Westerns cover a lot of territory. Dramatizing the most romantic of American myths, they also give form to the darkest inversions of those myths. The genre that celebrated rugged pioneer values and civilization’s conquest of the wilderness always had its noir side, revealing the frontier’s promise of freedom and unlimited opportunity to be a mirage shimmering over bone-dry dust, on earth cracked by the heat of feverish dreams. From the start, the cinematic West was corrupted and enlivened by lawless towns, lynch mobs, range wars, and the frenzied greed of gold strikes; the cowboy hero was always a man whose self-reliance and integrity could shade into neurotic isolation and monomania. After World War II, westerns went down ever bleaker and stonier paths, finding in the vast, arid, craggy landscapes of the west a counterpart to the claustrophobic, labyrinthine spaces of urban film noir.
The first and purest “noir western” may be Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947), which opens in a charred, decaying ruin where a man takes refuge from a lynch mob. In this barren landscape, where bones sprout from the earth and nooses dangle from dead trees, the man (Robert Mitchum) retraces his past, going back to a primal childhood memory of witnessing his father’s murder. The poison of this original crime spreads through two families, spurring more killings, twisting love into vindictive hate. Writer Niven Busch brought Greek tragedy to the range in this original screenplay and his source novels for Duel in the Sun (1946) and The Furies (1950), all stories of families tortured by ingrown conflicts and whiffs of incest. The expansive scale of westerns and their semi-fantastic setting licensed melodrama at its most delirious. In Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961), a torrid cross between a cattle drive western and a Sirk soap opera, incestuous passion is the logical outcome of a man’s stunted romantic obsession with an idealized memory of youth. The sun was always setting in westerns, whose popularity exploded as the last traces of the world they described vanished, and in mature westerns of the postwar years this elegiac tone often darkened into noir’s fixation with the long shadows of the past.
In barrooms and by campfires men and women rake over the smoldering coals of their memories. They drift through haunted landscapes—landscapes scarred by the Civil War (Run of the Arrow, The Deadly Companions), by Indian raids and atrocities against Indians (The Searchers, The Last Wagon), by brutal crimes (Rancho Notorious, Man of the West). Like recurring nightmares, or the verses of a cowboy ballad reworked in countless versions, the same images keep returning in the operatic psychological westerns of the 1950s: fires and hangings, guns and gold and gambling wheels. The conflagrations that scorch the screen in Johnny Guitar (1954), Man with the Gun (1955) and From Hell to Texas (1958) release the incendiary hatred seething in villains and heroes alike. “Why don’t they try to learn what happens inside?” a doctor muses as he pores over medical books in Delmer Daves’ The Hanging Tree (1959): “That’s where the damage is done.” The doctor (Gary Cooper), an enigmatic stranger trailing a grim, secret past—something about a burned house and his wife’s suicide—nurses back to health a severely traumatized woman, but can’t shed his own trauma, believing he has no right to forget. The hostility of communities to outsiders, a constant in westerns, is diagrammed with great precision in Daves’ film, which ends with drunken prospectors torching their own camp and surging off to string up the man they hate because they can’t understand him.
A towering blaze consuming a hanging tree is the final image in Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome (1959), one of a spate of revenge dramas about men whose festering psychological wounds, scabbed over by embittered stoicism, drive them to pursue a vengeance they imagine will make them whole again. Randolph Scott’s taciturn hero is single-mindedly bent on avenging a trauma so painful he never speaks of it, and his justice once achieved leaves the lingering question of what he will live for now. Likewise, in Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the irascible, hard-bitten loners played by James Stewart seem less healed than gutted by a cathartic act of violence, forced to face the truth that the past can never be healed, erased, or regained.
In One-Eyed Jacks (1961), we don’t see the five years that Rio (Marlon Brando) spends in prison in Mexico. The film cuts from his capture, on the lip of a lunar valley where dust rolls like smoke across the ground, to his escape, tumbling down a rocky slope shackled to another man, both in filthy rags and long beards. Only much later does Rio describe his time in jail, conjuring a hellish vision of a rat-infested pit where he clawed maggots out of the sores on his legs while listening to men scream as they were beaten to death. Yet his deepest wound is not this horror, but the fact that he ended up there because his partner and best friend, “Dad” Longworth (Karl Malden), betrayed him, running away with all the loot they stole from a bank and leaving him to pay the price. Their nicknames—Dad calls Rio “Kid”—spell out the relationship that makes this act so unspeakable.
