One-Eyed Jacks (1961): Good and Evil is in the Cards

one eyed jacks Brando Malden

One-Eyed Jacks acts as a bit of an anomaly. It was originally meant to be helmed by Stanley Kubrick. Instead, Marlon Brando himself oversaw direction — his one and only time in the director’s chair. The results are as vibrant and totally Brando as they are messy, devolving into something more than indicative of its creative nucleus.

To its credit, the movie, set in the 1880s, earns its world more than Viva Zapata because there is an understanding of cultural differences inherent in the landscape. It does not try to insensitively blur ethnic lines with whites playing Mexicans.

Even Brando’s sense of Zapata, although plaintive, potentially falls prey to this blind spot. But One-Eyed Jacks is as much about the meldings of the cultures as anything. Yes, there are still obvious hierarchies and spheres of existence.  Chinese, for instance (represented by Philip Ahn), are tertiary characters, and the Latino cast is certainly secondary to the Caucasian leads, but this is indicative of the structures in place. There is some attempt at character definition that goes beyond menial stereotypes.

The scenes that strike me, in particular, are between Katy Jurado and Pina Pillicener. Instead of copping out, making these two women converse in English for the benefit of an English-speaking audience, there’s enough confidence in the emotion engendered (even if your Spanish is not up to par to catch every word). It feels wholly honest compared to typical Hollywood convention.

But, in order to explain this world, we must start 5 years earlier with a couple of outlaws. Before the days of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) are a pair of womanizing bandits robbing banks all over Mexico, living a merry life of crime constantly on the run from the authorities.

It does eventually catch up to them as they are left stranded out in the desert with Federales hot on their heels. The fateful choice to send Dad off to find horses while Rio stays behind winds up altering their steps for good. Rio gets captured and shackled up in a local prison with his compadre Chico (Larry Duran). Dad rides off to start a fresh life for himself without any kind of penance being paid. Their divergent roads spell out what the future must hold.

Even when it lumbers along or willfully bides its time — for instance, watching a couple thugs waiting it out on a porch by the sea — the color scheme as captured by Charles Lang is gorgeous. It’s one of the film’s persistent attributes though it has a handful of others.

My mind drift’s to a shot far later in the story when Brando rides his horse past a gnarled tree right out of Sleepy Hollow. Unbeknownst to him, one of his faithful companions lies shot to death only meters away, and he is riding toward doom — for crimes, crimes he didn’t even commit.

Brando often surrounds himself with interesting folks. Some are tried and true — allies he’s been able to rely on for a long time — like Karl Malden (reunited again after A Streetcar Name Desire and On the Waterfront). And yet even the likes of Katy Jurado and a promising international newcomer like Pina Pellicer bring their own sense of sober candor to the picture. She’s a striking contrast to her leading man even if they share a core sadness.

one eyed jacks

The Ben Johnsons and Sam Gilmans round out the assemblage of talent with the gruff essence of imposing masculinity. Slim Pickens, on the side of law and order, is his own version, equally snide and opportunistic — creating the kind of evocative characterizations that westerns thrive on.

It’s this kind of duality — represented foremost by Brando and Malden, then accentuated through their posses — causing one to mull over the meaning of One-Eyed Jacks. The phraseology is not something that gets used too often today. But its origins are from the profile image on a playing card. In this context, it comes to symbolize people who show off their “good side” while conveniently hiding all their faults through duplicity.

Rio is a pathological liar even in the context of people he likes. He knows no other way to go about it, holding onto his anger and letting it direct him toward revenge. But in one sense, he’s straightforward because he’s always taut with tension and the kind of angst Brando built a dynasty out of. There’s always sensitivity on the other side.

Dad is a jovial character. He’s made a life for himself and he has “reformed,” now on the side of the law. But the stroke of fortune that allowed him to get away from the federales 5 years ago and make a new life for himself, has never really left him. He’s a wheedling even deceptive fellow with a merciless, self-serving edge. He’s a man to be feared because he has popular opinion and legitimacy on his side. It’s a far more terrifying prospect.

Here’s yet another western playing with the conventions of heroics and villainy with this newfound muddied and greying sense of morality as Peckinpah would continually work through in the ensuing years. Because the final act is about a man sentenced to be hanged and the root of justice behind it remains totally immaterial. Brando is cast as a local villain even as he remains part victim to the audience. Malden and his crew are symbols of justice — swift and sure — with at least a couple of caveats.

Up until the final shots, One-Eyed Jacks remains a fairly engaging morality play rooted in a host of fine performances and its provocative imagery. Given the circumstances — how an inexperienced Brando captured exorbitant amounts of footage and remained indecisive in his directorial decisions — it feels like a bit of a marvel we got something as passable as this. Its imperfections only make its virtues all the more fortuitous.

3.5/5 Stars