Friday, September 13, 2019

“Are you looking at me?” – One-Eyed Jacks

I’m going to go out on a limb here and call One-Eyed Jacks incontestably the finest western ever shot in Big Sur. This troubled production, helmed by star Marlon Brando after original director Stanley Kubrick quit or was fired (accounts differ), had gone way over schedule and over budget by the time the would-be auteur grew bored with the project and left it in mid-edit for the studio to assemble (the Paramount executives opting, not surprisingly, for the most conventional of the several endings Brando shot, some under duress).

The final product, though scarcely without flaw, nevertheless remains after half a century a compelling if undisciplined piece of work. Karl Malden (”Dad” Longworth) and Brando (”Kid” Rio) portray bank robbers working the lucrative Mexican market who are parted by mischance and meet up again in California after half a decade, having in the meantime followed dramatically different career paths, with Dad pursuing a career in law enforcement while the Kid busies himself for most of this period crafting artisanal license plates. Their reunion is, to put it mildly, fraught.

Beautifully photographed (the Death Valley and Big Sur sequences particularly), with several memorable set pieces. The marvelous supporting cast includes a lot of John Ford regulars, including Ben Johnson and Slim Pickins, and the love interest is the luminous and tragic Pina Pellicer, whose reputed on-set romance with the charismatic leading man turns out to have been a publicist’s cynical fantasy: Pellicer played on Team Sappho. Long neglected, the film fell into the public domain, and has hitherto been available for home viewing only in atrocious no-name “budget” editions which, as an industry informant told me once, “look like they’ve been mastered by someone’s dog.” It has now been meticulously restored for the 2016 Criterion release. 

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