Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Radical Vision of One-Eyed Jacks

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Radical Vision of One-Eyed Jacks

Article excerpt

The opening sequence of One-Eyed Jacks poses a question of value. Rio, played by Marlon Brando (who also directed), is seated on a counter eating a banana. To his left is a set of scales. After throwing the half-eaten banana into one scale, he tosses a glove into the other, and watches idly for a moment, but his gaze does not stay for the result. The camera draws back to reveal that this is a bank robbery, and that the scales are bank scales. A traditional symbol of justice has been exposed as a device for measuring gold--and justice and gold are, in this film, as radically incongruous as a banana and a glove. More broadly, the image of the scales introduces the intense questioning of values that characterizes Rio's later internal dramas, through which the film's political vision is focused and explored.

This process begins with Rio's attempt to balance two seemingly commensurate values within the plot: betrayal and revenge. The elaboration and collapse of the revenge plot provides the context for the development of the film's social and political vision. We use Peter Brooks' theory of plot to analyze the narrative dynamic in which Rio's pursuit and deferral of revenge lead him to question and radically redefine his values and commitments. J. Hillis Miller's "logic of the parasite" suggests how relations of hospitality and gift-giving complicate the revenge plot and bind the main characters in a web of moral and political meanings. Our sense of the main patterns of relationship is shaped by traditional theories of contract, while Silvan Tomkins' discussion of shame and contempt helps us explore the emotional forces that drive the characters as they form two ethical and political coalitions, Mexican and American. Finally, Robert M. Cover's concept of nomos is useful in both analyzing the power-structures that obtain in the film and suggesting the visionary possibilities that transcend them.

The Revenge Plot

One-Eyed Jacks (1961) is a transformation of Charles Neider's novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956). It takes from the book the subject of an Oedipal struggle between two characters, "the Kid"--an outlaw--and sheriff "Dad Longworth," one-time partners in crime and now on opposite sides of the law. But the circumstances and meaning of that struggle are entirely different in the two texts. In The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones the contest between the Kid (Hendry Jones) and Dad Longworth is impersonal. Longworth's decision to exchange outlawry for the sheriff's office follows the rise of the "anglos" in California, with their passion for law and order and the protection of property. In contrast, the Kid is a folk-hero to "greasers and Indians" (164), those who have lost out in the new political and social landscape of the West. The generational struggle between the Kid and Dad symbolizes the historical struggle between the old and the new West. Longworth understands that the "anglos" want California to "grow up", and he adapts. But the Kid will never grow up and is killed by the father-figure whose embrace of social maturity he will never share. In One-Eyed Jacks, the struggle between the Kid, now called "Rio," and Dad Longworth is personal. After robbing a bank together in Mexico, Rio and Longworth find themselves surrounded by rurales, with one horse between them. They agree that Longworth will ride off to get fresh mounts and return for Rio; but Longworth abandons his friend, who pays for their joint crime by spending the next five years in jail in Sonora. Longworth, meanwhile, has made his way to California where he has been elected sheriff" of Monterey. He is living in security and prosperity when Rio turns up, seeking revenge.

The revenge motive, absent from the novel but central to the film, is "traditional" in Westerns. (1) Here, it supplies the tension of the plot, sets the keynote of Brando's introverted performance as Rio, and determines the brooding atmosphere of the film as a whole. …

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