The first time you see Marlon Brando in the 1961 Western "One-Eyed Jacks," he's robbing a bank. But it's not an action scene. The actor is instead eating bananas and weighing the peels on a scale meant for coins, relaxed and confident while his posse finishes up the robbery.
That approach is typical of the film, which would be the only movie Brando ever directed. The actor had become renowned for his fusion of masculine intensity and sensitivity to minute details, but he was also fast becoming known for his own eccentric behavior, something that naturally found its way into his performances. You see it in his best films and in his worst, a unique and immediate screen presence that radically changed the film.
Whether "One-Eyed Jacks" is a misunderstood masterpiece or a bizarre psychological Western, it's notable for demonstrating the actor's capability with filmmaking. It's also notable that it destroyed any desire on Brando's part to be in the director's chair again, even as the movie produces beautiful and nuanced performances and had such stunning imagery that it was nominated for the cinematography Oscar, losing to "West Side Story."
Brando was not meant to serve as the director of "One-Eyed Jacks," and he only took on the role when its original director, Stanley Kubrick, left the project. The journey the movie took on the road to completion was a long one that would have exhausted even a seasoned veteran. But in Brando's work, one can see both an aptitude for composition and a complex narrative sensibility that feels more like a piece with European arthouse films than a typical Western.
Finding A Script
Shortly after the book's release, Marlon Brando had his sights set on Charles Neider's 1956 novel "The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones." While stories vary regarding who was ultimately responsible for Brando becoming familiar with the novel, it's typically attributed to Frank P. Rosenberg, a producer who, according to the LA Times, bought the rights to the novel and hired eventual "Twilight Zone" icon Rod Serling to come up with a screenplay for it. It became "One-Eyed Jacks."
For much of the late 1950s, Brando spearheaded the film's development, effectively serving as lead actor and producer. His eccentric behavior and willingness to fight meant that it was tough for him to build a strong working relationship with any of the many writers and directors he brought on to help him bring the book to screen. Moreover, he heavily identified with the characters of the novel and followed his obsession to the completion of the film.
First off, Rod Serling's initial draft was rejected, which led to Rosenberg seeking out a then-green Sam Peckinpah to work on the script. Peckinpah was still some years out from his own iconic, brutal Western film "The Wild Bunch," and his script would eventually be rejected as well. When Brando and Rosenberg brought on young Stanley Kubrick, who had only made a handful of smaller films like "Killer's Kiss" and the World War I masterpiece "Paths of Glory," the director advocated for Calder Willingham to work on the script. The circle of artists responsible for the film was getting bigger, and more tangled, but Brando stayed in control.
Kubrick Vs. Brando
Per Turner Classic Movies, discussions around the movie were intense. Marlon Brando allegedly hosted development conferences in his Coldwater Canyon home, where he and Stanley Kubrick and Frank P. Rosenberg, and others debated the nature of the story. Per the LA Times, Brando sat next to a gong that he would bang should discussions get too emotional. Kubrick also reportedly worked in just a shirt and underwear while at Brando's house — the actor was not the only eccentric involved.
Both the prospective director and actor butted heads throughout these conferences. With just a couple weeks before filming set to begin, Kubrick had finally had enough of Brando's indulgences and left for greener pastures. As always, accounts differ about who did and said what, but the two were at odds even though they took pains afterward to make clear how much they admired each other. Brando, much to producer Rosenberg's chagrin, decided to take control of the directing.
Brando was a self-admitted novice. TCM quotes the actor's 1994 autobiography, in which he claimed, "I didn't know what to do." Even though he'd been a regular on film sets for some 10 years by the point of production, he hadn't absorbed all the ins and outs of production. In fact, he was entirely unconcerned with traditional questions of economics or efficiency. As the story goes, the production was "two weeks behind schedule five days into shooting."
The Actor In The Director's Chair
"One-Eyed Jacks" is littered with unforgettable images. Filmed on location in Monterey, California, it makes beautiful use of the city's seascape. Even in the blocking of actors, who all move around with a Marlon Brando-esque naturalism, there's an incredible precision. When the former convict Rio (Brando) observes a town fiesta from a balcony, the camera's pointed at him as his scarf blows wildly in the wind, casting a significant distance between him and his traitorous old friend Dad Longworth (Karl Malden).
Brando's direction in the film is substantial, finding poetry and tragedy in the confines of a revenge story. His eccentricity as an artist is directly responsible for the film's singular beauty, but it was also responsible for the fact that nobody would ever hire him to direct again.
An actor like Brando, who at his best was committed and intense, needed the space to act. Quirky things like showing up drunk to the filming of a scene where his character was drunk might have been forgivable if all he was doing was performing. But when that allegedly happened on the set of "One-Eyed Jacks," per TCM, his drunkenness effectively nuked production for a day. And he liked improvisation too, letting actors find their characters over the course of repeated experimentation. In the process, production was running much longer than expected. The improvisation, as rewarding as it was for actors like Slim Pickens and Brando's "On The Waterfront" costar Karl Malden, led to a much longer film than expected.
In fact, Brando's preferred cut of the film ran nearly five hours, according to TCM, and the film's $1.8 million budget rose to $6 million.
Difficulties In Post-Production
When producer Frank P. Rosenberg saw that original cut of "One-Eyed Jacks," he was struck by the film's (very expensive) formlessness. According to Peter Manso's biography "Brando," he told Marlon Brando that the movie was "just an assemblage of footage." From that point, as TCM quotes him, Brando "got pretty sick of it and turned the job over to someone else."
In much the same way that Michael Cimino's 1981 Western "Heaven's Gate" came to be seen as a wasteful disaster and one that killed a studio, "One-Eyed Jacks" became known better for Brando's idiosyncratic behavior and artistic indulgences than anything to do with the actual movie. In all fairness, when the cut was taken away from him, he leaned into that as well, claiming that Paramount, in shortening the film and shooting a new ending, robbed many characters of their humanity, turning them into simple archetypes of good and evil. He felt betrayed by it, and would never choose to direct a film again.
The public reaction to the movie, between a muted critical reception and lacking box office receipts, suggested disinterest in Brando's labor of love as well. The actor had spent years building the film, struggling with personalities like Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick to do so. Like "Heaven's Gate," it took some distance from its disastrous production for its beauty to be noticed.
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