One-Eyed Jacks is one of those films with a production history so interesting and troubled that it almost overshadows the film itself. It was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, and both Rod Serling and Sam Peckinpah were also involved at some stage in the writing process. After finding that he just couldn’t get along with star Marlon Brando, Kubrick quit. This was probably a good thing for Kubrick, because this is really not his sort of film at all and the end result would probably have been disappointing as Spartacus. Kubrick needed to get out of Hollywood and make his own films.
With Kubrick gone, Brando took over as director and the scene was set for a classic Hollywood disaster. The movie ran months over schedule, and millions over budget. Paramount hated the result, slashed the running time by about half, and took little interest in promoting the movie. It lost money, and Brando never got to direct another movie. Given all that, you’d expect One-Eyed Jacks to be an absolute turkey. In fact it’s an exceptionally interesting movie, and arguably the first modern western, the grand-daddy of the spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars and Django, and the revisionist Hollywood westerns such as Little Big Man, High Plains Drifter and McCabe and Mrs Miller. It’s also, perhaps even more surprisingly, extremely entertaining once you get used to its rather leisurely pacing.
The bare bones of the plot is nothing more than a standard western revenge plot. Kid Rio (Brando) and Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) are bank robbers. Dad double-crosses the Kid, who spends five years in a Mexican gaol, while Dad ends up as sheriff of Monterey, California. The Kid escapes, and comes looking for revenge. But Brando wasn’t interested in the plot or any of the conventions of westerns for that matter. He was interested in the psychology of Kid Rio and of Dad Longworth (and yes, the Freudian angle suggested by the names is certainly present) and the relationship between them, and in the relationship between Rio and Dad’s step-daughter Louisa (yes, some more Freudianism there too).
And as a psychological study the movie does, mostly, succeed. Both Rio and Dad have good and bad in them. Dad did double-cross Rio, but it was a momentary giving in to temptation, and it’s been eating away at him ever since. His savage outburst of violence against Rio is clearly motivated by guilt. Rio is a very unheroic hero, but he’s not quite an anti-hero. He’s brave, he’s burning up with anger and the desire for vengeance, but being Brando he also broods a lot. And while he’s brooding he’s not taking action, he’s doing a bit of a Hamlet, he’s hesitating and he’s thinking. Going after revenge is tempting, but is likely to see him ending up dead, and he’s not overly keen on that.
And then there’s Louisa, and that’s turned out to be complicated. He was supposed to seduce her the way he’d seduced so many other women, with his ready capacity for telling lies, and this would be another way of revenging himself on Dad. But she’s really in love with him, and he finds that shaming her doesn’t make him feel good, it makes him feel bad, and he doesn’t really hate women at all, and if all that isn’t enough to brood about there’s also the fact that he has to admit he does love her. Is that love more important than revenge? That requires more brooding. And while Brando’s acting style in this movie can best be described as minimalist, consisting mostly of brooding of varying degrees of intensity, it somehow works. We do get the sense of a man torn between conflicting emotions, and we do care about Rio. In his brooding way, he’s a man you can’t help liking, and for once it’s possible to understand what the heroine sees in the hero and why she loves him.
One-Eyed Jacks is also visually interesting. Westerns don’t normally make much use of ocean backdrops, but this one does, and to good effect. There are some nice set-pieces, especially the early scene on the ridge as the Mexican troopers close in on Rio.
Karl Malden gives a finely judged performance as Dad. There are some fun supporting turns, especially from Slim Pickens as an oily deputy. Pina Pellicer is extremely good as Louisa. But this is Brando’s film, and his understated but complex performance makes this an intriguingly odd but highly watchable western (and I don’t even like westerns as a general rule). In 1961 it was probably much too odd for mainstream audiences, but it’s definitely worth seeing.