Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson teamed up for the first and only time in the quirky and fascinating 1976 Western, The Missouri Breaks, directed by Arthur Penn.
After conquering the world of theater in the 1940’s and the world of movies in the 1950’s – with a totally new ‘method’ that redefined the craft of acting and spawned countless imitators but no equals – Marlon Brando had a tough time during the 1960’s. The failure of his directorial debut One-Eyed Jacks was followed by a series of expensive flops and very ordinary films. Apart from his fall as a box office superstar, His reputation as the greatest American actor of his times also took a dive; as he took on roles that was way beneath his talents, in which he appeared to be just phoning it in . Even some of his great performances in this period, like Reflections in a golden Eye, Burn, etc , were ignored as the films flopped. So when Francis Ford Coppola tried to cast Brando as Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he was met with extreme resistance . Brando was considered Box office poison; which meant that fewer people went to watch the film if Brando was in it than if he was not in it. And he was considered difficult and troublesome: who with his crazy behavior ensured that the movies went wildly over-budget and over-schedule. But all that changed in 1972. The back to back successes of The Godfather and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris resurrected his career. Both these films were not just big box office successes, but also became pop cultural phenomenon, with Brando giving two of the greatest screen performances of all time. So having regained both his box office clout and his reputation as the pre-eminent American Actor, what does Brando do ?, Well nothing, Absolutely nothing. He wouldn’t do a film for the next four years. He turned down all offers of employment. Not just that, he rejected the Best actor Oscar that he won for The Godfather to protest the treatment of the native Americans by Hollywood. That’s Marlon Brando for you. There are great actors, giant Superstars , mad geniuses, Quirky artists, Iconoclasts, Non-Conformists, Anti-Authoritarians, eccentrics, committed activists and there is Marlon Brando, who could be considered a combination of all the above and a lot more.
But the best of his eccentricity was yet to come. After not making a film for almost four years, Brando finally agreed to do a film for producer Elliot Kastner. The film was The Missouri Breaks , to be directed by the venerable Arthur Penn, who made the New-Hollywood classics like Bonnie & Clyde and Little Big Man. Penn had earlier directed Brando in 1966 film The Chase, which turned out to be a disaster. But that was before Brando’s comeback and before Penn became the chief architect of New Hollywood. And as if the pairing of Brando and Penn wasn’t hot enough, Kastner threw Jack Nicholson into the mix. Jack Nicholson was a very big star at the time, coming off his Oscar winning performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Brando and Nicholson were friends (and neighbors) in real life. They were appearing together on screen for the first (and only) time. Kastner was a Hollywood Hustler in the mold of old studio moguls and he landed the dream team of Brando, Nicholson and Penn by the subterfuge of telling each one of them that the others has already signed the picture, when none of them had. In addition to the two superstars, the cast includes Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, and Frederic Forrest; the score is composed by John Williams; and novelist Thomas McGuane wrote the screenplay , with some additional (un-credited) help from another great screenwriter (Chinatown, Shampoo) Robert Towne. It goes without saying that The Missouri Breaks was the most important film made in Hollywood at the time.
The opening scenes of the film gives an indication to the kind of film Penn was going for here. The story is set in the high hill country of Montana in the 1880’s. The film starts off with some poetic images of the beautiful landscape and we see three horsemen riding quietly across the prairie. They crosses path with a couple of other horsemen. From their conversation we realize that, of the three men that we first saw, one of them is a rustler, who is being taken to be hanged by the other two. This is followed by a hilarious train robbery scene where the train stops on top of a bridge and the robbers have a hard time getting away with the loot. We immediately realize that this is the kind of quirky, off-beat film that was made a lot in the golden Seventies. And as it was the norm then, the plot of the film is very thin. This is a character driven film. Jack Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a rustler in charge of a gang of horse thieves. His friend and fellow gang member is hanged by Braxton (John McLiam), a wealthy Montana landowner. To Avenge his friend’s death , he decides to purchase a ranch from Braxton and use the place to rustle Braxton’s cattle. But The autocratic Braxton hires a legendary regulator, Robert E Lee Clayton (Brando), to hunt down those stealing his livestock.
