ONE-EYED JACKS | MARLON BRANDO’S ONE & ONLY STINT AS FILM DIRECTOR

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

1958– Marlon Brando in his 1961 film directorial debut– One Eyed Jacks.  Image by Sam and Larry Shaw.  What makes One-Eyed Jacks a phenomenon big enough to live in — along with the presence of actors like Ben Johnson as that “scum-suckin’ pig” Bob Emory, Slim Pickens as Dad’s terminally despicable deputy Lon, Katy Jurado as his stalwart wife, and Pina Pellicier as his virginal stepdaughter Luisa (until Rio deflowers her) — is the way one of the most charismatic turns of Brando’s career plays off the darkest and most ambitious characterization of Malden’s. Ultimately, in spite of Brando’s excesses and misadventures (he looked through the wrong end of a view finder when framing his first shot) as an actor-director engaged in an inspirational creative enterprise, he enjoyed himself and the film reflects it. In Songs My Mother Taught Me, he writes, “We shot most of it at Big Sur and on the Monterey peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs,” adding that “Maybe I liked the picture so much because it left me with a lot of pleasant memories about the people in it … especially Karl Malden.”  –Stuart Mitchner

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In the years since it was first released in 1961, One-Eyed Jacks has been called everything from Marlon Brando’s Citizen Kane, to “…a jangle of artistic ambivalence”and unbelievably it was his only stint as director.  Being a huge Brando fan, I may be  a bit biased, but I love the film.  Marlon’s silent, smoldering intensity underscores the epic Western tale about one man’s quest for revenge and romance that run parallel– and at odds with each other.  There’s something there we all can relate to– deep friendships that have tragically gone bad over money or success… love born out of misunderstood, or less than noble origins, that ultimately overcomes all odds… the longing to leave the sorted past behind and start over again…  you get the picture.  It’s all in there– and beautifully set against the rugged, pounding, surf of Monterey and Big Sur.

Marlon Brando seen here directing on the set. — Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS.

Brando’s directorial extravagance transformed a film scheduled for three months’ shooting at a cost of under two million into a six-million-dollar prodigy, thanks to a “footage fetish” worthy of Erich Von Stroheim, whose original print of Greed was ten hours long. Pressured by the studio front office, Brando managed to cut eight hours of film down to four and a half, still obviously not enough for Paramount, which seized the print, trimmed it to two hours and 21 minutes, and insisted on a “happy ending.” Brando’s disappointed ambitions for his film are evident in the strangely worded admission he made to Newsweek in the “pot-boiler” interview: “Any pretension I’ve had sometimes of being artistic is now just a long, chilly hope.” Quoted around the same time, Malden said, “If we’d made it the way Marlon wanted it made, like a Greek tragedy, it could have been a breakthrough western. It could have been a classic.” In time, Brando and Malden had to know that even in its butchered state, the film was destined to become very nearly everything “it could have been.  –Stuart Mitchner

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Cinematographer Charles Lang and director Marlon Brando on location in Monterey, California, for the first day of shooting One-Eyed Jacks.

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By all accounts, a film like One-Eyed Jacks should have taken little more than three months to film.  Yet, a chain of complications, among them being Marlon Brando’s difficult and eccentric ways, drug the production out over the course of 3 years.  Brando wanted to make a western of epic proportions based on a tale of betrayal and revenge, when he came across Charles Neider’s 1956 novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones– which the New York Times praised as “an excellent dramatization of the myths that circulate around the deeds of bygone gunmen.” And so,One-Eyed Jacks was born, and the process of crafting the ultimate screen adaptation of the novel began.  Paramount Producer Frank P. Rosenberg first hired Rod Serling (of The Twilight Zone fame) to write, what was more or less the tale of Billy the Kid set in Monterey, CA, titled Authentic Death– and ultimately rejected the work.  Next, Sam Peckinpah was brought on to handle the screenwriting duties, which went on from ’57- ’59.  Brando fired Peckinpah, and soon to follow were Calder Willingham and, as Brando puts it in his autobiography, “finally Guy Trosper”: “He and I constantly improvised and rewrote between shots and setups, often hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute.” Over the years, the two credited screenwriters (Willingham and Prosper) and the uncredited Sam Peckinpah, have all stepped forward to claim ultimate responsible for the One-Eyed Jacks screenplay. Karl Malden himself has addressed the debate about who truly wrote the final story now immortalized on film: “There is one answer to your question — Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.”

