outspoken daughter of the iron-fisted rancher. Her neurotic courtship of Nicholson’s David Logan is alone worth the price of admission. When the gang heads off to Canada to steal horses, Dave and Jane have a chance to speak words of love like this: “People have been neglecting to tell you what a nasty little bitch you are, and I’m just having to make up for their negligence.”

The dialogue is quirky and unexpected, the performances solid and unpredictable, the Montana skies go on forever. I do think I plum love this movie. And now I’ll leave you with words of wisdom from this solid Western, remember:

“The closer you get to Canada, the more things’ll eat your horse.”

* * * *

126 minutes

Rated R for bloody violence, hanging, shooting and Marlon Brando in dress

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