Monday, March 28, 2016

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #137 - The Missouri Breaks (1976, dir. Arthur Penn)


Think about the extraordinary turn Marlon Brando’s career was taking in the 1970’s.  After stalling a bit in the late 60’s he came roaring back in 1972 - jowly, greying at the temple and more potent than ever in The Godfather and Last Tango In Paris. Two braver explorations of middle age could not be imagined, then… silence, until 1976 when he returned – greyer still, jowlier yet, but no less intense and seeming to have tapped into some sort of cosmic awareness that made him a real-life cross between con-man, genius, artist, shaman and fool. It was also impossible to take your eyes off of him in what could be considered his last great role of substance in The Missouri Breaks (I love Apocalypse Now, but it is hard to call what Brando did in it as “substantive.” Memorable yes, substantive maybe less so.).  Director Arthur Penn created a stylish western in the classic mode, which is elevated to something truly memorable by Marlon Brando’s inexplicable performance. From the moment he appears on screen as Robert E. Lee Clayton he is magnetic - both compelling and terrifying at the same time. He is a regulator (a legal assassin) who has been brought from Wyoming to Montana to help rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) and his attractive daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) deal with a band of horse rustlers (Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid and more) who have been causing trouble. Brando enters the action as an exotic swashbuckler; fringed leather jacket, long hair and an Irish accent. He immediately shows himself as a man not to be trifled with, appraising Nicholson as the thief and beginning to exact punishment on the gang. His speed and deadly accuracy prove his reputation as an uncontrollable, but ultimately successful executioner.
With the central conflict established, Penn goes about turning the movie into a philosophical treatise on the difference between being a thief and a killer, and if either of those is morally worse than being a bad person on the right side of the law. David Braxton, it turns out, is a world-class creep who deserves whatever he gets, while Nicholson seems to be a more three-dimensional man than his designation as horse rustler might indicate. He yearns for the honest life - or at least the love of a woman who has lived the honest life - available in the person of Braxton’s daughter. Brando’s character Clayton appears more and more like a scorched earth psychopath, hell-bent on destroying his prey as violently as possible, letting no one - including those who hired him - stand in the way. His inhumanity grows with each scene as Nicholson becomes an increasingly sympathetic protagonist. As Clayton’s killings take on greater cruelty with each victim, Clayton’s personality takes on more complexity. He begins shifting accents from Irish to Southern, to female (complete with unforgettable drag costume) and back to Irish. His performance is always on the edge of hallucinatory, the cutting edge of menace and hilarity. In spite of it being one of his least famous movies, I believe The Missouri Breaks contains one of Brando’s most beguiling performances. By the end of the movie, he is a truly frightening presence - unpredictable, deadly and unstoppable - beyond the control of laws or bullets. The shocking twist at the end remains a great cinematic trick, never failing to surprise.


In the 34 years that have passed since I last saw this movie, I had forgotten almost everything about it. So the panoramic cinematography, realistic take on the Old West setting, excellent music and funny dialogue were all a welcome re-acquaintance. It is Marlon Brando’s terrifying depiction which I had not forgotten, and it was, in fact, even more potent than I remembered. He has had one of the most terminally appraised careers in the history of film, yet his depiction of Robert E. Lee Clayton does much to justify his genius reputation.

-         Paul Epstein

1 comment:

S Morton said...

Holy Cow Paulie! That's a mighty well-said mouthful there! Great movie. I love it.