We don’t see Rio in prison, but we see how it changes him. He starts out as a carefree young bandit who perches on the counter during a bank holdup eating bananas and playfully weighing the peels on a scale, then steals a woman’s ring and uses it in his attempted seduction of an aristocratic señorita. After his time in the pen, though he still sports rakish scarves and a dazzling scarlet poncho, he has become sullen and withdrawn, brooding obsessively on revenge. When he finds his old partner in the coast town of Monterey, now a respectable sheriff with a family, he mirrors Dad’s hypocrisy, pretending to accept his lie about what happened while scheming to destroy everything he has. “A man can’t stay angry for five years, can he?” Rio asks with a wickedly disingenuous grin. Ask Ethan Edwards in The Searchers about that.
One-Eyed Jacks has been both blessed and cursed by its history. As the only film Brando directed, it has always attracted interest, but the film itself has gotten less attention than the chaos of its origins: Brando, the star and producer, took over directing duties from Stanley Kubrick, and the production went grossly over budget, over schedule, and over length—Brando’s final four-hour cut was edited down by almost half. Making matters worse, it has long circulated in murky, shoddy-looking prints. A pristine, luminous new restoration reveals that none of the difficulties surrounding the production affect its graceful power. One might complain that Charles Lang’s cinematography is too gorgeous for an often harsh and cruel story, but the collision of the sublime and the ugly becomes a key to the experience of the movie. The magnificent coastline, with Monterey cypresses silhouetted against bright fog, is a backdrop for the casually nasty killing of one of the film’s most likable characters. The beach, all silvery surf and moonlit spray, is a setting for Rio’s seduction of Dad’s stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), whom he coldly sets out to “shame” as part of his revenge. When she creeps home at dawn, the framing of the blue ocean through an adobe porch covered with hot-pink bougainvillea is so exquisite it might bring tears to your eyes.
In a film of impeccable performances, Pellicer stands out for the inner strength she brings to her frail, innocent character: the dignity with which she tells Rio, “You only shamed yourself” is quietly devastating. With her low, velvety voice and delicate, un-movie-star-like beauty, she makes the trope of the good woman who saves a troubled man from himself unusually convincing. The whole film shows a heartening respect for women, from Mexican whores to Dad’s wife (Katy Jurado), who owes him much yet bravely faces the truth about him.
What is that truth? Karl Malden’s visceral performance leaves open the question of whether Dad Longworth is a thoroughly bad man hiding behind a false front of warm-heartedness, or a man who did one terrible thing that drives him to do worse and worse things in an effort to erase the original sin. Dad may hate his old partner just because Rio threatens his position (“You’re a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face”) or because he can only lighten his guilt by hating the man he wronged, first publicly flogging him and smashing his gun hand, then planning to hang him for a bank robbery he didn’t commit. Revenge dramas usually end with the moral that vengeance is not worth it; One-Eyed Jacks has a more complicated ending that acknowledges how hard it is to stop a chain of violence, though the outcome is less tragic than Brando originally wanted it to be.
If there is a tragedy, it is that Brando’s frustration and disappointment with the experience of making the film, and its tepid reception, meant he never directed another. It is hard to judge someone’s style from a single movie, and the direction of One-Eyed Jacks never calls attention to itself, but it seems to share aspects of Brando the performer: the genius for expressive detail, the heightened sensuality, the paradox of a stylized naturalism.
Stylization is a great part of westerns’ appeal—something they have in common with film noir. In particular, both forms purvey intensely stylized, ritualistic versions of masculinity. Survival in the cinematic West depends on performance, and westerns’ intense scrutiny of men’s bodies and clothes, gestures and mannerisms, subjects males to a gaze at once desiring and judgmental. Brando, with his confounding mix of raw virility and voluptuous beauty, makes a distinctly modern western hero. At once brooding and flamboyant, he’s able to carry off the most traditional western theatrics, and at the same time give glimpses into an inner landscape more vast and varied, and harder to map, than the one through which he rides.
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Her writing has appeared in Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Quarterly, Reverse Shot, and other publications.