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Marlon talks in tongues
on 1 November 2012
This isn`t really a western, more a film about a group of disparate people that happens to be set in the West. Arthur Penn was one of Hollywood`s most interesting directors once upon a time, in the 60s & 70s, and this is one of his most likeable films.
Following on from his commercial and artistic success in The Godfather and Last Tango, Brando here has a part he must have relished. He`s given all the room he wants to be as eccentric, charming, devilish, expansive, witty, watchful, camp, and downright scary as he wishes. He plays Lee Clayton, a `Regulator` brought to a small Montana community by a rich rancher (played beautifully by John McLiam, an actor who seems to have disappeared) to get rid of its unruly elements by fair means or foul.
But Clayton isn`t merely a freelance lawman - if he`s even that - but a law unto himself. His arrival is a ghostly one, his movements as enigmatic as his whole persona. Is this man even real? Brando plays him, most of the time, with a credible Irish lilt, except when he wants to truly intimidate members of the diffuse gang of horse thieves he`s come to run to ground, when he is as American as they are.
Brando`s performance is virtuosic, not to mention utterly riveting, with his weird costumes and weirder repertoire of voices - and just wait till he starts talking to his horses - reminding me why I could never take my eyes off him in any film in those days. He was one of a kind - no wonder a generation of actors looked up to him.
Nicholson is equally fine in a less showy role. In fact, he and Brando strike just the right sparks off each other in their scenes together.
The other performance to treasure is courtesy of that wiry, wrily sad gentleman of American film, the wonderful Harry Dean Stanton - still with us at 86! His scenes with both Jack and Marlon are to treasure. How good to see Stanton in a part worthy of his talent; too often he was relegated to brief cameos.
That superb actor Frederic Forrest is barely glimpsed, but lanky Randy Quaid, a ubiquitous actor in those days, is seen to good effect, sharing a telling scene with Brando. (How young actors must have been excited at the thought of screen time with such a legend!)
The other performance that impresses is by Kathleen Lloyd, who proves a fresh and feisty partner to Nicholson in their several scenes together. She may look a little too `modern` but she acts with naturalness and humour.
The film looks great, and Penn`s direction is near-faultless. Script is by Thomas McGuane, and music by none other than John Williams, post-Jaws and pre-Star Wars.
In truth I`d award this about nine out of ten, so my five-star rating is perhaps generous, but if it inspires just one person to see this offbeat delight, then that`s to the good.
In 1976 Brando was 52, Nicholson was 39. Both look ageless here, and Marlon looks like nothing less than a portly fallen angel. With an aim that never misses.
Do see The Missouri Breaks.