One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

“You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face.”

One-Eyed Jacks Poster

Synopsis:
An outlaw (Marlon Brando) seeks revenge on his former partner (Karl Malden), who abandoned him years earlier and is now sheriff of a small California town.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary argues that this “lone directorial effort” by Marlon Brando — with an original running time of 4 hours and 42 minutes, cut down to 141 minutes by the studio — is a “visually impressive but muddled psychological western”. While it’s easy to see how Brando might have stretched the story to go deeper into the characters’ psyches and motivations, however, the story itself is never hard to follow, and the narrative works just fine. One-Eyed Jacks (based on a novel by Charles Neider) is essentially a revenge tale, made more complex by the fact that Brando’s character (Rio) decides not to automatically confront and kill his former partner when he first encounters him after five long years in prison. Instead, he initiates a game of cat-and-mouse, baiting “Dad” (Malden) into believing all is forgiven and forgotten. This maneuver actually makes sense, given what we know already about Rio’s crafty ways: he’s a liar and manipulator, someone who will do and say anything to bed a pretty woman, for instance. Indeed, Rio’s very much an anti-hero, yet we can’t help rooting for him given his hiss-worthy nemesis — Malden’s conniving, two-faced, social climbing sheriff.

The aspect of the story that works least well is Rio’s star-crossed romance with Malden’s stepdaughter (Pina Pellicer), who comes across as far too willing to forgive Rio’s lies and welcome him back into her embrace (were there explanatory scenes cut from the longer version??). Yet Pellicer (who, sadly, took her own life just a few years after this film was released) has such a winning presence and an unusual beauty that we can’t help enjoying her whenever she’s on-screen, despite how little she’s given to work with. Indeed, nearly the entire western is pleasant to watch, given the inspired decision to establish the setting along California’s Monterey coast, with dramatic waves crashing in the background during numerous key scenes. Malden himself is nicely cast against type in a complex villainous role; and while Peary argues that Brando is simply patterning his performance after Elvis Presley and other “fifties rebels”, I find his tortured portrayal of Rio to be convincing. Equally impressive is the fine supporting cast — most notably Ben Johnson as a hardcore baddie who hooks up with Rio after his escape from prison, and Katy Jurado in a tiny but effective role as Malden’s wife.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Marlon Brando as Rio
    One Eyed Jacks Brando
  • Karl Malden as Dad
    One Eyed Jacks Malden
  • Pina Pellicer as Louisa
    One Eyed Jacks Pellicer
  • Fine supporting performances by Ben Johnson, Kary Jurado, and others
    One Eyed Jacks Jurado
  • Charles Lang’s cinematography
    One Eyed Jacks Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as Brando’s lone directorial effort. Discussed at length in Peary’s Cult Movies 3.

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(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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One Response to “One-Eyed Jacks (1961)”

  1. A once-must.

    Rather in complete agreement here, so I’ve little to add. Since Brando is more or less considered The Godfather – if you will – of modern screen acting, ffs will want to see his only directorial effort.

    A surprising number of people have written at the IMDb that ‘O-EJ’ is among the best westerns ever made.

    It isn’t. The story is thin and holds no real surprises.

    What *is* surprising is what Brando brings to the table; how he makes the film compelling – esp. considering that, for a western, there is shockingly little action. There is, however, lots of character action going on – and Brando shows genuine ability in handling actors generously.

    I can’t begin to imagine what this film might have been like in a nearly 5-hour version. My guess is it could have been unbearable. Even at its present length, it seems a tad long.

    Overall, though, it’s an intriguing piece of work, so it’s not to be overlooked.

    Fave scene: Brando behind bars – and his attempt to get a gun from a nearby table. Oh, and what follows after when Slim Pickens returns…

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