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 Jacks stands 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 only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks, receives a much needed upgrade from Criterion, who present the film on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes from a new 4K restoration of the film undertaken by Universal Pictures and The Film Foundation, and was scanned from the original 35mm 8-perforation VistaVision negative and a Y-separation master.
Despite getting the backing of a major studio, Paramount Pictures, One-Eyed Jacks somehow fell into the public domain and since then it has been primarily available on fairly lousy VHS and DVD releases you could find in bargain bins everywhere (there was also a previous Blu-ray edition, unseen by me, but by all accounts it looks terrible). This new restoration is really an eye-opener and the image looks fantastic on all fronts. Even just the first few seconds of the opening credits look spectacular: the credits only feature a brick wall as the background with some simple “western” paraphernalia laid about, yet the level of detail in these simple credit compositions is incredible. Once we get to the action that level of detail doesn’t relent. Close-ups and long shots both deliver and every minor detail and texture comes through remarkably well. The landscape, the sets, the sky, the waves of a crashing ocean, everything looks so remarkably crisp and clean.
Film grain is rendered amazingly well, remaining natural in look and free of noise. No other artifacts or problems seem to pop up. Most impressively, though, is that the team behind the restoration has worked miracles because I don’t recall a single blemish ever coming up. Colours look accurate, or at least are where I expected them to be, and black levels are also strong allowing for excellent shadow detail.
It’s an impressive looking picture, far better than I would have even hoped for. Everyone involved on this has done an absolutely incredible amount of work here, and Criterion gives it a solid encode on the disc. The final product looks shockingly good.
Also coming off surprisingly well is the lossless linear PCM 1.0 mono soundtrack. Sound quality is good, with no distortion or noise that I could detect, and despite it not being the most lively or robust track, range and fidelity are both adequate. It’s a solid, above average mono presentation.
Surprisingly the film only comes with a handful of features starting with a short 3-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese. Filmed by The Film Foundation around the time of the film’s special presentation at Cannes in early 2016, the director just talks a little about the history of the film and how it was restored from its original VistaVision print. Following this is about 33-minutes’ worth of audio featuring Marlon Brando recording his ideas for the film. The selection of recordings here focus on scenes that would eventually change or wouldn’t make it into the finished film, like how Rio and Dad would first meet after five years apart, or what happened to Bob following the film’s final bank robbery (which would have been pretty intense for the time). It’s interesting to hear Brando work through scenarios but the feature also offers insight into deleted and alternate scenes.
Criterion then includes two visual essays, the first, A Million Feet of Film, by Toby Roan goes over the film’s rather convoluted production, born initially out of a bit of desperation after Brando started his production company and needed a project to avoid issues with the IRS. It would go through various writers (including Sam Peckinpah) and directors (including Stanley Kubrick) before Brando himself would take over. The film also got into trouble when it went over schedule and severely over budget and Roan covers all of this, along with how the studio stepped in to take over editing, the studio cut being all that we have today. These problems also led to Brando gaining weight thanks to his use of food to handle stress. It’s an entertaining visual essay and despite it only being 23-minutes long it’s jam-packed with information thanks to its editing, which is also a bit playful: I chuckled at the cuts to Brando shooting his gun whenever Roan mentions Brando firing someone from the film, which happened often.
The second essay, I Ain’t Hung Yet, was created by David Cairns and it looks more at Brando’s directing style and his attempts at circumventing genre clichés. Though the studio’s attempt to make the film more conventional (even doing obvious reshoots that look to have been done in front of rear projection screens) did backtrack this, ultimately inserting clichés, some of Brando’s intentions still remain, the biggest one being that Dad isn’t a moustache twirling villain, while Rio isn’t a straight-up hero. He admires Brando’s visual storytelling (for example Brando doesn’t use subtitles for Spanish language scenes, depending on the actions of the actors mixed with the editing and visuals to convey what is going on) and points out Brando’s use of Hitchcock like techniques in building tension (and thought it may be a coincidence, the film actually reuses a matte painting from Vertigo). This essay isn’t as brisk as Roan’s but it’s still a strong analysis of Brando and his work as actor and director here. It runs 24-minutes.
The disc then closes with a 5-minute theatrical trailer, and the included insert features a rather exhaustive essay on the film by Howard Hampton. It adds on to the visual essays found on the disc while also addressing some of the criticisms thrown at the film and its actor/director.
The features aren’t bad, they’re good in fact, but I’m surprised there are only a handful of features here, which make the release feel a little rushed in this area.
The supplements are good, if minimal, but the digital presentation is what sells this. It really looks striking and on that alone this disc is well worth picking up.