A western like no other, One-Eyed Jacks combines the mythological scope of that most American of film genres with the searing naturalism of a performance by Marlon Brando, all suffused with Freudian overtones and male anxiety. In his only directing stint, Brando captures the rugged landscapes of California’s Central Coast and Mexico’s Sonoran Desert in gorgeous widescreen, Technicolor images, and elicits from his fellow actors (including Karl Malden and Pina Pellicer) nuanced improvisational depictions of conflicted characters. Though overwhelmed by its director’s perfectionism and plagued by production setbacks and studio re-editing, One-Eyed Jacksstands as one of Brando’s great achievements, thanks above all to his tortured turn as Rio, a bank robber bent on revenge against his one-time partner in crime, the aptly named Dad Longworth (Malden). Brooding and romantic, Rio marks the last, and perhaps the most tender, of the iconic outsiders Brando imbued with such remarkable intensity throughout his career.
Marlon Brando's reputation preceeds him. As a perfectionist and a die-hard practitioner of Stanislavski's "method" system of acting, in addition to being known as one of the best actors of all-time, he was also known for being extremely difficult to work with. The story of his only directorial effort, the very troubled production 'One-Eyed Jacks,' may be the best example of how difficult he was, but how great the rewards were that come of it.
Originally written by Sam Peckinpah for Stanley Kubrick to direct, as pre-production lagged on, the project was then passed over to Brando, who previously only planned to produce the film alongside his father. Featuring re-write after re-write and a delayed production that ran months too long and millions of dollars over budget, the film was originally slated for a September 1958 release, but didn't open until March 1961 – and even then, it was only after major reshoots and the studio taking the movie away from Brando during the editing process because of how long he was taking. We hear of troubled productions and studio interference frequently in modern times ('Rogue One: A Star Wars Story' and 'Suicide Squad' are two of the most notable comtemporary releases). In most cases, the final products of such films lack style, coherence and/or creativity, but in the case of 'One-Eyed Jacks,' the final cut is fantastic.
Until now, the only thing that I knew about 'One-Eyed Jacks' was that dozens of copies can be found in any given Walmart's discount DVD bin – that and the DVD's artwork is terrible. Fortunately, Criterion has done a wonderful job of repackaging and delivering this brand new remaster of the film, which quickly entered my Top 5 All-Time Westerns list right after seeing it.
Marlon Brando plays the film's anti-hero lead, Rio, an outlaw who never meant to do harm to anyone, but certainly didn't have any problems knocking off banks for his own personal gain. The film kicks off with a drawn-out sequence that takes its times building up to the movie's main story. Rio and two friends hold up a bank in Mexico, after which a group of Federales track them down. One of the criming trio goes down in a blaze of glory, while Rio and his mentor – nicknamed "Dad" (Karl Malden) – get away from the village and into the desert hills. When the two finally look like they put some distance between them, a Federale bullet takes out Rio's horse, forcing the him to hop on Dad's as they make their way up a steep ridge and hold their ground. With only one horse, they decide to send Dad to a nearby ranch so he can steal and/or buy a horse for Rio, but when Dad gets to safety, his survival instincts kick in. Choosing flight over fight, Dad keeps riding and abandons Rio, who is eventually arrested and imprisoned.
Five years later, when Rio escapes from the Sonoran prison, with rage boiling his blood, he heads out to find Dad and get revenge. It's in Monterey, California where he finds him living a clean and crime-free life. Dad settled down, married a beautiful and kind Mexican woman, and took on the roles of step-father and town sheriff. Without revealing his revenge card, Rio comes to Dad and plays ignorant to knowing about the betrayal. He formulates a perfect plan to kill Dad, but hits a brick wall when her starts falling for Dad's stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer).
'One-Eyed Jacks' is ambitious. It's more than a simple tale of revenge; it's a deep character study that takes its time. Each action and every line is perfectly tailored to serve a very specific purpose. Despite the troubled production, the final product is a masterpiece. All of the delays and expenses were worth it. Although it may have been a financial and critical flop at the time of its release, it's now praised and viewed with fondness - hence Criterion adopting it into the prestigious Collection. If you've never seen Brando's classic western, coming from someone who also just barely discovered it, you've got to. 'One-Eyed Jacks' is a must-see.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'One-Eyed Jacks' has received an upgrade that's much better than most, although Criterion didn't technically perform the remaster. The video and audio restoration was overseen by The Film Foundation and celluloid purists Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg in preparation for a 2016 Cannes Film Festival screening. In partnership with Universal, Criterion received distribution rights for this version, for which they also compiled a new set of special features. The film and all extras are contained on a Region A BD-50 disc in a standard clear Criterion keepcase with #844 on the spine. Included is a booklet with release notes and an essay by Howard Hampton. Nothing plays before the main menu.
With a new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, 'One-Eyed Jacks' looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Having the best video quality of any transfer of a film of its age, the only disappointment with it is that Criterion hasn't made it available on UHD although it was remastered in 4K.
There isn't a lick of damage in this film. Not one scratch. Not a single verticle run. No specks. No jutter. Nothing. Aside from a natural dusting of celluloid grain, the visual presentation is 100% clean and clear. Each frame is gorgeous.
Colors are vibrant and visually appealing. Blue skies and red clothing pop on-screen. Even the color of the opening title cards shine. Through all the many locations, sets and lighting, contrast is consistent. Details are strongly abundant in the majority of the scenes. Clothing and skin textures are apparent. The only waivering aspect of the detail are some shots that were obviously recorded slightly out of focus. Those shots have a very slight haze and glow that wipes out details and definition. Fortunately, they are few and far between.
While several scenes reveal very slight noise in the skies, there are no instances of banding, aliasing or artifacts.
In the same way that the video quality of 'One-Eyed Jacks' doesn't show its age, the audio quality also doesn't feature any aging flaws. Unfortunately, being a mono track, it doesn't have the opportunity to wow as much as the video does.
The uncompressed LPCM monoaural track is free of distortion, warping, warbling, inconsistency or shakiness. It's never blown-out or uneven. The different elements are mixed harmoniously with one another so there's always a dominant layer that never step on the others' toes. The best element of all is the fantastic original score, which is oft allowed to play loudly. Being a grand and sweeping score, its very impressive.
The only improvement that this mix could have used would be a multi-channel mix, but it's just fine as-is.
Upon discovering the greatness of the western genre for myself, I blew through all of the classics and made my own favorites list. Along the way, I somehow missed 'One-Eyed Jacks,' but having now discovered it, it's easily in my Top 5. Structurally and character-wise, 'Jacks' functions unlike any other western I've seen. It takes the blockbuster genre and makes it work like a multi-faceted film. Just as interesting and entertaining as the film itself is the history of its very troubled production. Criterion slapped on several special features that tell the story behind the film, each of which give a knownledge that only makes the film better. The Film Foundation is responsible for the top-notch video and audio transfers that collectively make this one of Criterion's very best Blu-ray releases. I highly recommend adding 'One-Eyed Jacks' to your collection. It's worth the blind-buy.