Rio (Marlon Brando) is an outlaw in Mexico, part of a gang with Doc (Hank Worden) and the man who is effectively his father figure, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), but the time may have come for the law to catch up with them after an apparently successful bank robbery where Rio sat on the counter without a care in the world as his cohorts relieved the safe of its contents. He even went as far as liberating a jewelled ring from a woman who was trying and failing to conceal it from him, thinking it would come in handy later, for he is quite the womaniser. But later, the police catch up with them, and it seems all three will meet a sticky end: Doc dies, Rio is imprisoned, but Dad... well, Dad sells them out.
According to the cultists of One-Eyed Jacks, it was a misunderstood masterpiece that never found its correct audience at the time, and has only gone on in the decades after to be appreciated since after all, how could a star of Brando's genius get it wrong? What they fail to perceive was that as an actor, he was no director, and after securing the means to helm the project himself after Stanley Kubrick proved reluctant to continue their association (he was about to suffer his own debacles on Spartacus) he proceeded to piss millions of dollars up the wall with his shoot, extending it by months supposedly so he could capture the right conditions for his filming, and encouraging long improvisation sessions with his cast, all of which were filmed.
As legend has it, an insane amount of footage was amassed and Brando had it cut into a five-and-a-half hour edit he was happy with, which naturally the studio Paramount were not, as no matter how big a celebrity he was, they knew nobody was going to sit still for that length of time. So it was recut into a still-substantial two hours twenty minutes, and a new, kind of happy ending was added where the original tragic outcome was considerably softened: movie buffs who rage against studio interference had yet another bastardised effort to complain about. Nevertheless, even among those who were aware about the interference (or desperate salvage job), they felt enough of the director's intentions survived in the version we were offered back in 1961.
The less kind might have observed Brando would have been better suited to the miniseries format as we know it today, and he lost interest after his first flush of enthusiasm, as he became increasingly wont to do as the years rolled by; you could pinpoint when Brando, The Greatest Actor in the World became Brando, The Movie Star Who Didn't Give a Shit Anymore, around the time of this movie as his fifties blockbusters gave way to a series of films he didn't particularly care about other than the profits they made him, and his box office draw faltered, aside from brief bursts of success in blockbusters where he was not necessarily the lead character. But going back to One-Eyed Jacks, which he genuinely did care about, at least for a while, was there anything here to justify his indulgence - could you tell the potential he saw in it?
Originally it was a Billy the Kid yarn guided by Sam Peckinpah, who was about to make waves in Westerns and would make his own variant on this tale in the seventies, but Brando wanted something more romantic, more appealing to an audience expecting a matinee idol perhaps, and so the relationship with Dad's adopted daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer, the tragic Mexican star) was made the focus to complement the laboured Oedipal business with the obviously-named Dad. He has become a respectable Sheriff in the five years Rio has been in jail, leaving vengeful Rio no option but to upset his apple cart and, in that way when actors try to prove themselves, the plot turns masochistic as the young man is punished by society, all so he can survive the ordeal. It was all very overwrought, and the improv resulted in a lot of meaningful scenes that failed to advance the proceedings, but it did look very crisp, and the coastal setting was an original one for a Western. Alas, it did herald one thing: general audiences becoming alienated from the genre when the psychological and the violent dominated. But it does hold a curiosity factor. Music by Hugo Friedhofer.