The most famous role Marlon Brando played—years before Don Vito Corleone or Colonel Walter E. Kurtz—was that of Terry Malloy, a poor dockworker, in Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront. Brando portrays Malloy as a man haunted by the boxer he could have been and distraught at the drunk dockworker he has become; his older brother Charley, working for a corrupt union boss, convinced Malloy to deliberately lose a fight so the union boss could win more money. In an iconic, passionate monologue, he laments to Charley, “You don’t understand! I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody…instead of a bum, which is what I am.”
It’s only fitting that seven years later, Brando went on to star in and direct the Western One-Eyed Jacks, the actor’s only directing credit in his decades-long career. Brando gives a similarly tortured performance as the bank robber Rio, hell-bent on getting revenge on his former partner in crime Dad Longworth (Karl Malden). However, One-Eyed Jacks differs from the Westerns of its time: rather than placing Rio and Dad on opposing sides, Brando’s movie focuses on slowly dissolving the friendship between the two men until there is nothing left between them but bitter hatred.
The film opens in Sonora, Mexico, where Dad and Rio have gotten away with a bank robbery and are being doggedly pursued by Mexican authorities. After his horse gives out, Rio agrees to stay behind while Dad goes ahead a few miles to get a new mount for his partner. However, Dad ultimately decides to leave Rio behind and run off with the gold they both stole. Rio gets caught and sent to a Mexican prison, where he remains until his escape. Filled with rage at Dad’s betrayal, Rio traces his old partner to Monterey, California, where Dad is now a law-abiding sheriff with a Mexican wife and step-daughter.
To talk about One-Eyed Jacks, one first has to look at the film’s complicated production history. Paramount Pictures and Brando used—and subsequently got rid of—screenplay drafts from Rod Serling (the creator of The Twilight Zone) and Sam Peckinpah (who later went on to direct The Wild Bunch). The first director hired was in fact Stanley Kubrick, who was fired after production stalled in the late 1950s; after that, Brando—who was already producing and starring in the picture—decided to direct the film. However, even though talented filmmakers like Peckinpah and Kubrick helped prepare it, the final cut of One-Eyed Jacks is very much Brando’s picture; after all, when co-star Malden was asked who really wrote the story of One-Eyed Jacks years later, Malden answered, “Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.”
Even with stunning cinematography and terrific direction, One-Eyed Jacks is ultimately defined by Brando’s and Malden’s performances. Brando plays Rio as a manipulative, sly bank robber who still easily draws sympathy as we see how broken he is by his only friend’s betrayal. However, Malden’s supporting performance shines even brighter, as Dad is revealed to be haunted with repressed guilt over his decision to leave Rio behind. Just look at the scene at the beginning where he chooses to abandon Rio: Dad doesn’t say anything to himself, but we can easily tell from his pained expression looking back what his choice will be.
After Rio arrives, Dad’s guilt manifests in different ways—first through heavy drinking at a town fiesta, and then through aggrieved rage at Rio for sleeping with and subsequently lying to Louisa. Malden handles all these reactions without a beat and transforms what could have been a one-dimensional villain into a man who loses himself in his own anger and regret. There is even a slight Freudian pull between the two men: Malden’s Dad frequently calls Rio “kid” and his deputy Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens) acts as another son to Dad and a rival against Rio for Louisa’s—and by association, Dad’s—affection.
The conflict between Rio and Dad erupts in one of the greatest sequences I’ve seen in a Western film. After Rio kills a man for physically abusing his girlfriend, Dad ties him up in the town square and whips him several times for everyone to watch. The whipping could be for any of a few reasons (or perhaps all of them): Dad as the sheriff giving Rio justice, Dad as a stepfather attacking Rio for misleading Louisa, or Dad as a former friend beating Rio to justify his culpability at the choice he made to leave Rio behind. Whichever way you look at it, there’s no denying the ferocity of Malden’s and Brando’s performances. Dad says with a cold grin: “I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget.” Rio takes every lash of the whip with a grimace, never once crying out in pain. After Dad finishes, he leaves Rio with one last cruel act: breaking his gun hand and thereby stripping him of his masculinity. The scene serves both as an effective midpoint in the film and a set-up for a final confrontation between Rio and Dad, as their friendship now has—much like Rio’s right hand—been broken irreparably.
Besides the tension between Rio and Dad that fuels the film, One-Eyed Jacks has some of the most beautiful locations ever used in a Western. In particular, the coastline scenes are gorgeously shot with Technicolor and presented in widescreen VistaVision—the cinematographer for the film, Charles Lang, was later nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. More than anything, though, One-Eyed Jacks serves as the culmination of Brando’s 1950s acting career playing intense, brooding loners bristling with masculine anxiety. Terry Malloy of On the Waterfront is just one example; his characters in A Streetcar Named Desire and Julius Caesar also have striking similarities. After the critical and commercial failure of One-Eyed Jacks, Brando’s career didn’t pick up again until over a decade later in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Even after his revitalized popularity in the 1970s, Brando never revisited the character type that made him such a famous actor to begin with. Maybe he had become tired of that role. Maybe he had grown out of it. Regardless, Brando managed to perfect that archetype in One-Eyed Jacks, and his only film as a director remains one of my all-time favorites made during the Golden Age of Hollywood.