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One-Eyed Jacks (Blu-ray Review)

28 Nov, 2016 By: Mike Clark

$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Pina Pellicer, Katy Jurado, Ben Johnson, Slim Pickens.

“You gob of spit.”

(Sorry to all you young ladies at the cotillion dance; I lost myself.)

But yes, it is true that among all of its other virtues, 1961’s One-Eyed Jacks changed movie dialogue forever with nuggets that weren’t specifically cursing but did take big-screen verbal expression into hitherto untrampled directions. “Handful of brains” was another one we all loved as early adolescents, with Brando’s own “get up, you big tubba guts” probably qualifying as the favorite. Sometimes, creative non-cursing can be more potent than the real thing — something I learned during my first job (five years at a CBS affiliate) when a religious fundamentalist co-worker who refused to swear let loose with an “up your giggie with a gum-bucket” as everyone else in the room looked at each other with dropped jaws.

This is the stuff of cult movies no matter what critics of the day said — though it’s also true that Marlon Brando’s sole outing as director got somewhat more respectable reviews than lore has it even at the time, no matter what print jockeys secretly thought of the actor/filmmaker’s production excesses when he was putting this costly and highly unusual bank-breaker together. And with the passage of time, we can easily agree with Martin Scorsese when he says, in the intro to this ravenously awaited restoration, that Jacks is the link between the traditional Western with lush old-school Hollywood production values and the grittier and meaner riffs that Clint and Sergio began playing later in the decade as agents of permanent change.

Long in Public Domain Hell with even the better home-market prints copied off a 1992 Paramount laserdisc that at least got the VistaVision aspect ratio right, Jacks began production in 1958. Then, it spent so much time in post-production that it even outlasted the entire process — becoming, in fact, the final VV movie, even though some sources continue to repeat the almost certain error claiming that the swan song of what used to be called “Motion Picture High Fidelity” was 1963’s treacle-ish My Six Loves. So not counting its subsequent utilization in special effects work, VistaVision was only around for about five years, even though it was the greatest screen process ever (and I would say by far). A great supplement on this Criterion must-own is film historian Toby Roan’s concise and digestible explanation of the picture’s byzantine production history, which has always glazed my eyes when I tried to read about it in print. Suffice it to say that this is the only movie whose initial director (uh, Stanley Kubrick) didn’t like an, uh, Sam Peckinpah script that nearly everyone else had judged to be perfect (Rod Serling was briefly involved as well, which is something I’d forgotten). Out of this ordeal came a final Guy Trosper-Calder Willingham screenplay credit and Brando’s own name as director, even though Paramount finally took the picture away from its indecisive star to scrape out a spring-of-’61 release, just before Roger Maris started hitting all those home runs.

As it is, the 141-minute final edit seems remarkably seamless, even though the rough cuts were said to have approached the girth of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (this is what shooting a million feet of film will do for you). There’s nothing elliptical about the almost conventionally straight-on revenge plotting here, which shows that Brando was indeed capable of telling a story. But the actor dynamics are extraordinary (this is the greatest Karl Malden ever — and again, I’d say by a stretch), with the nasty dialogue eliciting huge guffaws from theater patrons every time I saw it. My late, great friend Burt Shapiro used to describe what it was like seeing Jacks at a revival house either in New York or Baltimore (I can’t remember which). There’d be about 15 or 20 guys wallowing in and busting themselves over the on-screen insults — each of these male patrons alone without dates and spread out all over the theater.

The deal is this: Brando (as “Rio”) and Malden are bank robbers trapped in the mountains as the federales approach, with Malden finking out on his partner after sneaking away in the opposite direction — ostensibly to purchase and bring back fresh mounts. Brando is captured, spends five years “counting rats” (his term) in a Sonora prison and resumes his professional calling up Monterey way where Malden is now sheriff and husband to a Mexican single mom (Katy Jurado) with a barely grown daughter (Pina Pellicer) to whom he’s given his name. Malden isn’t certain if his old pal was ever captured or not, and the latter isn’t giving much away. And certainly not the fact that he and his scummy new associates (there’s some memorable Ben Johnson here) are planning to rob the town bank and presumably leave the now respected lawman in some sort of deceased state. By the way, check out Brando’s entrance from Malden’s POV when they finally reunite. The Wild One had some directorial chops.

Along the way, Brando’s feelings for Pellicer evolve from momentary sexual release to sustained genuine affection — though as was sometimes the case, Brando is playing something of a louse, albeit one who makes us laugh Stanley Kowalski style because of his novel ways of expressing himself. The Pellicer angle rubs Malden’s repulsive deputy (Slim Pickens) the wrong way because a) he has his own designs on the sweet-hearted senorita; and b) it was already hate-at-first-sight from the time that Brando and Pickens met. As Brando eventually mutters to the pudgy and out-of-shape Slim, “You’re gonna get killed” — another line that has always generated guffaws from cult loners. And by the way, Brando’s own real-life weight problems appear to have begun with this movie, as its long shooting schedule forced costumers to keep “letting out” his duds.

I saw Jacks at age 13 upon its original release — thanks to the intervention of my ex-Marine father (who would brook no wussie-dom) after my mother my mother deemed it “inappropriate” (as if that posture was ever going to work). I loved it, loved it again in 1966 when Paramount re-issued it to get a little more of its lost money back and loved it the other times I saw it in later years, including at the AFI Theater when I programmed Paramount’s studio print. The color here doesn’t quite have the snap I remember, but this shouldn’t be too misconstrued; VistaVision is still VistaVision, and crashing Monterey waves are still crashing Monterey waves (a most unusual locale for a Western and all the better for it). It just doesn’t look as good as The Searchers (also in VistaVision), and at its best, I always thought it did. But by everyday standards, this is close enough to a stunner for me to bite my lip.

My only other caveat has to do with Universal — somehow — having obtained ownership and distribution rights, enabling them to slap their corporate logo on the opening and closing credits and omit the familiar Paramount stars and mountain (at very least, couldn’t there have been both?). Otherwise, this is a rewarding package: a visual essay by David Cairns, whose concentration on aesthetics complements Roan’s counterpart about the film’s production history; Brando audio tapes (think of the Listening to Brando documentary) that illuminate how a film that began in one direction quickly went in another (or others, plural); and an essay by critic Howard Hampton that links Jacks with not just Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (an obvious cousin) but also Duel in the Sun, The Furies, Johnny Guitar, Forty Guns and The Man From Laramie. Of those, I understand the first four more than I do the last, but Jacks and Laramie do have the market cornered on Western protagonists who suffer sadistic hand injuries from really mean dudes. One omission unless I missed it: I didn’t note any mention here of Hugo Friedhofer’s fabulous score, the composer’s best after his hugely heralded Oscar-winning one for The Best Years of Our Lives. Even at the time, I had the original Liberty Records LP of the Jacks soundtrack and the Ferrante & Teicher single of the title theme. Both are on my iPod playlist of essential April 1961 recordings — the F&T sandwiched between John Coltrane’s "Summertime" and "Bye Bye Baby" from Mary Wells. Those were the days.

Cinematic kin notwithstanding, there really isn’t a movie that resembles what Brando attempted and (it now seems) ultimately brought off more than many expected. It was also a kind of turning point. Pellicer committed suicide three years later (this was her only Hollywood feature); Brando began his long pre-Godfather decline (you did not sign a contract with Universal in the early ’60s unless you wanted to go to George Peppard-ville); and nearly all of the important Westerns yet to be made were a lot less gallant. Even in True Grit, John Wayne let loose with some ripe verbiage of his own just before the final shoot-out, which probably helped him make the cover of Time in ’69.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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