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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14 Responses to “Movie Night With Urbaniak: One-Eyed Jacks”
  1. selectnone says:

    You might want to change your image, it looks like they’ve noticed your hot-linking and changed it.

    At least it’s not been changed to someone’s gaping nethers 😉

    • Todd says:

      Strangely, it didn’t look like that on my own computer.

      • selectnone says:

        They probably have some system in place that only gives the correct file if it’s been accessed from their site – you already had it in your cache, and it hadn’t changed, so your browser didn’t try to download another copy.

        (that certainly sounds like a plausible reason…)

  2. craigjclark says:

    Danny Peary’s Cult Movies 3 has an interesting account of the development of this film. Apparently Brando hired Kubrick on the strength of Paths of Glory, but they couldn’t agree about the basics of the story. Presumably Kubrick would have taken it in quite a different direction.

    • Todd says:

      Well, he also fired Sam Peckinpah, who later did the “two friends on either side of the law” thing with Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. (It’s worth noting that the novel One-Eyed Jacks is based on was a novelization of the career of Billy the Kid. Perhaps Garrett was merely Peckinpah’s adaptation of the script he tried to get Brando to do.)

  3. mikeyed says:

    I gotta read the second half of Julius Caesar, but first…

    -You copyright the word “Brando-esque”

    -I’ve seen this movie on the exact same brand of DVD. It was awful, it was like an old dial-knob tv playing a VHS tape of it while being taped by a video camera, which in turn is being recorded by another video camera.

    -I do agree about the energy, it makes the movie seem o sink after he gets kicked out. Maybe I’m just an grouch at love, but all the love scenes seemed disjunctive to the rest of the movie as well.

    • Todd says:

      Re: I gotta read the second half of Julius Caesar, but first…

      Maybe I’m just an grouch at love, but all the love scenes seemed disjunctive to the rest of the movie as well.

      Presumably, the five-hour cut gave those scenes a context and flow they lack in the over-before-you-know-it 145-minute cut made by the butchers at Paramount.

  4. Todd says:

    Pacino’s directorial efforts, including The Local Stigmatic, were recently released on DVD and are available through Amazon and at your better retailers.

    • mr_noy says:

      Thanks for the tip and for clarifying the name. I remember first hearing about it in an interview Pacino gave over 15 years ago. I was curious to see what he brought to the director’s chair but I assumed the film would never see the light of day.

      • Todd says:

        Given the long-delayed non-release of the movie, thinking the title to be The Imaginary Stigmatic is completely forgivable.

  5. craigjclark says:

    If you count documentaries, Pacino also directed Looking for Richard, which I thought was fantastic.