The moment Brando makes his entrance, the tone of the picture changes completely. What was a very somber and quirky tale of rustlers and cattle barons becomes a bizarre burlesque, with Brando putting on a “One-man variety show” that upstages the director’s intentions and the performances of the other actors. He enters the film hidden behind a horse; we only see two horses (without any riders) coming down a hill and approach Braxton ‘s house. Braxton’s daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), who was keenly watching the horses is startled when Brando’s Clayton suddenly peeks out from under one of them. Clayton , as it turns out , is the villain of the piece. Equipped with the name of the notorious Confederate general, He speaks in a lilting Irish accent which he discards at will, making his character even more bizarre. He’s a one-man killing machine and as played by Brando ;A self indulgent, sexually ambiguous sociopath, with his Creedmore rifle, his hand-carved Mexican pistol and a deadly new weapon – a cross between a harpoon and a mace that Brando himself invented – , that he uses to hunt both animals and men. Then there are the various ‘Get-ups’. In his introduction scene, he is dressed in the most strangest of frilly jackets. Subsequently , he would dress up as a Native, as a preacher and towards the end he pops up in drag – wearing a starched pinafore and a spinster’s bonnet. And with each impersonation, he becomes more and more terrifying , homicidal and bizarre. And so does the movie. By the time the last murder is committed, the film has become a very violent tragedy about the ‘End of the West’ as opposed to the oddball ‘Butch Cassidy‘ style western comedy that it was when it started out.
So what exactly happened?
It could be either
a) That Brando was too powerful and overwhelming for Arthur Penn to reign in. Brando played the role as if its going to be his last performance and pulled out every trick in his bag, without giving any consideration to what the film was about. Though the 1960’s was a cynical period for Brando, he hadn’t completely given up on movies. But after giving a brilliant performance in Last Tango in Paris that affected him personally – Brando said that he felt a little raped after putting so much of himself into that performance – , Brando decided that he was done with acting; That he would never suffer through a performance like that again. The rest of the movies that he did in the seventies was just to make a lot of money so that he could finance his retirement. His brief to his agent must have been to bring him the biggest deal possible which require minimum amount of work, And most probably, all this started with this film. Brando was paid $1million for five weeks of work, against 10% of the gross receipts. His salary demands would get even more extravagant as the decade progressed. For his next three films, Superman, Apocalypse Now and The Formula , he would work for just three weeks and would charge a million dollars per week along with a substantial percentage of gross. So for Superman, he made a mind-boggling $10 million plus in a role that appears for just about 10 minutes in the film.
or it could be
b) Penn himself didn’t have a good idea as to exactly what kind of film he is making. He just let Brando run wild and see were he went with it. As it happens with the films of this size, the script was not finished when they started shooting. The moment the stars agreed to do the film, the film went into production . Penn did not get adequate time to prepare for this film and he had to improvise a lot of it with the actors. Now Brando is the King of improvisations. But more importantly , he is a master at improvising without breaking character. Just watch him in Last Tango in Paris or in Apocalypse Now. In both the films, Brando improvised a lot or perhaps the whole of the performance. His performances there are bizarre and his choices sometimes very odd, but they are perfect for the characters he is playing and suits the nature of those films. But here, he pushes it to such extremes that it stands apart from the rest of the film. Looks like he just didn’t have a director who was fully in control of his vision, like Coppola or Bertolucci, to guide him properly.
or it is
c) This is exactly the film that Penn wanted to make. It starts out very serene and stately, as was the case with the old west. But then forces of violence swept through, to change its landscape forever. Brando is playing , less a character, more an abstract force of nature , with several incarnations and penchant for extreme violence. and hence this dissonance between the Brando character and the rest. In his various incarnations , we get images of the forces that shaped the west ;Native tribes, Civil War, Ruthless gunfighters, Autocratic lawmen, missionaries, …. We also see him as a man, a woman and finally a beast- he almost makes love to his mare at the end. It is also interesting to note the methods he uses to dispatch his victims; Drowned in water, burnt by fire , killed by a strange weapon that he designed to kill rabbits for food. Maybe Penn was going for one of those ‘End of the Old West‘ baroque Westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch and Sergio Leone’s Once upon a time in the west, where it is shown that extreme acts of violence was the foundation on which the new, modern west was created. But Penn is not baroque enough or crazy enough a director to pull it off. It required a Leone , a Peckinpah or a Francis Ford Coppola for that. Its a pity that Brando never got to work with Leone or Peckinpah. On the evidence of this film, he would have been perfect for their kind of cinema.
Possibly, it was a combination of all the above three that happened with this film. Penn has , over the years, blown hot and cold about the film and Brando. There has been times where he referred to Brando being out of control, thus damaging the film. Other times, he has waxed eloquently about Brando’s genius and how he love this picture. And to be fair, Brando, on a moment to moment basis. is absolutely mesmerizing. Its the sum of it that doesn’t organically add up. Every moment he is on screen is priceless. His choices are so out of the box and inventive. Unlike a lot of his 60’s performances which were very boring, this one is always interesting and you could see that he had put some real effort into this. Take the scene where his Clayton encounters horse thief Randy Quaid . Clayton is dressed as a preacher and calls himself ‘Jim Ferguson’, He sings “Life is like a mountain railway” . The scene is so terrifying and absorbing. We know Brando is going to kill Quaid, but he doesn’t do it immediately. He drags it out and finally, when we least expect it, he drowns Quaid . Or the scene where he dresses up in drag. He looks demonic and quite out of control -by the light of the bonfire that he had set off to kill the rustlers – as he mumbles “Old granny’s getting tired now”. Brando has one of the most beautiful(and expressive) faces ever to grace the movie screen and it is his ability to transform that angelic face into demonic, effortlessly and almost imperceptibly, that i find absolutely enchanting about this performance. We see only the final result and not his process.
