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Is this the first Marlon Brando film that the actor sabotaged by playing 'fun and games' with his character? Even with its stellar teaming of Brando and Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks was a box office bust in 1976. I remember hearing a theater manager voice his approval that it was leaving his house a week early so a better popcorn seller could come in: Lifeguard with Sam Elliott. It's obvious why audiences didn't go for this eccentric western -- Thomas McGuane's laconic story lumps along and finally resolves itself without giving audiences so much as a smile to carry from the theater. But everyone did remember the scene where Western bounty hunter Marlon Brando wears a dress.
The Missouri Breaks plays a lot better now. The ending is still a head-scratcher but what comes before is mostly a western lover's delight. The jokey dialogue between sad sack horse thief Nicholson and his pack of misfit rustlers is hilarious. Brando can be fun to watch as well. His 'nutty' charades provide plenty of amusement but ultimately fail to add up to a characterization. Individual viewers must decide if Brando is a plus or a liability.
The storyline is fairly realistic. Up Montana way, horse thief Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) and his pack of maladroit rustlers use train robbery money to settle into a ranch, establishing a way station for stolen horses right under the nose of hated rancher David Braxton (John McLiam), a prig who likes to read Tristam Shandy after hanging horse thieves without trial. The resentful Logan and his bunch plan to make him pay for it. But Braxton hires screwball 'regulator' Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando), a dandified sadist who enjoys bird watching and using a high-powered rifle to pick off victims at long distance. Tom Logan's disguise as an honest rancher doesn't fool Clayton, who begins playing games of provocation with him. Braxton's daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) sees through Tom like a sheet of glass -- but is strongly attracted to him.
For at least two-thirds of its running time The Missouri Breaks is one pleasant surprise after another. Reportedly assisted by an uncredited Robert Towne, author Thomas McGuane (Tom Horn, Rancho Deluxe) hits us with a constant flow of funny, authentic-sounding western dialogue as good as anything heard since Walter Brennan and The Westerner. An amusingly droll line is never more than a few seconds away, and at the half-hour mark the picture is playing like an oddball winner.
Perhaps to offset Brando's performance, Nicholson makes his Tom Logan a level-headed guy, the most personable horse thief you're likely to meet. Sentimentalists at heart, Logan's crooks mourn their hanged member because he was funny and, "everyone knows a gang needs a comedian." Cary (Frederick Forrest) whines about wanting to rob trains and banks, while the more sensible Logan and Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton) realize that kind of activity attracts serious Pinkerton heat. They instead pretend to be solid citizens while preparing 'smart' crimes like stealing horses from the Canadian Mounted Police. Harry Dean Stanton's cockeyed theory is that since nobody ever dares to rip off the incredibly efficient Mounties, they'll be an easy target!
Logan strikes sparks with Jane Braxton, who comes on to him so directly he doesn't know how to react. He's pleasantly surprised when Jane shares his saddle, facing him. But he's definitely touched by her like-minded opinion on vigilantism: thieves shouldn't be hung this year for crimes that last year earned a few months in jail.
The movie slides toward the deep end with the entrance of Marlon Brando. The eccentric choice of mannerisms he gives the preening killer Clayton are initially cute (Irish brogue, poetic flourishes) but quickly slip clean off the Silly Scale. Soon he's wearing Chinese hats, clerical collars and women's dresses, ostensibly as part of his character's method of surprising people. But to us it looks as if the actor is screwing around solely to amuse himself, regardless of the effect on the picture. The Missouri Breaks is the third of three strange westerns by Brando. He's fascinating in his self- directed One-Eyed Jacks, pretentious in Sidney J. Furie's The Appaloosa and a "Thoughtless Goofball" here. At least he doesn't trot out the Martyr Act he's used so often since On the Waterfront. For a while there he was being beaten to a pulp in every other movie.
Through Arthur Penn's careful direction The Missouri Breaks sets up a dandy situation that promises to be resolved in a more original way than a standard-issue gunfight. When Brando and Nicholson engage in tart verbal sparring both actors are on their toes. In general, though, Nicholson seems committed to the story while Brando persists in his one-man show.
The ranching details and cowboy-style action are excellent, making us believe these fellows really do live on their horses. Likewise the violence always comes as a surprise, with Brando striking out of nowhere with his big-bore rifle, or pulling some really nasty trick on an unlucky victim. As a hired killer for the cattle interests, Clayton makes us aware of Big Money's abuse of power, without becoming as heavy-handed than the grandiosely overblown Heaven's Gate and its army of marauding murderers.
Kathleen Lloyd deserved a much better career than she got; she plays off Nicholson well. It's amusing the way the assertive Jane always has Tom buffaloed. Harry Dean Stanton is reserved and graceful, Randy Quaid's goofier qualities are kept in check and Frederick Forrest and John Ryan provide distinctive smaller characters. Of the bits, Steve Franken (The Americanization of Emily) has a fine stint as a local ninny who wants to be called "The Lonesome Kid". Nicholson's old A.I.P. pal Luana Anders (Pit and the Pendulum) is a rancher's wife with a taste for visiting cowboys.
All in all, The Missouri Breaks struck me as twice the movie it seemed in 1976. Was I unappreciative then, or have movies just gotten so dull that older efforts now shine by comparison?
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Missouri Breaks is a handsome transfer for this western; it looks better here than in the theatrical print I saw in 1976. It comes from the 'goldenrod' days when cameramen were using filters to give period movies an old-time look. The older DVD (2005) was okay but the added resolution of HD focuses the amber, gold and brown colors, making the show look attractive again. Yet that bizarro interior scene where Nicholson threatens Brando in a bathtub is still strongly skewed toward amber -- it's almost monochrome.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Missouri Breaks Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.