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Vol. LXIII, No. 27
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
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DVD Review

ALL SMILES: Everything looks deceptively convivial as Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), his wife (Katy Jurado) and stepdaughter Luisa (Pina Pellicier) host Dad’s old sidekick, Rio, the Kid (Marlon Brando), except that Rio is planning to seduce Luisa and kill Dad. Among the many beauties in “One-Eyed Jacks” is the scene where Luisa confesses to her mother. Pellicier’s performance is unforgettable and is marked by an all-too convincing vulnerability. In 1964, she took her own life.

Karl Malden and Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks: “We Had the Very Best of Each Other”

Stuart Mitchner

When asked who really wrote the story that became “One-Eyed Jacks,” Karl Malden reportedly answered: “Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.”

Karl Malden broke his nose twice playing high school football in Gary, Indiana, and the result made a natural supporting actor of him. Marlon Brando broke his nose during an informal boxing match in the boiler room of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre while he was acting in A Streetcar Named Desire. The play’s producer Irene Selznick begged him to have a cosmetic surgeon repair the damage. Tennessee Williams lamented the destruction of “those classic looks.” Brando refused to have the damage repaired, and years later Selznick admitted “that broken nose made his fortune. He was too beautiful before.”

The lifelong friendship between the actor who played the bestial Stanley Kowalski and the one who played his kinder, gentler pal, Mitch, began during the 1947-1949 run of Tennessee Williams’s play. Karl Malden died last Wednesday, July 1, at the age of 97, five years to the day Marlon Brando died, July 1, 2004, at the age of 80. They made three films together: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), and One-Eyed Jacks (1961). In his July 3 New York Times appreciation (“Not a Contender, but a Quiet Hero”), A.O. Scott focused on Karl Malden’s most familiar roles as the television pitch man for American Express, as Lt. Mike Stone in the TV series, The Streets of San Francisco, and of course in Streetcar and Waterfront, but with no mention of the epic western, One-Eyed Jacks, in which the “quiet hero” plays Dad Longworth, a deeply evil, deeply human antagonist in a genre overrun with one-dimensional heroes and villains.

One-Eyed Jacks can be called, with a reasonably straight face, Brando’s Citizen Kane. The first and only film he directed, it has been, like so many major works, misunderstood, vastly underrated, and both attacked and patronized for its excesses. Although Brando himself dismissed it at the time as “a pot-boiler,” it clearly meant a great deal more than that to him, as he makes clear in his 1994 autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me, where he calls it “one of my favorite pictures.” The depth of his feeling about the long, tortured production is obvious in the note to Karl Malden he penned on a photo of the two of them taken during the filming: “In remembrance of things that will never be past. We had the very best of each other. That’s a lot for our life.”

Brando’s directorial extravagance transformed a film scheduled for three months’ shooting at a cost of under two million into a six-million-dollar prodigy, thanks to a “footage fetish” worthy of Erich Von Stroheim, whose original print of Greed was ten hours long. Pressured by the studio front office, Brando managed to cut eight hours of film down to four and a half, still obviously not enough for Paramount, which seized the print, trimmed it to two hours and 21 minutes, and insisted on a “happy ending.” Brando’s disappointed ambitions for his film are evident in the strangely worded admission he made to Newsweek in the “pot-boiler” interview: “Any pretension I’ve had sometimes of being artistic is now just a long, chilly hope.” Quoted around the same time, Malden said, “If we’d made it the way Marlon wanted it made, like a Greek tragedy, it could have been a breakthrough western. It could have been a classic.” In time, Brando and Malden had to know that even in its butchered state, the film was destined to become very nearly everything “it could have been.”

Princeton Roots

If you trace the convoluted history of One-Eyed Jacks back far enough, you find yourself at the house on Princeton’s Southern Way where Charles Neider was living at the time of his death in 2001. Brando had been contemplating a western based on the plot of the ultimate epic of revenge, Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, when he “heard about” Neider’s novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), a reworking of the Pat Garrett/Billy the Kid story that the New York Times called “an excellent dramatization of the myths that circulate around the deeds of bygone gunmen.” The Twilight Zone’s creator Rod Serling was the first writer hired to fashion a scenario based on the book, which was then further developed by Calder Willingham, Sam Peckinpah, and, as Brando puts it in his autobiography, “finally Guy Trosper”: “He and I constantly improvised and rewrote between shots and setups, often hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute.” What emerged on film was closer to Monte Cristo than Hendry Jones and as much about Brando the actor as Citizen Kane was about Welles the actor. The film also transforms Malden’s character, Dad Longworth, into a towering adversary so hateful that audiences cheer when Brando’s character, Rio, finally kills him. (In Hendry Jones, a sympathetic Longworth kills his friend, the Kid, in the line of duty.)

Living in the Movie

While On the Waterfront and Streetcar Named Desire, both directed by Elia Kazan, are landmark Hollywood films featuring two of the most celebrated performances Brando ever gave (he and Malden both won Oscars, Malden for Streetcar, Brando for Waterfront), One-Eyed Jacks is one of those compulsively quotable movies, so crazed and quirky, so rich in style, detail, and language, mood and movement, that people who “know it by heart” take it into their lives to the point where kindred spirits recognize one another whenever their paths cross. Once the contact is made, these fanatics will begin reciting favorite passages, assuming the voices of the characters, and all but singing Brando’s lines.

The voice Brando develops for his character Rio, aka the Kid, has in it the distilled essence of every cowboy hero every kid who grew up in westerns has absorbed into the depths of his or her Saturday matinee soul. The fascination of Rio’s voice is in its subtle, plaintive, sometimes barely audible inflections, the way it lilts, slurs, and simmers as Brando makes it express his quiet, lonely, pathological quest for vengeance. He’s been stoking his hatred for five years in the prison in Sonora where he landed thanks to the perfidy of his old pal and partner in crime, Longworth, whose brisk, smug, pedestrian speech patterns that can seem almost Nixonian help create a harmony of opposites every time Malden’s Dad and Brando’s Rio converse.

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In the film’s first scenes, Dad’s a wild-haired, roaring, whoring, bank-robbing desperado leaping barefoot out of second-story windows. By the time the vengeful Rio encounters him again, his partner in crime’s hair is neat, he’s in a suit, with polished boots and a proper mustache, and he’s acquired a Mexican wife and a delicately lovely stepdaughter. Dad’s expecting the worst when Rio shows up, and Malden is brilliant in the way he sustains the wary Longworth’s tense posture of civility and measured speech patterns as he lies about the circumstances of his betrayal. Asked how he’s been, Rio grins amiably (“Sneakin’ by, Dad”) and claims that he’s had nothing but five years of “Rosemary and sweet whiskey ’n whoopin’ ’n yellin,’” when we know it was five years of hard labor and rats and maggots after Dad’s abandonment of him to a posse of Rurales. Against Rio’s no-flies-on-me playacting, Longworth’s slow, wary acceptance of the fact that they aren’t going to be “splattering each other all over” his front yard (as Rio puts it) helps make the scene where his old friend comes to dinner a classic example of the sort of teamwork Brando must have had in mind when he captioned the photo of them, “We had the very best of each other.”

What makes One-Eyed Jacks a phenomenon big enough to live in — along with the presence of actors like Ben Johnson as that “scum-suckin’ pig” Bob Emory, Slim Pickens as Dad’s terminally despicable deputy Lon, Katy Jurado as his stalwart wife, and Pina Pellicier as his virginal stepdaughter Luisa (until Rio deflowers her) — is the way one of the most charismatic turns of Brando’s career plays off the darkest and most ambitious characterization of Malden’s. Ultimately, in spite of Brando’s excesses and misadventures (he looked through the wrong end of a view finder when framing his first shot) as an actor-director engaged in an inspirational creative enterprise, he enjoyed himself and the film reflects it. In Songs My Mother Taught Me, he writes, “We shot most of it at Big Sur and on the Monterey peninsula, where I slept with many pretty women and had a lot of laughs,” adding that “Maybe I liked the picture so much because it left me with a lot of pleasant memories about the people in it … especially Karl Malden.”

Last Look

Karl Malden told an interviewer that he could “go anywhere” and “nobody would notice or bother” him, but if he was “with Marlon or Monty Cliff or even Jimmy Cagney,” his “anonymity” meant that he was “always the guy who had to go out and hail the taxi.” And he was also the guy some high school kids from Indiana accosted along with the then-unknown Paul Newman outside the Ethel Barrymore Theatre after one long-ago Saturday matinee. My friend and I had watched Malden play the embattled homeowner in The Desperate Hours, with Newman, who died last year, giving a virtuoso performance in the role Brando might have been offered if he hadn’t gone into movies. Malden and Newman signed our Playbills and since Malden is, like Michael Jackson, from Gary, Indiana, he said a few words about his hometown and our home state before he took his leave. One image I’ll never forget is of Karl Malden walking away from us toward Times Square. What impressed me was the way he sidestepped the crowded sidewalk to walk in the gutter. That may have been Karl Malden the anonymous Everyman, but to me he was a celebrity and that’s what celebrities did. Actors who have just signed Playbills don’t take the common route, thought I. They move at an angle from the herd. For quite some time I copied Malden, stepping off the curb, walking around the crowd, but after some near misses with bicycles and cabs, I’ve resigned myself to the relative safety of the sidewalk.

So, there he goes, Brando’s pal, destined to play that two-faced one-eyed Jack, Dad Longworth, a few years down the road. If I close my eyes, I can see him again, moving along hatless, around the crowd.

The best of several DVD versions of “One-Eyed Jacks” is from Platinum Video. Maybe Malden’s death will encourage Paramount to finally put out a Special Edition. Now if only someone could dig up the four hours of lost scenes in the prison and Japanese fishing village. Of the numerous books about Brando, the latest is Stefan Kanfer’s “Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando” (Knopf 2008), which I’ve consulted for this column. Malden’s “anonymity” quote is from an interview on Serbblog by M.V. Pejakovich.

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