THE BOOTLEG FILES: “ONE-EYED JACKS”

When Marlon Brando recently passed away, most of the news coverage concentrated on his brilliant performances in the classic films “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951), “On the Waterfront” (1954), and “The Godfather” (1972). Less attention was given to the Brando film which is among the visible titles in the Bootleg Files: the 1961 Western “One-Eyed Jacks.” This oater is noteworthy not only because it is the only time Brando directed a movie, but because of its bizarre production history.

Paramount Pictures arranged for Brando’s services in 1958, but from the beginning “One-Eyed Jacks” was a troubled production. Rod Serling and Sam Peckinpah created different screenplay drafts, but Brando rejected them both. Stanley Kubrick was slated to direct the film but he abruptly withdrew during pre-production; whether he was fired or quit depends on which version of the story you believe. Incredibly, Brando decided to step in and direct the film, even though he had no previous experience behind the camera and never expressed any interest in helming a movie. Shooting began in late 1958.

“One-Eyed Jacks” is basically a revenge Western, with Brando as a jailed robber who busts out of the hoosegow and seeks payback on his one-time double-dealing partner, played by Karl Malden (who had previously worked with Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront”). Malden has since gone legit, to a degree, by becoming the sheriff of a small town on the California coast. Malden also married a wealthy Mexican woman (the beautiful Katy Jurado) with a charming teenage daughter (Pina Pellicer). Naturally, Brando decides to have a fiesta with the young Latina, creating all sorts of problems.

But back to the California coast. “One-Eyed Jacks” is the very rare Western which incorporates the Pacific Ocean into the story. Brando was hypnotized by the beauty of the coastline and brought the production to the town of Carmel, where he shot a ridiculous quantity of footage of waves and sand. At times “One-Eyed Jacks” feels like “Gunsmoke” meets “Beach Blanket Bingo” because of its location. Brando was equally smitten with the young Pina Pellicer and worked extensively to bring out the level of performance he felt she could create. It was rumored that Brando’s infatuation with the Mexican actress was more than professional, and her suicide three years after the film’s release only fueled speculation on the exact nature of their relationship.

Paramount was initially aghast at the cost and pace of the “One-Eyed Jacks” production, which went way over schedule and far over budget. Yet Brando’s star power convinced the studio heads that the gamble was worthwhile. In fact, the shooting stretched so long that Karl Malden was known to joke that his luxurious Hollywood home was “The House That ‘One-Eye Jacks’ Built” because of the extended salary he earned for his time on the set.

When Brando finally finished principal photography, he set about editing what he created. This lasted for a reported six months. By now Paramount’s executives were more than a little alarmed, and their fears were justified when Brando unleashed a four hour director’s cut. “One-Eyed Jacks” was abruptly yanked from Brando’s control and the actor disowned the project, allowing the studio to chop it as it saw fit.

Except that Paramount had problems trying to make sense of the Brando cut. In 1960, two years after principal photography began, the studio brought in a second unit crew to shoot new footage in an attempt to bring the incoherent and rickety production into some state of coherence. But this did not help. “One-Eyed Jacks” was finally dumped in theaters in 1961 and proved to be a major box-office disaster.

Though strangely, the film somehow generated a small but devoted cult following. And in some quarters, “One-Eyed Jacks” actually earned a level of respect. The film gained an Oscar nomination for its cinematography (it was the last movie shot in Paramount’s widescreen VistaVision process) and Brando even snagged a Director’s Guild of America Award nomination. Over the years, cineastes and critics came to appreciate the film’s dark psychological undercurrents and even championed the notion of a homoerotic relationship between Brando and Malden (though, personally, the idea of any homoeroticism between Marlon Brando and Karl Malden is enough to make any self-respecting homosexual burn his rainbow flag and pop in a DVD of “Girls Gone Wild”).

It is not certain how or why it happened, but the copyright on “One-Eyed Jacks” was never renewed and the film lapsed into the public domain. As a result of this oversight, the film has become one of the most highly-visible bootleg titles of all time. In many bargain video bins, it is impossible not to trip over different no-budget cheapie labels offering this title. Public domain DVDs have also been widely available for the past few years. Yet the public domain version of “One-Eyed Jacks” is regarded as being among the worst on the market in terms of quality. The wide-screen VistaVision cinematography is chopped into a clumsy full-screen pan-and-scan version, which throws off Brando’s careful visual compositions and ruins the film’s production values. One DVD edition, from a Canadian company that specializes in public domain titles (no names here, but collectors will know the guilty party immediately) supposedly has the worst sound on any DVD ever released, with one Internet critic stating the DVD sounds like it was recorded off a speakerphone!

To date, Paramount Pictures has shown no sign of hauling “One-Eyed Jacks” out for a restored and remastered re-release, either theatrically or for DVD. Perhaps the studio is still smarting over the Brando debacle — in fact, the bad blood was so thick that Paramount initially balked at having Brando return to its soundstages in 1971 to play Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”

With Brando’s passing, the movie world has paused to recall the brilliance of an extraordinary actor. For those who dwell in bootleg videos, there is reason to stop and pause for the wonderful madman who dealt us “One-Eyed Jacks.” R.I.P, Marlon.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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Posted on July 9, 2004 in Features by
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