First-time Director Shows Inexperience
in Gorgeous Disaster
by John Francis

1. One Eyed Jacks PosterThere were a number of big Hollywood names attached to Marlon Brando’s first and only directorial effort, “One Eyed Jacks”: Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, and Rod Serling, none of whom made the final cut.

The convoluted path to get the film made only adds to Brando’s own complex and convoluted legacy. The great British director Kubrick (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) was initially set to helm the film, with another great director, Sam Peckinpah (“Wild Bunch”) set to write the screenplay on a first draft written by Serling of “Twilight Zone” fame.

Brando then fired Kubrick, who had fired Peckinpah, and brought in Calder Willingham, who was also fired, leading to Guy Trosper, who worked on the script with Brando, becoming the director. Film historians think that was Brando’s intention all along. When actor Karl Malden, who played Brando’s nemesis in the film, Dad Longworth, was asked who really wrote the film, his reply was: “There is one answer to your question — Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.”

Tracy and Fonda were both considered by Kubrick for the role of Dad, but once he was gone, Malden, who was on salary with Brando’s production company, was hired.

2. Brando DirectingSo, with Brando starring and directing, the film finally got off the ground, but Brando’s inexperience behind the camera would cause untold problems for the production.

The filming was supposed to take three months with a budget of $1.8 million. Brando spent six months and $6 million, shooting a million feet of film, six times the average film of the time. Brando also used Paramount’s new Vista-Vision process, which was much more expensive to shoot. His rough cut was eight hours, which he trimmed to five hours, then three. A frustrated Paramount took over and cut it down to its final length, 141 minutes.

Filming began at the end of 1958, but it was not completed until the fall of 1960 and released on March 31, 1961 in New York City.

Brando not only shot an inordinate amount of film, he was indecisive and methodical, pondered each camera setup while 120 members of the crew sat around doing nothing and would sit for hours waiting for the ocean waves to change for that perfect shot.

One story from the set had Brando getting drunk to film a scene in which his character Rio was drunk, but he got too drunk to act or direct, so he insisted on doing it again the next day. The following day, he again got too drunk to act or direct.

3. Brando and MaldenBrando talked about directing the film in a 1975 interview with Rolling Stone magazine: “You work yourself to death. You’re the first one up in the morning … I mean, we shot that thing on the run, you know, you make up the dialogue the scene before, improvising, and your brain is going crazy.”

Despite the studio taking over the film, never a good thing, the mixed reviews and all the turmoil and confusion on the set, “One Eyed Jacks” has fared well over the years. Many critics lament the fact that Brando never directed again, even though he showed flashes of brilliance in his own tortured way on “One Eyed Jacks.”

In 2016, Universal Pictures undertook a 4K digital restoration in partnership with The Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg. Scorsese did the introduction and film critic Howard Hampton contributed a lengthy essay ”One-Eyed Jacks: Zen Nihilism” who called the film:

“A muted riot of sweaty brows and deadly stares, star turned director Brando’s ominous, custom-tailored western ‘One Eyed Jacks’ belongs to a line of conflicted, half-mad productions that appear doomed from the outset yet turn into more impactful film experiences than a barrel of cautiously wrought, fastidiously executed “classics’.”

4. Brando in One Eyed JacksThe Criterion Collection called it “a western like no other, combining the mythological scope of that most American of genres with the searing naturalism of a performance by Marlon Brando — all suffused with Freudian overtones and masculine anxiety. Though the production was overwhelmed by its director’s perfectionism and plagued by setbacks and studio reediting, ‘One-Eyed Jacks’ stands as one of Brando’s great achievements, thanks above all to his tortured turn as Rio, a bank robber bent on revenge against his former partner in crime.”

Film writer Steven Schneider included the film among the “1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”

Brando wasn’t so enamored of Paramount’s cut of his film, but by this time he had probably had enough of it anyway.

“Now, it’s a good picture for them (Paramount),” he’s quoted as saying when it was released, “but it’s not the picture I made … now the characters in the film are black-and-white, not gray-and-human as I planned them.”

Brando’s eight hours of footage has been lost to time, but it would have been fascinating to see that version of the film.

Watch One Eyed Jacks on now!

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