52 Before 62 — One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

One-Eyed Jacks (1959 poster).jpgDirected by Marlon Brando

Screenplay by Guy Trosper and Calder Willingham, based upon the novel “The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones” by Charles Neider

Starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado, Pina Pellicer, and Ben Johnson

Fans of Stanley Kubrick tend to be an obsessive bunch, knowing his films intimately.  They also know that the reason he went so long between putting out films was not some sort of professional ennui on his part — he was not a filmmaker who could barely be bothered to ply his art.  Rather, most of the gap of time between his films was more a matter of Kubrick’s intense perfectionism on his part.  After all, it takes time to get things just right.  Of course, some of that lost time is also due to Kubrick having spent years working on projects that might never have been made at all, or were made by others.

For simplicity’s sake, let’s call those The Lost Films of Stanley Kubrick

The two most notable lost films of Stanley Kubrick are The Aryan Papers, and his Napoleon film.  Given The Aryan Papers was supposed to have similar themes as Schindler’s List, you can understand why Kubrick would put the film aside when Spielberg essentially ‘scooped’ him on that one.  Also, making movies about the Holocaust with the same eye for detail that Kubrick liked to bring to his projects was a depressing experience that he was glad to be free of.

As an aside, one might be tempted to wonder why Kubrick didn’t put Full Metal Jacket aside when Oliver Stone basically scooped him with Platoon, but that misunderstands film production.  First, Full Metal Jacket was in production well before Platoon was released, which was a thing when it came to Kubrick films.  Second, more than being in production, Full Metal Jacket was actually filming long before Platoon even began.  FMJ began filming in August 1985, while Platoon was shot in February 1986.  Why, then, did FMJ come out after Platoon?  Again, some of that is Kubrick’s methodical approach to filmmaking, but also it was because the movie essentially shutdown mid-stream to allow R. Lee Ermey to recover from a car accident.  In this way, Full Metal Jacket was not so much ‘scooped’ by Platoon, it was just beaten to the punch by forces outside its control.

As to Kubrick’s Napoleon — this was abandoned largely for budgetary reasons, and because Sergei Bondarchuck’s Waterloo, which was also a story about Napoleon, came out and bombed.  In light of that Kubrick could not get his film off the ground and turned his attentions to A Clockwork Orange

Though neither of these films were ever made, you can experience them in terms of their screenplay and research materials — assuming you’re lucky enough to get to see them.  The screenplay and the research are surely not a good substitute for a finished film, but if you get your hands on them the odds are you will probably be able to think through what the final products would have been like.  In the case of the Napoleon film, you don’t have to squint too hard at Barry Lyndon and see the remnants of the abandoned film peeking out from under the surface, at least stylistically.[1]  In terms of The Aryan Papers, perhaps imagine what Schindler’s List might’ve been if it were made by the filmmaker of Full Metal Jacket and Eyes Wide Shut.

There is some temptation to classify A.I.: Artificial Intelligence as a lost Kubrick film.  And if not lost, at least the one that got away.  But neither description truly feels appropriate.  After all, while Kubrick developed the project for years he eventually gave it to Steven Spielberg when it was clear he was never going to make the film himself — some of the problem was he never thought the visual effects would be good enough. Though Spielberg is supposed to have stayed close to the story that Kubrick would have filmed with A.I., and though the resulting film is a close approximation of a Kubrick film, the result is a film that is neither a Kubrick film, nor a Spielberg film.  Rather, it fits somewhere in the weird valley between them, where it’s not controlled and ruthless enough to fit the mold of a Kubrick film, nor is it as popcorn-ey as a Spielberg film.  You almost wish a director like Paul Verhoeven had made it, because he would have eschewed the sentiment that Spielberg could not avoid, and he would have brought the right sense of humor to it.  But given he was going very much over the top in his own films around the same time — Showgirls and Starship Troopers — there’s no telling the film he’d have actually made of it.

Which finally, brings us all the way back around to the film at issue here, One-Eyed Jacks, which is probably the only lost Kubrick film that actually got made.  After all, while the film was not Kubrick’s brainchild it is one he heavily developed with and for Marlon Brando, and was set to direct, until Brando replaced his director for himself.

