Friday, June 14, 2013

The Importance of "Dad"


(Excerpts from an essay I'm writing on the 1961 movie "One-Eyed Jacks," for a planned ebook on the Western film genre.)

Revenge is the driving force of "One-Eyed Jacks." Outlaw Marlon Brando is abandoned by his partner, Karl Malden, and is sent to prison, from which he eventually escapes. Malden, "Dad Longworth," has now become a respectable lawman in a prosperous California town.

The key character isn't Brando, but Malden, and his easy switcheroo to the other side of the fence.


This is a movie of levels-- a movie which can be approached on several levels.

On one level are the surface attributes which make it an outstanding Western. The revenge plot. The Big Sur scenery. Its breakthrough tough dialogue-- the first Western with realistic expletives. Superb performances from the supporting cast, notably Ben Johnson and Katy Jurado.

On another level there's Brando, star and director. America's greatest actor on what was surely an ego project.

On another, higher level though are the performances of Karl Malden and Pina Pellicer. This is a movie defined by its acting.

If Ben Johnson gives a nuanced performance, what can be said about Karl Malden? The facets shown are endless. It's as complex a performance as you'll find in American film. Ever shifting; human and chameleon. The facets of his personality are displayed through his relationship to Brando's Rio-- there's crackling intensity between the two of them. Malden's betrayal of his friend at the outset of the story scars both men.

Karl Malden is the "One-Eyed Jacks" of the title. He played the priest in "On the Waterfront" with utter sincerity and believability. Here, a switch has been flipped. When he stares at Brando with his malevolent blue eyes, we don't know what he's thinking or where he's going. On which side he'll come down, good or evil. We don't know whether he likes Brando or hates him, or both emotions at the same time. His unpredictability makes him scary.

Pina Pellicer's character also is revealed through her poignant interactions with Rio. The scenes are emotionally tough. One or two of them are heartrending. Pina Pellicer's performance is stunning. Intelligent; sensitive; indefinably beautiful. Pellicer is by no means classically beautiful yet at the same time, everything about her is beautiful. Starkly and hauntingly beautiful. Her naked humanity, perhaps.


The Western canvas can be a playground for many aesthetic happenings. A place to find art's "truth and beauty." Among these, the Western movie screen can be a kind of enormous stage for experiments in acting. In portraying theme and finding meaning through subtleties of acting.

Brando understood acting as few have. One wonders if he brought that understanding to his direction. Maybe he knew what he was doing when he took over the project. (From Stanley Kubrick, of all people.) The performances he draws from his two co-stars are as multidimensional as the film.


"One-Eyed Jacks" is overlong as "Hamlet" is overlong.

To overanalyze the film is to see in Brando's character parallels to Hamlet. The need to kill a father figure. The delay in attempting to do so. The Ophelia figure, who the hero abuses.

Which begs the question: How much did Marlon Brando as director know what he was doing?

Was Brando always smarter than he looked? Throughout his life, didn't he wear different guises, onstage and off?  "I am but mad north-by-northwest." "Hamlet" is the story of an actor.

Was Brando not playing Hamlet his entire career?


Feminists and academics should love this movie. In few others are men so universally portrayed as tricksters and predators. In this instance, crude white men who prey primarily on Mexican women. At the outset of the movie, the two leads are shown on an incursion into Mexico to rob banks. We have the themes of Imperialism and racism as well.

Despite the p.c. surface, there's a reason for feminists not to like this film.

The plot concerns a fight between domesticated and undomesticated men. On one side are the rogues. Outlaws. A quartet of them, including Brando's Rio and Ben Johnson, ride hard to rob a town's bank. The bank represents civilization's prosperity. It's also a metaphor for something else.

The gang agrees, before they begin the journey, that the bank would be easy to get into, except for one huge obstacle: "Dad."

The gang is wild, free, and undisciplined. Their alliance is one of convenience. They spend much of their time fighting among themselves. Rio's credo is that no one, not even his partners, has the right to know what he's doing, or restrict his behavior in any fashion.

When they arrive in town, Rio finds former ally and mentor Dad Longworth a changed man.

Dad has engaged in a trade-off. He's accepted the benefits of domesticity. In return, as Sheriff, he provides control and protection for the town. His wild, brutal past is an asset. He knows male behavior, and has the toughness necessary to control it. That he combines strength with intelligence allows him to dominate the town.

His shrewdness is shown in his making potential problem child Lon (Slim Pickens) his deputy. Lon's natural aggression is channeled. Dad playfully dominates the rest through the force of his personality.

The gang arrives when the town is on the verge of a festival. The festival, like all festivals since primitive times, celebrates prosperity, and more subtly, fertility. The town is productive and fertile because the presence of the strong man protects the women. He keeps the men in line.

This point is made explicit when Dad is momentarily indisposed. The town loses control. Respectable citizens like Howard are shown to be one step away from madness. The town is one step away from chaos.

The next morning Dad reasserts his authority over the town, in brutal fashion.

His problem with Rio/Brando goes deeper. During the night, Rio has gotten into a "bank" under Dad's personal protection: stepdaughter Pina Pellicer.

The obvious question raised is one that feminists wouldn't wish to confront: Is a patriarch necessary? In a brutal and chaotic world, could the town survive and prosper without him? Is the father figure-- "Dad"-- needed for the very existence of civilization?

(AN ASIDE: We're back at Pamela Paul's question: "Are Fathers Necessary?")

Given the social changes our own civilization is undergoing, the diminishing and destruction of the male authority figure, I'd say we're about to find out.

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