One-Eyed Jacks, the only film Marlon Brando ever directed, was Francis Ford Coppola’s choice of a film worthy of rediscovery when asked to write about one for the Locarno Film Festival project, Serious Pleasures. The project’s editor, Bill Krohn, is a friend of mine who granted me several of the titles to write about.The way it worked was a known director would pick a favorite film in need of rediscovery, write about why, and then I’d research and write about the film’s backstory. Previous examples posted include The Sand Pebbles, Point Blank, The Hill, etc. I was overjoyed to write about One-Eyed Jacks while still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank.
The underrated western had the following storyline: After robbing a Mexican bank, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) takes the loot and leaves his partner Rio (Brando) to be captured, but Rio escapes and searches for Dad in California, who has become sheriff of a coastal town and married a widow (Katy Jurado) and adopted her daughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Rio and his gang (Larry Duran, Ben Johnson and Sam Gilman) make plans to rob the town’s bank during a fiesta but dad has other plans.
Coppola’s thoughts on One-Eyed Jacks are below in italics, followed by my detailed essay on the film’s production. The images are from photographer Sam Shaw’s book of working with Brando during the film entitled Brando In The Camera Eye.
I know nothing about how Marlon Brando made One-Eyed Jacks, but I do know his intelligence, attention to detail and lack of caution. I saw the film when I was a film student, with my colleagues, and we were all impressed with its depth, its drive, its vitality, and the quality of the scenes, acting and spectacle. I have not seen the films for many years, but I was impressed with the scope of it. I liked especially the scenes on the beach, of which I understand there as another forty minutes that was lost.
Although it was released in 1961, One-Eyed Jacks was initiated in 1955, when Paramount Pictures offered the much sought-after Marlon Brando a western and agreed to give him complete autonomy to produce it himself. Having formed his own production company, Pennebaker [his mother’s maiden name], Brando partnered with Paramount in the venture and began looking for the right script.
Finding it proved difficult because he wanted to make a western that would break all the Hollywood cliches. He first tried writing it himself, working for several years with his close friend, Carlo Fiore, while completing his other commitments. Initially he wanted the film to be tongue-in-cheek, and gave it the working title of “A Burst of Vermillion” because the hero wore a colorful flowing scarf. Eventually, Brando submitted a 240-page draft that Paramount executives promptly turned down.
While he was considering other approaches (at one point he wanted to do a western version of The Count of Monte Cristo), Paramount producer Frank P. Rosenberg came a cross a book entitled The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider. Future film legend Sam Peckinpah wrote a screenplay which the usually hard-to-please Brando surprised everyone by accepting with no changes, even though everyone else involved thought it needed more work.
At the studio’s urging, Peckinpah set about re-working the script while Brando and his collaborators looked for a director. After seeing Paths of Glory (1957) and The Killing (1956), Brando signed Stanley Kubrick at about the time Sam Peckinpah was given the heave-ho. About the experience, Peckinpah later said, “Very strange man, Marlon. Always doing a number about his screen image, how audiences would not accept him as a thief, how audiences would only accept him as a fallen sinner — someone they could love.”
TV veteran Rod Serling then took a crack at the script, followed by Calder Willingham once Kubrick came aboard. Brando’s ideas about what he wanted may have seemed strange to Peckinpah but they were positively normal compared to the story conferences that ensued following the hiring of Stanley Kubrick. All parties involved met regularly at Brando’s Oriental-style Beverly Hills home for story conferences during which they were required to remove their shoes (Kubrick inexplicably went further by removing his pants.). The meetings were punctuated by a loud gong Brando struck whenever the arguments became too heated.
The gong was struck more frequently in the ensuing months, usually during arguments between Brando and Kubrick. when Kubrick suggested Spencer Tracy to play “Dad” Longworth, for example, he didn’t know Brando had already hired Karl Malden on the payroll. When Kubrick said, “I’ve read the script and I don’t even know what it’s about,” Brando told him: “It’s about me having to pay Karl Malden $25,000 a week.”
After Kubrick and Brando argued for the umpteenth time, Brando excused himself and flicked his head at Rosenberg to join him in the kitchen. The two men agreed that Kubrick had to go, but Brando turned down Rosenberg’s alternative suggestions, saying that he should direct the film himself. Rosenberg voiced reservations about the actor cutting his teeth on such a large undertaking but when Paramount agreed, Brando became the director. Part of the ambiguity surrounding the making of One-Eyed Jacks is whether Brando took over directing begrudgingly or whether he had intended to do so all along. In his recent autobiography he insists that he took the project on by default after every major Hollywood director turned it down.
Paramount announced that Kubrick had left to pursue his own project, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1962). When Carlo Fiore told him Brando would be directing, Kubrick said, “If he had hired another director it might have appeared that I was lacking in talent or was temperamental or something. But if Marlon directs it, it gets me off the hook…I can see Marlon’s point. You can’t really call a film your own if somebody else directs you.” Brando went further by having Rosenberg fire Willingham and bring veteran screenwriter Guy Trosper into the production.
To those in Hollywood who considered Brando difficult, especially with directors, it may have seemed just desserts to have him finally behind the camera. They had not counted on the Brando ingenuity that had made him a major force in Hollywood in the first place.
His approach to casting was unusual. During auditions he would tell an actor a phone call had been received that a close family member had been injured. If the actor gave Brando the response he was looking for, he got the part. For the romantic lead he preferred an unknown, adding, “No tits. I don’t want my leading lady’s heaving big boobs on that wide screen while I’m trying to get a point across to my audience” A young Mexican actress named Pina Pellicer, whose previous experience was a Spanish language production of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” filled the bill.
