Monday 24 September 2007

The Missouri Breaks (1976) Arthur Penn

Presented as a revisionist western, this isn't one of those German films that just reverses everything so that the Indians are the good guys being persecuted by the bad guy Americans. It's something entirely different, so much so that people are still arguing about it today, over thirty years after its initial release. It had a killer cast, not just the two leads who appeared together for the first and only time, at a major point in both their careers.

Marlon Brando had just mounted a successful comeback in 1972 with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, and this was his next film. Nicholson was still finding his way out of the underground in 1972. However, he'd made Chinatown in 1974 and his last film before this one was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the previous year. Backing them up are character actors like Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton and Frederick Forrest. The director is Arthur Penn, a long while after Bonnie and Clyde, but a year after Night Moves.

The big man at the beginning of the film is David Braxton, played by John McLiam just like he was Ben Gazzara. He's a successful rancher with a lot of money and a lot of horses, but he's continually plagued by rustlers who take a substantial percentage of his stock every year, a full seven per cent. Jack Nicholson is the chief rustler, Tom Logan, and he has quite a band of men, but he loses one right at the start of the film to Braxton's noose.

The Missouri Breaks is slow and wandering and doesn't seem to have a lot of point to anything. There's no focus, it seems. The hope of course while watching is that each of the scenes will eventually fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces and give us a bigger picture, and that question runs for a long time. There are great scenes on the way though, such as the botched train job and the trial of the Lonesome Kid. Eventually we meet Marlon Brando, and then all bets are off. Brando plays Robert E Lee Clayton like a lunatic and his first scene leaves us wondering just what the heck we saw.

He's a regulator, one with a serious reputation and a large wardrobe, let alone a bizarre collection of accents. Braxton hires him because the rustlers cut down the thief he hanged and hung up Braxton's foreman in his place, but soon comes to regret bringing in such a seemingly unstable character. Quite what we should make of Brando's performance is open to debate but it's one that invites it. It's hardly a quiet background performance and that's obviously deliberate. If Arthur Penn was trying to get us to question just what the western was really all about, Brando was trying to get us to question just what makes a hero in one. At least I think he was. The part certainly wasn't played as scripted as Penn apparently gave up on trying to direct him and let him do whatever he wanted. Maybe Brando was just playing a joke on us.

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