Movie Night With Urbaniak: One-Eyed Jacks

WHITE HAT: “Kid” Rio is a bank robber in Mexico. He steals gold, shoots people and is a pathological liar.

BLACK HAT: Dad Longworth is Rio’s ex-partner. He left Rio to rot in a Mexico prison when a robbery job went south. He took the loot, headed north, bought himself a wife, a daughter, a job (as sheriff, no less) and some respectability.

THE ETERNAL STRUGGLE: “Kid” is abandoned by “Dad.” Kid seeks revenge. The “lawless” savage is pitted against the “civilized” man-of-respect. The law is a disguise worn by smarter criminals, used as a cudgel against those who aren’t bright enough, or unprincipled enough, to take the money and run.

Kid’s revenge: to rob the bank in the city where Dad’s sheriff and murder Dad for leaving him.

On the way to his revenge, Rio decides to deflower Dad’s adopted daughter Louisa. In the course of the deflowering, Rio is suddenly turned from Max-Cady-like revenge machine to sincere, sensitive soul. Rio lies to get a leg over with Louisa, but by morning he’s confessed all his lies, and by the end of the movie he’s decided against revenge altogether. Such is the power of a young woman’s, um, heart.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: Rare for a western, the city in question is Monterey, California. I don’t know why a western on the beach seems unusual, but it does.

WOMEN? There are two major women in One-Eyed Jacks. One is Dad’s Mexican wife (the Madonna), the other is his step-daughter (the virgin). There are also assorted garden-variety barmaids, prostitutes, senoritas and a contessa. Well, the movie is called One-Eyed Jacks, after all (apparently Penises was considered too on-the-nose). Oh, and the Mona Lisa is seen hanging over a bar.

THE STATE OF CIVILIZATION: No doubt about it, Rio escapes from prison to find that civilization is rotten to the core. Thieves put on stars and become law enforcers, hire buck-toothed yahoos for muscle, and use their position to protect themselves from their own guilty past. Rio (spoiler alert) is put through the ringer by this system, but finally figures out a way to escape. Trouble is, he must leave his love, and unborn child, behind, with only the promise to return. Which, given Rio’s luck through most of the movie, doesn’t look too likely. So it seems that civilization is so rotten that living in it is impossible, change only makes things worse. One can only flee. A very Brando attitude.

WESTERN CLICHE ALERT: Outlaws on the run through a desert, chased by a posse. Shootout on a high desert plain. Prison escapees chained at the ankles. Bank job goes south, leading to wasted lives.  Protagonist and antagonist switching sides of the law, the criminal becoming moral and the respectable man turning hypocrite.  Protagonist and antagonist break bread at the family table, and saying grace before dinner is used as a yardstick of measuring good, and hypocrisy. Protagonist tied to a hitching post and whipped in town square by antagonist.  Protagonist is the strong, silent, sly type, until he falls in love, then he becomes earnest, confused and talky, jabbering on and on about his childhood, his lack of direction, his treatment at the hands of the Mexican justice system.

NOTES:I was quite excited to sit down to watch a western directed by Marlon Brando, and was surprised to see that he didn’t seem to have any particular point of view on the material. The direction seems rather anonymous, workmanlike even, and occasionally there are even rookie technical blunders. There are few Brando-ish idiosyncrasies (although the movie opens with Brando sitting on a counter during a bank robbery, tossing banana peels onto a scales, which strikes me as a very Brando-esque way of introducing a theme), the acting is solid but unremarkable by his standards (although Slim Pickens shines as a thoroughly unpleasant sleazeball deputy), there are no daring stylistic moves. There is occasional wit in the screenplay (Dad: “How you doing, kid?” Rio: “Oh, I’m sneakin’ by.”)   The sets and lighting look standard-issue, and one prison set looks utterly fake even on the disastrous transfer currently available (see below).

Stanley Kubrick was the original director on the project and it’s hard for me to see what would have attracted him to the material — the story is told in a resolutely un-Kubrickian fashion (which may explain why he ultimately left).

In the course of the narrative, Karl Malden grows a moustache and suddenly looks like Mike Ditka.

The story is told in four acts: Act I, Rio and Dad rob a bank, get chased, Rio is abandoned and taken capture. Act II, Rio vows revenge on Dad and sets about it, planning a bank robbery and deflowering Dad’s step-daughter. Dad gets wind of all this, beats Rio mercilessly and drives him out of town. Act III, Rio licks his wounds and ponders what to do with the rest of his life. Act IV, Rio’s gang goes rogue on him, robs the bank, blows the job, Rio is arrested, escapes from jail, has a shootout with Dad, flees the country.

This structure makes the movie seem quite long. Generally, the action in a motion picture speeds up at the beginning of Act III as the characters’ motivations come into sharp relief and agendas clash, but here the action slows down to a crawl and the protagonist’s goals become fuzzy and confused.