So then what about Jack Nicholson?. Usually in a Nicholson film, Jack is the craziest one on screen. If nothing else , this film proves that only Brando can out-crazy Jack Nicholson ,to the extend that one even forget that Jack was even there in the film. But the fact is that as the goofball outlaw, who gives up a life of crime to settle down and then finds romance with Jane Braxton, Nicholson gives an unexpectedly subtle, tender and sweet performance. It is one of his best performances and it had the misfortune of being in a film where Brando was running wild. Jack was still in the stage of his career where he was a character actor and had not yet fully developed the over the top Nicholsonisms- which probably happened after Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. By the way , the character of Jane Braxton is another oddball. She is a sort of proto-feminist in the wild west , who makes sexual advances on Logan and openly uses terms like ‘Sexual intercourse’. She resembles more a character in the 1970’s than in the 1880’s. Soon we find Logan and Jane rolling around the grass with an amused Clayton watching them through his binoculars.
Nicholson looks a little confused by Brando’s wild performance, as well as his strange work-methods, and it appears that he didn’t exactly know how to counter it. Brando, by that time, had stopped learning his lines and had started reading dialogues from cue cards that he would place all over the set. Jack was very irritated by this and so was Penn. Nicholson and Brando has two major confrontation scenes and Nicholson does look a little out of his elements in them. First, when Brando sneaks up on Nicholson, when the latter is working in his garden .Brando’s Clayton suspects that Jack’s Logan and his gang are behind the rustling in the area. He is visiting Logan mainly to confirm his suspicions and Logan knows it. Clayton starts playfully shooting all around with his Mexican pistol even as he is chatting up Logan. In actuality, he is intimidating, taunting and challenging Logan . He is telling him that he should go back to his old profession, that’s unless he hasn’t lost his nerve, as he couldn’t farm to save his life. And Brando is doing to Jack what Clayton is doing to Logan in the film. It is one of those moments where Brando really blows Jack off the screen. The second instance is when Nicholson is confronting Brando in a sudsy bathtub . He has come to avenge his friend who was killed by Brando. So This time Nicholson is holding the gun and Brando is facing it. And here Brando goes small – as opposed to his big performance in the earlier scene- and starts mumbling to himself as he turns his back on Jack . And Jack , as Brando correctly deduced in the earlier scene – has lost his nerve and cannot bring himself to shoot him in such intimate confines. He just ends up shooting the tub .
But then comes the grand climax , or rather the Anti-climax. After teasing us throughout the film with the prospect of a big showdown between the two superstars, the final duel never takes place. All that happens is that Logan cuts Clayton’s throat when the latter is asleep. We are just shown the moment when Clayton wakes up spitting blood and Logan sitting in front of him. Its one of the most shocking and fantastic final moments between the antagonist and protagonist in films. Nicholson is magnificent in this scene as he shows that Logan still has it in him to kill. On the other hand, the scene that precedes this throat-cutting is one of the most bizarre ones, where we see Brando kissing and declaring his love for his mare- the only woman he ever loved and singing a song for it. And the singing Brando is interrupted mid-song by the sound of the urinating mare. This is the kind of Jekyll and Hyde quality that the film possesses that alternatively frustrates and fascinates the viewer.
At the time of its release, The Missouri Breaks was the most hotly anticipated film. So the studio, UA, decided to use the same strategy that Universal had used for Spielberg’s Jaws; to release the film in as many theaters as possible to capitalize on the popularity of the superstar duo. But the film opened and closed in no time. Audience were in no mood to patronize this very strange film . The reviews were also negative , with every critic singling out Brando for his bizarre performance. The film faded from public memory so quickly that no one even remembers that this film exits, which is shocking for a film that starred two of the greatest actors of all time. The failure of this film is considered one of the tipping points for the destruction of New Hollywood , which would be completed with the release of another western – Heaven’s Gate about four years later. Interestingly, Heaven’s Gate had a rather similar subject , where it had cattle barons hiring assassins to kill homesteaders who were rustling their cattle. Watching this film today, one is struck by both its visual beauty as well as the total craziness of it all. One just doesn’t get to watch movies – or even TV series – like this anymore and of course there never is and there never will be another actor like Marlon Brando.