The iconic Marlon Brando directed only one film in his entire career and with it, gave us what I’ve always felt to be a vastly underrated effort that co-starred his long time acting pal, Karl Malden. The film slipped into public domain years ago but once Martin Scorsese championed a restoration and Criterion put it out on blu ray, I felt it was time to go back and experience it for the first time since seeing it on a two tape release from Paramount in the VHS rental days.
I found Brando captivating then as a youngster buying into his rebellious image, and upon watching it again, I still do and the film itself a worthy addition to the movie shelf here at home.
It’s 1880 in Mexico and Brando along with partner in crime Malden are on the run from the law led by Rodolfo Acosta. When the duo are down to one horse, it’s Malden who rides off with the saddle bags full of gold and the promise to return with a horse for his pal, Rio or as Malden affectionately refers to him as, The Kid. Greed steps in and Malden ultimately rides North of the border leaving Brando to his fate in a Mexican prison for the next five years. Upon escaping, the brooding Brando wants nothing more than to kill Dad Longworth (Malden). Along the way, Brando will pick up a couple of unsavory partners in Ben Johnson and Sam Gilman who know where Malden can be found. The trio form an uneasy alliance along with Brando’s only loyal friend and fellow escapee, Larry Duran as Chico.
Always waiting for his past to catch up to him, Karl now wears a badge just over the border in a sleepy town where he has taken Katy Jurado for a wife and adopted her daughter Pina Pellicer. Across the open country Brando approaches the Malden homestead and it’s a tense reunion that sees Marlon welcomed into the Malden home and captivating the young Pina. Revenge never far from Brando’s thoughts.
Brando is no saint here in his designs on Pina and she will only add to his brooding and inner torment over the films two and half hour running time. While Malden is wary of his former partner, Slim Pickens as Malden’s deputy is one nasty S.O.B. who wants nothing more than to see Brando dead and claim Pellicer for himself. Perish the thought!
There is a bit of melodrama squeezing it’s way into this oddity in the western genre but it never gets in the way or direction of the film and only adds to the explosiveness of Brando’s character and when he unleashes his wrath on the shady Ben Johnson, one can’t take their eyes off him. Such is the remarkable talent that Brando possessed during his career when he wanted to use it. Not nearly enough I’d like to add.
Though the film doesn’t follow the clichéd trajectory of most scripts, it will indeed take us to a satisfactory climax at the fade out. Could Brando have given us a spaghetti western before they even existed? Not quite but it’s not a stretch to wonder if this had some influence on the films that were about to surface from Italy. I find no fault with Brando’s direction other than what the film books tell us of his taking forever to finish it. At least from the studios point of view. As a matter of fact I find it visually stunning with it’s western on a beach setting. I recall at one point an article in the newspaper perhaps in the 1980’s reporting Brando was slated to direct once again but of course that project never materialized.
Does this feel like a Sam Peckinpah tale? It should as Sam did have a hand in the script. I have no idea to what degree he wrote the character of Slim Pickens but damn it’s very close to the role R.G. Armstrong played in Pat Garrett. According to history, the film was originally being directed by Stanly Kubrick who was fired and replaced by Brando who delivered a five hour cut to the studio. If that’s true, it’s too bad it doesn’t exist as an alternate version.
There are plenty of mind games going on here that I’m not going to begin spouting about characters and their motivations. I’ll leave that stuff to those who like to tear movies down and analyze the hell out of them. For me, Brando delivers a great western that is somehow overlooked on lists of top tens and twenties etc. The cast that surrounds him is a first rate one that includes not just a magnificently evil Malden but the likes of Timothy Carey, Elisha Cook Jr., Ray Teal, Philip Ahn, John Dierkes and Hank Worden to go along with Pickens and Johnson, a couple of western stalwarts.
Violent and sadistic for it’s time in key spots, the more one looks at this and the cast involved, the more one really does see Sam Peckinpah’s stamp on the finished product and the many similarities it possesses to Sam’s 1973 western Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. That also includes some of the similar names that appeared in both like Pickens, Jurado and Cook Jr.
Set the time aside and see the only film directed by what many movie fans may point to as the greatest actor to appear on camera. At the very least he was a game changer in the early fifties. Hope you like this one as much as I do.