Even with its stellar teaming of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, The Missouri Breaks was a big-bust movie in 1976. I remember hearing a theater manager happy 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.
Almost 30 years later, The Missouri Breaks plays a lot better. That ending is still a head-scratcher but most of the rest of the movie is a western lover's delight, with excellent and often hilarious dialogue between sad sack horse thief Nicholson and his pack of misfit rustlers. If anyone lets the film down, it's Brando with one of his patented 'nutty' charades. He provides plenty of amusement but ultimately becomes tiresome when his antics don't add up to a characterization - the 'Brando show' is like a thorn in the movie's side.
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 colorful 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.
Nicholson's amusingly loveable pack of crooks are sentimentalists at heart, and mourn their hanged member because "everyone knows a gang needs a comedian." Cary (Frederick Forrest) keeps wanting to rob trains and banks, while the more sensible Logan and Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton) realize that kind of activity attracts all kinds of 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 rip off the incredibly efficient Mounties, they can take them by surprise!
Logan strikes sparks with Jane Braxton, who comes on to him so directly he doesn't know how to react. 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 moves toward the deep end with the entrance of Marlon Brando. His eccentric choice of mannerisms for 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 plainly like the actor is so bored with his profession that he must invent all kinds of nonsense to amuse himself, regardless of the effect on the picture. That gives Brando a strange trio of western appearances - fascinating in his self-directed One-Eyed Jacks, pretentious in Sidney J. Furie's The Appaloosa and "Thoughtless Goofball" here.
Through Arthur Penn's careful direction The Missouri Breaks sets up a dandy situation that promises to be resolved in some original way other than a standard-issue gunfight. Brando and Nicholson engage in some tart verbal-sparring with both actors on their toes and making things work. 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. As a hired killer for the cattle interests, Clayton makes us think about the legality of such an arrangement much more than the grandiosely overblown Heaven's Gate and its armies of marauding murderers.
One less-than-lovely aspect of the picture is its cinematography, which uses filters to turn most colors toward an orangey monochrome. Interiors lack punch and the best Brando - Nicholson confrontation looks unnecessarily murky.
Kathleen Lloyd deserved a much better career than she got; she's marvelous and plays off Nicholson so well we believe she has him buffaloed half the time. Harry Dean Stanton is reserved and graceful, Randy Quaid's goofy quality is 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" and Nicholson's old AIP pal Luana Anders 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?
Sony's DVD (Sony controls all MGM releases now) of The Missouri Breaks is a good enhanced transfer that bests by far the murky and yellowed TV copies I used to see. The transfer is good -- I don't remember it looking any better theatrically. There are no extras, and Sony makes us suffer through the same insulting "You wouldn't kill your mother" anti-piracy propaganda plug before we get to the disc menu ... use the 'next chapter' button to skip it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Missouri Breaks rates: