April 3, 2019

Celebrating Marlon Brando’s “One-Eyed Jacks” and the Novel Behind It

By Stuart Mitchner

With Town Topics set to print on Marlon Brando’s 95th birthday, I’ve been riding the wild west of cyberspace to Odessa, the birthplace of Charles Neider, who wrote the novel that inspired One-Eyed Jacks, possibly the most quotable western ever made and the only film Brando ever directed.

You might think the writer of such a book would hail from the Odessa in Texas where there’s an eight-foot-tall statue of a jackrabbit downtown. In fact, Charles Neider was born in January 1915 in the Russian city where Pushkin wrote part of Eugene Onegin and Eisenstein shot the cinematic landmark of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps for his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

When Neider died in Princeton in July 2001, the New York Times remembered him as a prolific essayist, novelist, nature writer and a devoted Twain scholar who edited, arranged, and introduced The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The first time Neider read The Innocents Abroad, which is included in his edition of The Complete Travel Books, he must have smiled to find that Twain had “not felt so much at home for a long time” as he had when he visited Odessa, which “looked just like an American city …. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!”

Mentioned in passing in the Times obit was Neider’s book The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), which novelist Wirt Williams suggests “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written” in his introduction to the 1972 paperback edition. Almost 40 years later, a July 2010 article in The Independent claims that Hendry Jones is “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses, and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.”

On Bone-Bred Affinities

That Williams’s introduction to Hendry Jones fails to cite its connection to Brando’s 1961 film may be a deliberate oversight because by 1972 One-Eyed Jacks was not yet recognized as a cinematic phenomenon, Brando’s Citizen Kane, or it may be because Williams was presenting Neider as “a literary artist and not a professional fabricator of ‘westerns.’” No doubt this is why he makes note of Neider’s Black Sea birthplace on the way to suggesting that a “bone-bred affinity with Central Europe and the Middle East” helped produce “this masterpiece of the American West” by freeing Neider from “the usual, fatal preconditioning” of the genre.

Reading Hendry Jones, I had a feeling that the author shared my “bone-bred affinity” with western movies in all their dusty glory. My love-at-first-sight response to One-Eyed Jacks, which I’ve seen at least a dozen times, dates back to the Saturday matinee days in Bloomington, Indiana when after a long afternoon of Lash LaRue, Roy Rogers, and Red Ryder, I’d ride home at a two-legged gallop, my ears echoing with the thunder of posses, careening stage coaches, and the whine of bullets. While my reading at the time included Clarence Mulford’s Hopalong Cassidy books, where the characters used real swear words like g—d–n, the book I loved was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Being one of the few kids in the audience who didn’t shout “Mush!” every time a cowboy kissed or sang to a pretty girl, I was especially taken with the romance of Tom and Becky in the cave. Maybe Neider’s fondness for Mark Twain began when he was a boy growing up in a new land and maybe he too visited Tom Sawyer’s cave and spent a night at the Mark Twain Hotel in Hannibal, Missouri. My boyhood tolerance for romance could also explain why I’m fine with the way love saves the day in One-Eyed Jacks. Not so film critic Howard Hampton, who refers to “true love or some such drivel” in his essay on the film, one of the special features in the Criterion Collection’s recent digital restoration.

The Flavor of the Film

In her 2014 biography, Brando’s Smile, Susan L. Mizruchi refers to Neider’s novel as the “credited source” of One-Eyed Jacks, noting that the author “shared Twain’s passion for the West.” While she’s right that the book was “more palimpsest than foundation” in that it helped Brando and his writers “imagine a story and a collection of voices,” Neider’s most significant contribution to the flavor of the film (along with the Monterey setting that provides all those dramatic shots of waves crashing on the shore as Brando’s Byronic hero heals his wounds) is in the  vernacular ambiance conveyed in the very names of the characters, Dad Longworth, Bob Emory, Lon Dedrick, Modesto, and of course the Kid, known in Brando’s version as Rio to everyone but his mortal enemy Dad. For the character of Longworth’s deputy, the abominable Lon, Neider creates a completely unredeemable specimen of dissolute humanity whose comeuppance in the film still warms the hearts of those of us who have lived and still live in it. As Mizruchi points out, the book’s clearest contribution to the plotline of the movie is in “the protracted scene of the Kid’s jailing and subsequent escape,” a sequence in which Lon has a significant role.

Played with gleeful hatefulness by Slim Pickens, Lon is a lesser evil next to the profoundly corrupt Dad Longworth (Karl Malden’s performance of a lifetime), the object of the Kid’s long-festering vengeance after five years rotting in a Sonora prison. Pickens makes Lon so obnoxious that Brando finds him finally unworthy of death, preferring to have Rio outfox him with an unloaded pistol and bring him moaning and snivelling to his knees, begging for his life. Neider is less merciful. His Lon is grossly carnal, literally stinks (“I reckon it was some trouble he had with his kidneys or bladder”), and his killing, like other killings in Hendry Jones, is described from more than one angle, and with a ferocity more graphic than any act of violence in the film:

“And then the Kid pulled the trigger and the hammer came flipping down on the charge and the charge blew the nine buckshot down the long barrel and at the muzzle’s end they scattered and all nine hit Lon on the left side of his stomach, shredding it, and it was like nine white-hot pokers going inside him and he screamed a long highpitched scream and screamed again as he was falling and grabbed at his stomach and tried to scream but couldn’t and fell to his knees and pitched onto his face and lay in a pool of blood, thinking he was out on the sea in a skiff in a high wind under the overhanging rocks smelling the stink of the seawolves.” From there it goes amazingly on, from pulpy echoes of vintage Mickey Spillane into territory closer to Hemingway or Faulkner as the dying man dreams “mixed up dreams” he was too tired to straighten out. As if to make up for giving him such a “written” death scene, Neider has the Kid blow part of Lon’s head off with the other nine buckshot, break the gun against the ground and throw the pieces onto the body, saying, “Here Lon here’s your shotgun.”

Brando’s Direction

After a recent viewing of the Criterion DVD of One-Eyed Jacks, I was reminded of how much Hugo Friedhofer’s score made me long for Ennio Morricone, whose music is the radiant essence of Sergio Leone’s visionary westerns. In spite of Friedhofer’s often overblown scoring of action scenes and incidental narrative, however, his love theme makes an inspired complement to Brando’s sensitive handling of Pina Pellicier’s Luisa, Longworth’s adopted Mexican daughter and Rio’s salvation.

There’s a hint of Brando’s directorial style in the taped recordings he made during the development of the script, one of the special features of the Criterion set. His voice is soft, intimate, suggestive, casually profane, as it might have been when he was directing Pellicier, and then close to being in character, as when he uses Rio’s line (“Just passin’ through, Dad”) during a proposed encounter with Longworth that didn’t make it into the finished film. In the Criterion featurette, The Making of One-Eyed Jacks, it’s suggested that Rio’s style of moving and speaking owes a lot to Ben Johnson, who plays the classic bad guy Bob Emory with earthy finesse.

A Sizeable Effort

The notion that One-Eyed Jacks could be called Brando’s Citizen Kane is implicit in Brando’s Smile when Mizruchi suggests that he “must have felt at times that he was taking a stab at immortality.” She quotes from a letter written during the filming, in which he calls the film “one of the sizeable efforts of my life,” one to which he’s given “two and a half years of worry, anxiety, striving, discouragement, hopes, and work, work, work.”

In a July 8, 2009 column on the occasion of Karl Malden’s death, I wrote about One-Eyed Jacks in similar terms and quoted Malden’s response when he was asked who really wrote the story that became the film: “Marlon Brando, a genius in our time.” Both Brando’s Smile and the Criterion DVD are in the collection of the Princeton Public Library. Although The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones is not available there, the library has Charles Neider’s edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959), his edition of A Tramp Abroad (1977), and his collection, The Outrageous Mark Twain (1987). Back in 2002, when I was in charge of the Friends book sale, we received a donation from Neider’s library, which I picked up in person from his daughter Susan, who, as far as I know, still lives here, and is an author herself.