The rest of the cast was made up of Brando cronies, including Malden, a friend of Brando’s from New York named Sam Gilman, and a former pickpocket turned stuntman named Larry Duran, as well as western veterans Katy Jurado, Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson. In Johnson, an alumnus of John Ford’s stock company, Brando had a model to build his own character on. He engaged the former rodeo superstar in endless conversations so as to acquire his speech patterns and vocal inflections.
The film, which was supposed to begin shooting on September 15, 1958, finally started to roll on December 2 for a scheduled six weeks as all of Hollywood wondered if Brando could pull it off. Some saw an incident on the first day as an omen: As the director looked through the viewfinder to set up a shot in front of visiting reporters, he complained that the device was useless because it made everything look so small. Assistant director Chico Day quietly took the viewfinder from Brando, turned it around and gave it back to him. “If you think this is bad,” Brando joked, “wait till the fifth day of shooting.”
At the end of the first day, Brando was told something he would be hearing for the duration of the production — he was already behind schedule. In spite of these ongoing reminders, he had actually found himself enjoying the filmmaking process. In his autobiography he wrote, “One-Eyed Jacks is one of my favorite pictures…We shot it at Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs.”
The joy the usually moody actor felt was contagious. He offered extras $200 out of his own pocket for the best reaction onscreen. He was patient and sensitive with the nervous Pellicer, who was having trouble with the English dialogue; to help her register appropriate shock in one scene, he fired a gun off-camera. Sometimes his ingenuity would backfire. Larry Duran was supposed to look both shocked and angry in a pivotal scene. Before the take, Brando strolled over to have a talk; when the actor seemed at ease, Brando hauled off and hit him flush in the face, ran behind the camera and started to film. Unfortunately, he hit Duran so hard he knocked half the actor’s beard off.
For Brando it was all part of the learning process. “Some scenes I shot over and over again from different angles with different dialogue because I didn’t know what I was doing,” he admitted years later. “I also did a lot of stalling for time trying to work the story out in my mind while hoping to make the cast think I knew what I was doing.”
Since reporters were welcome on the set (Brando played host to everyone from Jacques Tati to a Japanese beauty queen), stories began to circulate, as Rosenberg told columnist Army Archerd, “This isn’t a movie. It’s a way of life.” If the director was trying to match a shot from the previous day after the weather changed, it would be reported that he kept the crew standing around while he waited to shoot the right wave. Similarly, it was reported that he had ruined days of shooting by getting drunk, when in fact he had tried to shoot a scene in which he was drunk by actually getting drunk. It was an experiment he had long wanted to try, but he ended up passing out and not getting the shots he needed.
Paramount chief Frank Freeman let it be known he was coming to the set and if he was not satisfied, he would pull the plug. Rosenberg was amazed at how nonplussed Brando was when he told him. The next day, after viewing the dailies, Freeman appeared, told Brando he was doing a good job, gave him a bear hug, and walked away. Brando caught Rosenberg’s eye and thumbed his nose.
Finally, on June 2, 1959, after six months of filming, One-Eyed Jacks wrapped. Originally budgeted at $1.6 million, the film had ended up costing $6 million, and an arduous editing job still lay ahead. While most directors shoot an average of 150,000 feet of film and print 40,000, Brando had exposed over a million feet.
What happened next depends again on which source you believe. Many Brando associates claim the film was taken away from him and chopped up to the point that he never again wanted to direct. Brando himself, although not happy with the final cut, has said, “I started editing it but pretty soon got sick of it and turned the job over to someone else. When he finished, Paramount said it didn’t like my version of the story. The studio cut the movie to pieces and by then I was bored with the whole project and walked away from it.”
At the studios’s behest Brando directed a day of reshoots in October of 1960, filming a new ending in which Pellicer’s character didn’t die. The 4 hour and 42 minute film was cut down to 2 hours and 20 minutes, and along the way whole subplots were removed, including one in which Brando’s character, recuperating in a Chinese settlement, rapes a young girl in a drunken stupor (The drunk scene that had given him so much trouble didn’t make it into the movie.). An ad-lib which Karl Malden inserted into every film he ever did must have been eliminated, too; One-Eyed Jacks is the only Malden film in which he the actor never says the name “Sekulovich,” which he had been obliged to change when he came to Hollywood.
When the film was released it received good reviews except for Brando’s own performance. He was quoted as saying at the time: “I didn’t feel it’s what I set out to do. In my film, everybody lied, even the girl. The only one who told the truth was the Karl Malden character. Paramount made him out to be the heavy, a liar. Now the characters in the film are black and white, not gray and human as I planned them.” As was the custom at the time, negative trims and outs were jettisoned so we will never see a director’s cut of One-Eyed Jacks.
Besides being the last film shot in the expensive VistaVision process, permitting better color definition on the wide screen, One-Eyed Jacks was indeed like no other western, and through the years personalities as different as actor Charles Grodin and political satirist Mort Sahl have spoken of it as their favorite film. Like Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese and David Lynch are fans and so is Monte Hellman, who has said that Fabio Testi’s poncho in China 9, Liberty 37 (1978) is a tribute to the poncho Marlon Brando wore in One-Eyed Jacks.
The film’s title implies the duality of human behavior. At one point Brando’s character tells Karl Malden, “You’re a one-eyed Jack around these parts. But I’ve seen the other side of your face.” The title could apply equally well to the Rashomon-like contradictions contained in printed accounts of the film’s production, where everything seems to depend on one’s point of view — or on what one wants to have seen — like a one-eyed Jack.
- Dwayne Epstein.