I watched this based on recommendation from a number of sources, One-Eyed Jacks (1961) is another of those misunderstood films on the time on release by a one-time actor/director, such as Charles Laughton who directed The Night of the Hunter (1955) which also fell foul to similar results. Both now highly regarded classics of both the Western and film noir respectively. One-Eyed Jacks could have been more successful if it was made and released during the dark psychological 50’s. Even with the working combination of Marlon Brando and Karl Malden in On The Waterfront (1954) and A Streetcar Names Desire (1951). Maybe it’s because the film so intensely charged that it was too much to see two men once bank robbers who rode together turn so viciously away from each other.
With a dream western cast, calling in a huge number of supporting actors who are synonymous with the genre, from Hank Worden through to Katy Jurado and Slim Pickens I can only presume the rest were busy working with John Wayne or John Ford at the time of filming. It’s rich is passion and a dark heart that travels from Mexico to the coat of California as two men must find justice. With Brando in front and behind the camera we’ve a different kind of western, one that is brooding and dark, full of psychology, whilst the actor who had already done a handful of westerns fits easily into the world he is bringing together. With heavy touches of visual theatrics, such as hiding the Mexicans in pursuit behind sandstorm, not properly insight to both Rio (Brando) or the audience who try to make out what they are seeing. This too is where a father/son like relationship that was once strong, built on a shared need for women and greed is broken when Dad Longworth leaves to buy new horses, taking the opportunity to start over again. Leaving Rio with little choice but to give himself up to the authorities that surround him. A price he will not forget to be repaid.
Jumping forward 5 years we see two men making a break from prison, nothing will stop these two men, Rio and Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) from freedom. With one goal, to find Dad Longworth ad kill him. It’s not the bandit after the sherif who put him behind bars, it’s the betrayed friend righting a wrong that he can’t forget. Meeting along the way, Bob Armory, one of Ben Johnson‘s finest performance outside of the Ford Stock Company and The Wild Bunch (1969) as another bandit who won’t be messed around when he joins up with Rio who has a bigger reputation with a gun. Who watching the changes in his new temperamental partner.
On arriving in California we find a now respectable Longworth, a reformed gun-man now as town sherif, with a Mexican family in his life. The life of freedom and abiding the law has paid off for him, everyone knows his past, a past he has chosen to rewrite for himself, which will soon be re-evaluated when Rio arrives to find him. Living the life he could have had, fuelling his anger, the need to kill him grows stronger still. Adding to that he meets Longworth’s step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer) who becomes his love interest, yet bordering on incest, if only related by marriage.
Both men are very much the same, shaped by how events five years previously panned out, sending them both in different directions. Both a liars hiding their past from the women in their lives. It’s only a matter of time until they both can’t take anymore, who will shoot first? There are many opportunities to silence one another, the audience is left frustrated by the will they won’t they, not of love but kill, something not often replicated in the western. Surrounded by characters who are all playing against the type we usually see on-screen and so effectively too.
I’m pleased I’ve finally watched this sometimes forgotten classic, I wonder what else Brando may have directed if he wasn’t put off by the public response, with such adult themes. A film that was originally 5 hours long was recut into this still impressive form. Will we ever see that version, much like Cimino‘s Heaven’s Gate (1980) whose directors cut is 4 hours long. Brando’s reported in-experience behind the camera was sadly not seen for the genius he was today. Like so many actor/directors of his time that weren’t given the chance to make more, with visions so ahead of their time, it’s a case of if only.