So how did this all come together?

In the 1950s, Brando had a production company going that had not actually produced anything.  He also had a contract owing Paramount a western.  Somewhere in there he landed on the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones as being the right story for something that his company could produce that would also satisfy the debt he owed the studio.  First up in the development process was Rod Serling, who took a crack at a script, before Sam Peckinpah came on to replace him.  Throughout this development process Brando spent upwards of $500k in studio money for a film that nobody was really confident would ever get off the ground.

Still, by 1958 Brando appeared determined to get the film made and so started looking for a director.  Because Kubrick was coming off the success of the modestly-budgeted Paths of Glory, Brando pitched the film to him, and the studio approved of the man they believed to be an economical director.[2]  Despite Brando’s overtures, Kubrick was not really on board with working with another star again after his involvement with Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory — the problem is it’s really hard to have control over your film when you’re beholden to a star.  But eventually doing One-Eyed Jacks — as Brando’s western would come to be called — was seen as good business, the kind of film that might free him from having to be beholden on a star, so Kubrick signed on.

Only problem?  Kubrick hated the script and would only do the picture if they started over on the script.  So, in came Calder Willingham to start the process over.

Though it might appear to be ‘good business’ to take the film, working on One-Eyed Jacks disillusioned Kubrick.  The committee approach to filmmaking that Brando favored was not Kubrick’s forte, which escalated tension between director and star, which continued into the casting process.  Also a problem?  Kubrick really had no feel for the story itself.  

It was then, on the eve of production that Brando fired his director.  When nobody else jumped at the chance to direct the film, Brando did it himself.   In a way, both events were a relief to Kubrick.  First, he got to be free of the project, and second, it looked better to be replaced as director by his star than by another director.  

Serendipitously, just as Kubrick was fired from One-Eyed Jacks, Spartacus was also separating from its original director, Anthony Mann, even though it had already started filming.  Kubrick came on board basically with no warning and took the film home.  

Though Spartacus might be the least Stanley-Kubrick-film of them all, him directing Spartacus was fortuitous.  First, the film was a success, bringing Kubrick the independence he craved.  Second, One-Eyed Jacks failed, essentially absolving him of having been fired from the project.  But though he did not direct One-Eyed Jacks, and though Spartacus was essentially a mercenary job, if you look at Spartacus you can certainly see hints of the film he’d have made of One-Eyed Jacks, even if when you look at One-Eyed Jacks now, you can’t see even the barest hint of Kubrick in it.

 

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

What’s It About?

Rio (Marlon Brando) and Dad (Karl Malden) rob banks in Mexico, except their outlaw days come to an end when the authorities catch up with them.  Pinned down and surrounded, Rio sends Dad for reinforcements.  Only, Dad doesn’t send reinforcements — he leaves Rio for dead.   Five years later, Rio escapes from prison and throws in with Bob Emory (Ben Johnson), who plans to ride to Monterey and rob the bank there.  Conveniently, Dad has gone straight and is the sheriff of Monterey.  Of course, these two will have it out.

 

Any Good

What do you call a film that isn’t good, but isn’t a complete waste of time?  An interesting curio?  Perhaps middling?  Whatever it is, the label sticks quite well to One-Eyed Jacks.

On the one hand, you can certainly see what the movie is trying to do.  In the best way it’s trying to thread the line between being a sweeping epic in the John Ford mold of making westerns, and being the sort of western that you’d get in the 1960s when the Italians got their hands on them.  That is, you’d get something lush and a little on the nasty side.  Something where there isn’t an explicit good and bad guy like you’d get with John Wayne or Gary Cooper.  Rather, the good guy in the movie is a bad guy, and the bad guy is also a good guy.  In other words, you get ambiguity, even if One-Eyed Jacks isn’t all that successful at being ambiguous.

Here’s the thing: if you want to be ambiguous, you actually have to be ambiguous.  If you want both the good guy and the bad guy are both good and bad, then they actually have to be both good and bad.  Unfortunately, whale One-Eyed Jacks shrugs at the notion, it never really commits to it.  After all, even though he is clearly a bank robber, the film never stoops to making Brando’s Rio actually bad.  About the worst quality it will allow him is some scoundrelry in his personal life, seducing the virtuous women among us.  Similarly, though he’s basically redeemed himself, taking in a woman and her orphan child, and putting his name on both, Malden’s Dad never seems redeemed, and his interest in protecting virtue seems slightly more sexual than paternal.