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Karl Malden broke his nose twice playing high school football in Gary, Indiana, and the result made a natural supporting actor of him. Marlon Brando broke his nose during an informal boxing match in the boiler room of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre while he was acting in A Streetcar Named Desire. The play’s producer Irene Selznick begged him to have a cosmetic surgeon repair the damage. Tennessee Williams lamented the destruction of “those classic looks.” Brando refused to have the damage repaired, and years later Selznick admitted “that broken nose made his fortune. He was too beautiful before.”  The lifelong friendship between the actor who played the bestial Stanley Kowalski and the one who played his kinder, gentler pal, Mitch, began during the 1947-1949 run of Tennessee Williams’s play. Karl Malden died July 1 ,2009 at the age of 97, five years to the day after Marlon Brando died on July 1, 2004, at the age of 80. They made three films together: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and One-Eyed Jacks (1961). –Stuart Mitchner


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While all this was going on, finding the right fit for director was proving to be equally troublesome. Marlon Brando’s own Pennebaker Productions, which had paid-out $40,000 for the rights to Authentic Death, hired Stanley Kubrick to direct One-Eyed Jacks for Paramount Pictures.  Kubrick never got to add One-Eyed Jacks to his list of films– he was soon on his way out the door before the cameras even started rolling.

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Marlon Brando chatting with French film director Jacques Tati on the set on One-Eyed Jacks.

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There are two very different accounts on Kubrick’s departure. The first account asserts that Kubrick became frustrated with the long-stalled development the script due to Marlon Brando’s eccentric and agonizing work methods. They also disagreed over who was best suited to play opposite Brando’s lead character, Rio. Kubrick was pushing to cast Spencer Tracy for the role of Dad Longworth, but Brando was adamant that it go to his good friend Karl Malden.  According to one account, a frustrated Kubrick confronted Brando: “Marlon, I don’t know what this picture is about.” Allegedly Brando’s curt response was– “It’s about the $400,000 I’ve paid Karl Malden.” (It’s been said that Karl Malden often referred to his Los Angeles home as “The House That ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ Built” due to the small fortune in overtime pay he made off the film.) Kubrick made it known that he could not work with Marlon’s conditions, and walked away from the troubled project altogether.

The other account holds that Brando got wind that Kubrick had told one of the film’s producers, “they’d have to keep Brando away from the script if they were ever to make the shooting date.” Brando immediately fired him. The official press release stated that Stanley Kubrick had resigned in order to begin work on the film Lolita, the then infamous Nabokov novel that he and producer partner James Harris had recently acquired. Whatever the actual truth may be for Kubrick’s dismissal, Brando decided to hire himself to direct the film– a job which proved to be bigger than the great Hollywood icon had most likely expected.

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1958, Monterey CA– Playing a cowboy role for the first time in his movie career, Marlon Brando looks like an hombre to wreckon with as he handles a six-shooter on location at Monterey, Calif. Brando is both the star and the Director of “One-Eyed Jacks,” A Pennebaker Paramount Production. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
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One-Eyed Jacks finally began shooting in late 1958, and went months and months over schedule, and cost Paramount millions over the film’s original budget. Beyond the cost of cast, crew and location– One-Eyed Jacks was being shot in VistaVision, an expensive filming process that cost 50 cents a foot back then. Brando was camera happy and had reportedly shot hundreds of thousands of feet of footage, as he sought artistic inspiration for both himself and his actors– particularly the young Mexican actress, Pina Pellicer, with whom he had a special connection.

