EVE GOLDBERG presents an in-depth examination of the only film Marlon Brando ever directed: "One-Eyed Jacks" (1961)
"ONE-EYED JACKS: AMERICA AT THE CROSSROADS"
A new movie schedule arrived
every few months.A two-sided paper
treasure chest brimming over with promises of time travel, existential wisdom,
and singing in the rain. Wild
Strawberries, City Lights, Battle of Algiers, Belle de Jour.
We grabbed up the schedule
and studied it with care, taped it to the refrigerator door, marked our
calendars.The African Queen, Yojimbo,
Rules of the Game.
We made cinema voyages all
over town — to the Vista in Hollywood, the Nuart in West LA, the art deco Fox
Venice.Before VCRs, DVDs or streaming,
revival movie theaters were about the only place a film junkie could get a
fix.We might find an occasional nugget
on late night TV, John Ford’s Stagecoach,
perhaps, or Invasion of the Body
Snatchers, but for the most part, it was the revival house or nowhere.Citizen
Kane, La Dolce Vita, Alphaville.
There was rumor of a weird
Western called One-Eyed Jacks,
starring and directed by Marlon Brando.Nobody we knew had seen it.The
movie took on the aura of myth. Was there really a scene where Brando gets
whipped?What had the famously
iconoclastic actor done with the time-worn clichés of the horse opera?
Finally, I think it was
1974, One-Eyed Jacks arrived.We trooped down to the Fox Venice, waited in
a long line, found seats in the filled-to-capacity theatre, and settled in for
the ride.We were not disappointed.From the opening shot — Brando casually
eating a banana during a bank robbery — the film was like no Western we had
ever seen.Moody, psychological,
ambiguous, it was awash in sadomasochism, with a brooding Brando in nearly
every scene.And yes, the actor gets his
whipping in a scene of perverse cruelty which sears into memory.
Back in 1974, we knew we had
seen an odd, strangely subversive, one-of-a-kind film.We didn’t know, however, that this quirky
little revenge gem would someday be considered an important (if flawed)
masterpiece of cinema, and a fascinating link between two eras in Hollywood…and
The Western is a
quintessentially American film genre.From its earliest days, the cowboy drama was about good guys (white
lawmen) confronting bad (Indians, outlaws).Each movie was a tale of expansionist dreams and masculine
aggression.Each was a saga of
civilization triumphing over savagery.The Western was, to quote film critic J. Hoberman, “the way America used
to explain itself to itself.”
Edwin Porter’s 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery, was one of the
first Westerns.This 12-minute story in
which bandits rob a train, only to be pursued by a posse of lawmen,
revolutionized the art of cinema.Porter
used ground-breaking techniques such as cross-cutting and close-ups to create a
suspenseful, compelling narrative.The
basic elements of the genre were set.
The Western remains
instantly recognizable across more than a century of evolving media and
myth-making.Gunfights, holdups, and
massacres.Horses, trains, rustlers, and
stampedes, and six-shooters.
The Golden Age of the
Western is often considered to be the years 1946-1973.Following World War II, with the Cold War
blazing hot on the beaches of Korea, the U.S. declared itself the new global
sheriff in town.At home, the Eisenhower
Era earned a reputation as being a time of complacency and consumerism.But these were also the McCarthy years, when
right-wing witch hunts against political progressives were ruining lives and
careers.And, at the same time, the seeds
of change were taking root.A young
civil rights movement began asking America: What the hell are the good guys who
fought Hitler doing about racial discrimination and bigotry at home?