Even so, at least you can see what the movie was generally waving at, even if accepting it fails to be that movie.

What ultimately hampers the film, to a large degree, is it wants to be a melodrama and a love story, not a western at all.  Or, if it wanted to be a western, it wanted to be a type women would want to get see, as opposed to people who like westerns.[3] 

And if it’s not the confusion about what the film wants to be that holds it back, it’s Brando the actor that holds it back.  Sure, he was an award-worthy star throughout the 1950s, and was a bankable name, but by the end of the decade it was becoming clear that his skill-set was limited, and he could only really be believable in a certain type of role.  Ask him to play the inarticulate, hulking-galoot type in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, and he’s acclaimed.  But in a movie where he has to play some sense of refinement, or sensuality, like Sayonara, he stumbles badly.  

Mercifully, One-Eyed Jacks hews closer to the hulking galloot version of Brando, and when it does, it works well.  You buy the Brando as an outlaw.  You see the coiled spring of energy waiting to act.  But in those moments when he has to be the romantic hero, lusting after the stepdaughter of his rival, he fails to be romantic.  He’s just a blank.

And perhaps that’s the key to Brando — he can do the physicality of the role, but not the interiority.

If only Brando had played his role the way Karl Malden played his — sweaty and oily — that would have been better.  Or even played it with the psychotic energy Timothy Carey brings to his few scenes — has there ever been an actor other than Timothy Carey who just has psychosis in his eyes? — then that also would have been better.  In either case he at least would have been closer to what the movie seems to want from him.  As it is, Brando is only fitfully transcendent, much like the movie itself.

As an aside, I’m tempted to take this film to task for being poorly directed, which it clearly is, and fault it for being visually uninteresting, which it also is, but I’m willing to give the film a slight pass for its muddy look simply because I suspect the copy that I saw on Amazon Prime Video is probably the same low-quality pan and scan public domain version that Walmart used to sell for $1.  Because this version is a bit muddy, and it is pan and scan, I’m willing to believe some of the beauty of the visuals were simply lopped off, or didn’t transfer properly, and if I watched it in a widescreen format I’d have a more charitable view of the visuals.  After all, this film was given the Vista Vision treatment and was nominated for an Oscar for its cinematography, so clearly the most available version has been bastardized by lack of attention.  But even as the film is apparently available in a restored version, I have no interest in seeing it again at all.

 

Kubrick Redux

Watching One-Eyed Jacks today, and remembering the role Stanley Kubrick played in it, makes me wonder exactly what sort of film this would be if Kubrick directed it.  But even though I wonder, I can’t really imagine what Kubrick would make of it.  To some extent you can probably look at Spartacus and see some sense of what he’d do, which is make the most conventional film he ever would.  But at least Spartacus has a certain kind of wit and visual flair that is missing from One-Eyed Jacks.  At the end of the day, it’s best that Kubrick did not make One-Eyed Jacks – it was an expensive boondoggle he had no passion for, and which likely wouldn’t have appealed to him at all.  He might have made it better looking, but based on what we see, it’s not clear that it actually would be a better film.  And while he did move from this to Spartacus, and Spartacus too is a conventional film, it’s easy to place it in Kubrick’s filmography thematically, because it shares some of the DNA of the films he made.  At the end, One-Eyed Jacks is the film that got away, and probably for the best that it did.

 

Portions of this post were based on “Stanley Kubrick: A Biography” by John Baxter.  1997.  Carroll & Graf Company.  And Stanley Kubrick: A Biography by Vincent LoBrutto. 1997. Donald I. Fine Books.

 

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[1] Much in the same way that Jodorowsky’s Dune was absorbed into Alien

[2] This was years before Kubrick went wildly overbudget on 2001, then kept costs low on A Clockwork Orange.

[3] Don’t hate me for falling into gender stereotypes, because it’s only meant to give a sense of what I mean.

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