Editing the film took over a year after filming finally ended in 1959. Paramount, unable to bear further delays, took the film from Brando and recut One-Eyed Jacks as they saw fit. Brando reportedly did not put up a fuss at the time, apparently having become tired himself with the editing process after spending untold time trying to perfect his masterpiece. He did however complain, after the fact, that the studio’s final cut took away the moral ambiguity he sought for his character, Rio, and that they had effectively screwed-up the ending. In Brando’s cut, Dad Longworth’s last shot meant for Rio hits his own step-daughter Louisa instead, killing her and thus leaving Rio with nothing in the end. The studio used the alternative ending where Rio and Louisa have an emotional parting at the beach, and Rio promises to return to her. The tragic irony to the debate over the film’s ending is that the beautiful and talented actress who played Louisa, Pina Pellicer, whom Brando had an affair with on the set of of One-Eyed Jacks, later committed suicide. Knowing that, it always messes me up when I watch the scenes of them together on-screen.

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1959– Marlon Brando and Pina Pellicer in scenes from the movie: One-Eyed Jacks. –Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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One-eyed Jacks– Marlon Brando as Rio, and Slim Pickens as Dad’s terminally despicable deputy, Lon.

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Marlon Brando on the set of One-Eyed Jacks. — Left image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS

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Marlon Brando in a Paramount publicity still for the film: One-Eyed Jacks.

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1959– Marlon Brando, director, on the set of One-Eyed Jacks. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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1959, Hollywood, CA– Realism gets too real for actor Marlon Brando in the Pennebaker-Paramount western “One-Eyed Jacks” as he fights with actor Slim Pickens. Brando, (facing camera), is attempting a jailbreak, is spotted by Pickens, who hits him with the butt of his rifle. In the scuffle, Brando was gashed over the right eye, which required several stitches. Brando who directed the picture, told the cameraman to print the shot, as he did not want the realism lost. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Brando, always the realist as actor or director, (Left) showing Malden how he wanted him to play a love scene in One-Eyed Jacks. The Paramount Film, a Western starring Brando, is the actor’s first directorial assignment. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

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Legendary character actor Ben Johnson as that scum-suckin’ pig, Bob Emory, in One-Eyed Jacks.

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“The voice Marlon Brando develops for his character Rio, aka the Kid, has in it the distilled essence of every cowboy hero every kid who grew up in westerns has absorbed into the depths of his or her Saturday matinee soul. The fascination of Rio’s voice is in its subtle, plaintive, sometimes barely audible inflections, the way it lilts, slurs, and simmers as Brando makes it express his quiet, lonely, pathological quest for vengeance. He’s been stoking his hatred for five years in the prison in Sonora where he landed thanks to the perfidy of his old pal and partner in crime, Longworth, whose brisk, smug, pedestrian speech patterns that can seem almost Nixonian help create a harmony of opposites every time Malden’s Dad and Brando’s Rio converse.”  –Stuart Mitchner

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1961– Marlon Brando, from the 1961 film: One-Eyed Jacks. — Image by © CinemaPhoto/CORBIS

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Marlon Brando in a Paramount studio publicity still for One-Eyed Jacks.

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1961– Marlon Brando, from the 1961 film: One-Eyed Jacks.

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Sources:

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks: “We Had the Very Best of Each Other”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One-Eyed Jacks (1961), Brando Stars and Directs:’One Eyed Jacks’ in Premiere at Capitol

 

The Internet Movie Database

One-Eyed Jacks

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9 thoughts on “ONE-EYED JACKS | MARLON BRANDO’S ONE & ONLY STINT AS FILM DIRECTOR

  1. Brando was ahead of his time in a lot of respects this movie being another example. I liked his choice of character actors in this movie-Karl malden, Slim Pickens, and my favorite Ben Johnson who was one of the all time great movie cowboys shows how much he put into it. You could never say Brando did not take chances as an artist.

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  3. One-Eyed Jacks could’ve been a great Western to help take the 50s out on a high note (along with stuff like Rio Bravo and No Name On The Bullet).

    But the many, many delays made it one of the best (and most overlooked) Westerns of the 60s.

    Great post.

  4. My favorite movie of all time.
    What I wouldn’t give to see the original 5 hour version Brando wanted to release.
    I did see a version 20 years ago with a few minutes of scenes played inside the Mexican jail with Brando and his Mexican sidekick planning the escape but I’ve never seen it since.

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