Retrospective: One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

A fabulous “cinematic” wall.

by Iñaki Oñate

In this year’s Cannes and New York Film Festivals, Martin Scorsese presented a restored version of the classic western One-Eyed Jacks (1961), directed by film legend Marlon Brando. It’s the best restoration to date according to Scorsese, who wanted to recover, or reproduce to some degree, the original size and quality of the Vista Vision format, which was used during the 50s in such movies as The Ten Commandments (1956) and Vertigo  (1958).

In his introduction, Scorsese drew a parallelism between this format and the IMAX screen size to make the younger audiences of today understand and imagine a time in which movies were commonly made for screens the size of an enormous wall (a fabulous “cinematic” wall) and venues would hold audiences up to the thousands.

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This western was the last film to be shot in the Vista Vision format and it proved to be a bridge between the classical way of conceiving filmmaking and a more modern and unorthodox approach to the western genre. The rebellious reputation of its director/main protagonist, complemented with the yellow journalism surrounding his life, tainted the film long before people got a chance to see it in a movie theater and although the movie tanked when it was originally released back in 1961 it has since gained a cult following.

Directors such as Scorsese himself and Steven Spielberg revere Brando’s directorial execution. The idea for the film was developed by none other than Sam Peckinpah and it was originally going to be directed by Stanley Kubrick, who at the time was in his Kirk Douglas epic love-hate production phase. Eventually the screenplay would be finished by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham. Marlon Brando, who initially was only interested in playing the main character, decided to direct the picture.

He is a landmark not only in film history but in popular culture. The raw intensity, the looks, the irreverence, the originality of his performances, the decadence of his body and career, all these elements contributed to change film forever and also to the forging of the tragedy and the myth surrounding his life and talent.

one2Ifyou look closely into his filmography youwill find that his movies are a perfect analogy of who he was or what he was going through internally at the time of making them. To sum it up, from the time he did A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) up until Apocalypse Now (1979) you can see the shy boy from Nebraska grow, rise, turn into the Godfather of film culture and eventually go mad and withdrawn himself into isolation, in his Tahitian island retreat waiting for the errand boy to come and collect the bill.

One-Eyed Jacks came into a particular time of his life. In the 50s he had consolidated himself as the biggest movie actor in the world but a particular personal tragedy eclipsed all the joys of success and lust. His mother, the only person who had encouraged his sensitive acting side, died while he was making On the Waterfront (1954). After that he basically stopped caring that much for the industry and his idea of directing was influenced is some part by this feeling of disbelief. He had become a truly indomitable force and felt that there was no one out there but himself that could tame that rage and frustration.

He formed his own production company Pennebaker Productions (named after his mother’s maiden name) and made the film – the first and last time he would direct a movie. In this western, he portrays a bank robber named Rio “The Kid” who is betrayed by his partner in crime Dad Longworth (played by Karl Malden), a sort of paternal figure for Rio. After five years in prison, Rio escapes and sets out to find Dad and take revenge. Brando hated his abusive and alcoholic father and it’s no coincidence that he embraced this story with such interest.

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Brando’s character Rio deals with a strange ambivalence. He wants his revenge and yet he can’t help but feeling close to that father figure. Leaving behind any light psychoanalytic interpretation the movie shows the powerful and sharp aesthetic eye of Brando as a director. His decisions on where to put the camera and how to tell the story are not random but precise and as irreverent as his acting style. Just take a look at the initial sequence of the film where Brando is eating a banana as he is assaulting a bank.

Maybe it’s a good time to look back into the past, into a time where films and films stars rose as high as walls but they were walls of projected wisdom and human values and not of nonsense and bigotry.


IñaIñaki Oñate / Writer (Quito, Ecuador – 1988) Iñaki resides in Buenos Aires, where he studied film directing at Universidad del Cine. His short films have been part of the official selection at the New York, La Habana and Cannes festivals.  He’s currently developing his first feature film with his own independent production company, Undergofilms. He also works in music and art illustration.

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