I am told that Brando’s original cut of the movie ran over five hours and was greatly concerned with the shades of gray in all the characters’ lives. Touches of that ambiguity still remain, but as it is, One-Eyed Jacks seems very much like a typical early-60s studio product. The score, too, seems rote and uninspired. The movie was, apparently, a hit, but Brando disowned it and never directed again.

I’d like to note that the DVD Urbaniak and I watched, issued by an outfit calling themselves “St. Clair Vision,” is, by a long stretch, the crappiest DVD transfer I’ve ever encountered. I once wrote that the DVD transfer of Spielberg’s 1941 looked like it had been made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing an old VHS copy of the movie. Well, One-Eyed Jacks looks like it was made by pointing a video camera at a TV playing a VHS copy of the movie, through an aquarium smeared with petroleum jelly. The movie, which has apparently fallen out of copyright for some reason, can be watched in its entirety here, in quality no worse than what we’ve just watched.

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Movie Night With Urbaniak: A Streetcar Named Desire

Mr. [info]urbaniak came over to borrow my copy of Numbers, Season 2 and stayed to talk about A Face in the Crowd, which I had just watched earlier in the day, and then watch this earlier Kazan picture, A Streetcar Named Desire, solely for its landmark, breakthrough performance by Marlon Brando.

This movie is so bad.

Elia Kazan made some wonderful, wonderful movies.  Just a couple of weeks ago, Urbaniak and I watched his Viva Zapata, which was interesting all the way through.   And as I say, I watched his scathing, vivid, propulsive satire A Face in the Crowd just today.  Feels like a completely different director.  Streetcar is desperately uncinematic, directed with a leaden hand, terribly lit and hampered by one of the worst lead performances of all time by Vivien Leigh.

The plot involves Leigh’s character, Blanche, having her mind annihilated by Brando’s Stanley, but let’s face it, the movie’s true subject is Brando’s style of acting annihilating everything that Leigh’s generation stood for — show-offy, self-conscious, grandstanding, fake, ungenerous emoting.  She doesn’t stand a chance against Brando, who finds something interesting, unexpected, real, truthful and uninflected to do with every line and gesture he has.  Tennessee Williams’s dialogue is as purple as the day is long, and Leigh leans into the purpleness, wringing each of her long, tedious speeches dry with swooping, keening, whispering “drama,” while Brando just kind of takes the language at face value and plays against all the high-flown poetry, coming up with something much more interesting and vital.

Brando, of course, has ruined Stanley for every other actor who would choose to play the role — to take it on at this point is to invite catcalls and hoots of derision.  Blanche offers no similar forbidding challenge — Leigh is about as awful as an actress could be in this role.

In a way, I find every role in the movie miscast.  I don’t believe for a second that any of the actors are from New Orleans, new South, old South or any other kind of South.  They all seem to be either New York or Hollywood people to me, and one of the things Urbaniak and I did to keep ourselves amused while watching the movie was to think who we could cast today in the various roles to make a watchable movie.

We had a hard time coming up with a Blanche until I hit on the idea of Holly Hunter.  Holly Hunter would be fabulous in this part.  We spent a long time talking about how great Shirley Maclaine was in The Apartment and how she played a variation on Blanche in both Terms of Endearment and Postcards From the Edge.  Frances MacDormand would make a great Blanche — she and Holly Hunter could play Blanche and Stella in repertory, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly did in True West a few years back.  Urbaniak nailed the best possible Mitch by offering John C. Reilly, which I countered by suggesting Philip Seymour Hoffman as Stanley.  I couldn’t figure out why Bette Davis wasn’t playing Blanche in the movie — as long as you’re casting Scarlett O’Hara as a faded Southern belle, why not Jezebel?  Because Davis ended up playing something very close to Blanche in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? anyway.  Which brought us to Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Julianne Moore, or for that matter Jessica Tandy, who was in the Broadway production with Brando.  By the end of the evening Urbaniak was saying that any living actress would be better in this part than Leigh, then amended that statement to include all living women — “the girl at the counter at Barnes and Noble on the Santa Monica Promenade would be better than Vivian Leigh in this movie.”

Don’t get me wrong — Blanche is a great part and should, by all rights, make for a moving, heartbreaking performance.  But Leigh is an irritating bore from the second she walks onscreen, all tics and effects and calculated gestures designed to call attention to how “good” an actress she is — “Look how hard I’m working!  Aren’t I a great actress?”  She wears out her welcome fast and you can’t wait for her to get carted off by the loony-bin folk.

Next we’re thinking of watching Zodiac.
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Movie Night With Urbaniak: Viva Zapata!

Biographical drama is hard. The writer is faced with a number of problems — either the audience knows too much about the protagonist, which means they’re way ahead of the narrative, or else the audience doesn’t know enough about the protagonist, which means the movie has to contain all kinds of tiresome exposition to explain who everyone is and why they’re important to the story.

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