The Missouri Breaks Review

Marlon Brando, who died last Friday at the age of 80, wasn't merely a great actor. He was, in the opinion of this writer, the greatest American film actor of the 20th Century whose work will reverberate, provoke, frustrate and delight long after all of us have joined him in whatever place great artists go to. MGM's release of one of his best films, Arthur Penn's bizarre Western Gothic The Missouri Breaks offers an opportunity to consider just why Brando was so uniquely important to American cinema and why his gifts were so often undervalued - sometimes by himself.

It's probable that Brando's two best known performances, as far as the general public is concerned, are in A Streetcar Named Desire and The Godfather. Given that both display certain very typical aspects of his craft, this is reasonably appropriate. Streetcar shows off his method intensity and the essential physical sexuality of his prime. One look at Brando's Stanley Kowalski and you can see that he is in a permanent state of heat and it's entirely believable that Blanche would be seduced by him and Stella would continually take him back. This was a stunning characterisation upon which to build a film career and Brando built on it with more sympathetic roles in On The Waterfront and The Wild One. But he was never a settled, complacent actor. He wanted to push himself and see if he could fail. This led him to some extraordinary choices; a rather good, Olivier-inspired Mark Anthony in Julius Caesar; an embarrassing Oriental in Teahouse of the August Moon. But he was rarely less than riveting, even when he was very bad. It's entirely appropriate that his comeback, in 1972 after three years absence from the screen, should have been as Don Corleone in The Godfather, a role which posed some physical challenges and offered him the chance to dominate the screen. In these films, Brando is a great ham, a grandstanding movie star whom the camera simply adores.

But there's another Brando, one that I find much more interesting. This is the Brando who goes too far and risks embarrassing himself in roles which would be unplayable by anyone else. The Missouri Breaks shows us this Brando to some extent, although the amount of fun he has in the part places it more in the grandstanding category. But the extraordinarily daring Brando made two key appearances in cinema, both of them quite remarkable. The first is the lesser known; his role in Huston's ambitious, underrated Reflections In A Golden Eye. Playing a painfully repressed homosexual, Brando is riveting as you watch him humiliating himself in front of his nymphomaniacal wife and the young soldier whom he adores. He gets so far under the skin of this character that you're not sure how he could ever find a way out and his emotions are placed directly in front of us in a way which is enormously daring.

The second appearance is in Last Tango In Paris. The film itself is brilliant enough but what makes it a masterpiece is Brando's performance. Fearless, horrifying, desperately sad and emotionally naked, I think this is the greatest piece of screen acting in American film. Brando rips himself apart as Paul, the American in Paris, stricken by grief, despair and loneliness and he opens himself up so far that you sometimes have to avert your eyes from the screen, both in fear and, in my case, self-conscious recognition. Everything he does goes too far, in the conventional sense, and there doesn't seem to be any safety net for him because this confused, broken man is at the centre of the film. But he does it anyway. There has never been a better portrait of middle-aged malaise developing into hopeless sadness than Brando creates in this film and if one performance has to be his epitaph, then this is it.

As for The Missouri Breaks, it's the fifth great film made by Arthur Penn in a streak which began with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. Upon release, it was greeted with either ecstatic acclaim or frank vilification and even now it tends to divide viewers. A western, taking place in middle-America during the mid-19th Century, its about a rustler, Tom Logan (Nicholson), whose use of a ranch as a front in order to give him a waystation for stolen cattle, backfires when he becomes obsessed with making a personal success as a farmer. Intending to teach corrupt, senile landowner Braxton (McLiam) a humiliating lesson, he finds himself falling in love with Braxton?s free spirited daughter Jane (Lloyd), and wanting to settle down to a quiet life. But Braxton?s obsession with "law and order" - conveniently ignoring his own use of lynchings and kangaroo courts - leads him to bring in Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando), a lethal regulator whose baroque, comic behaviour masks an extreme taste for sadistic killing.

This is a very odd film, delightfully so; one which tells a compelling historical story about the essential role played by intimidation and violence in creating America, but which also, thanks to Thomas McGuane's rivetingly off-beat screenplay, finds plenty of time for decidedly strange diversions. In a sense, it's picaresque in that it partially sees narrative as an excuse for wildly bizarre set-pieces which play variations on the main theme. During the first half hour, we get a deliciously idiosyncratic train robbery, appropriate references to literature (notably Tristram Shandy, a book whose strange digressions from anything approaching a coherent narrative seem to have been a key influence on Brando's performance), some witty, often irrelevant anecdotes and a marvellous moment when a mild-mannered storekeeper falsely confesses to robbery in order to gain a reputation as an outlaw. Even the opening, a lynching, is presented like a genteel Sunday afternoon outing with Braxton waxing lyrical on the beauty of the countryside. The bizarre view of life paraded by General Custer in Little Big Man, Penn's earlier Western, seems to have spread to everyone inhabiting the banks of the Missouri river.

However, nothing quite prepares us for what the film is about to become. 32 minutes into the movie, a horse trots down a hill, seemingly without a rider. Suddenly, from underneath, out pops the head of Brando and nothing in the film is ever quite the same. It's been complained that Brando's performance, turning Clayton into a clowning, philosophical madman, ruins the film but I think that it does the contrary - it turns a well observed Western into a blackly comic masterpiece. At one point, Braxton's daughter quotes Samuel Johnson's dictum - "A blade of grass is a blade of grass. Tell me something about a human being" - and this could well be the epigram for the film. Historical realism and stunning countryside are all very well, but The Missouri Breaks is essentially a film about how strangely individual people can be. Brando is hysterically funny from his first scene, when he disrupts a wake - "I'm sorry for your trouble" - and manhandles the corpse in order to lecture the guests on the subject of justice. But he's also rather frightening, not least because we really can't imagine what he might do next. Given that "regulators" were little more than hired guns without the difficulty of legal problems to hold them back, this is quite appropriate. When he first kills one of Logan's gang, a slightly slow but likeable outlaw played by Randy Quaid, it's sudden and unnerving, partly because the scene is so perversely jolly and partly because he's already spent the night with him and barely lifted a finger. The more extravagantly attention-seeking Brando becomes, the more other-worldly he seems and the overall effect is rivetingly demonic. The celebration of the needlessly baroque which dominates Sterne's Tristram Shandy - already established as Braxton's favourite book -and gives that work its surreal comic spirit is perfectly represented by Brando's performance By the time he's wearing a dress in order to incinerate one of the gang - "Old Granny's getting tired now" - and dedicating a love song to his horse, he's created one of the great movie villains. Of course, if you're looking for the kind of realism which made a villain like Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett so impressive in Eastwood's Unforgiven, then Brando's performance isn't likely to satisfy you. But this free-wheeling, dementedly gothic movie - almost a horror movie in some respects - is a different type of film and one which offers an equally valid view of what constitutes evil.

I think that, contrary to the view of some people, Penn's film is entirely under control and that the madness which erupts in Brando's performance is exactly what was intended. The film is about what Tom Milne described as "the historical role played by fear and violence in the taming of the wilderness" and, as such, madness seems an entirely appropriate depiction of this tendency. In fact, I would go further and say that this is as bleak and clear-eyed a view of the insane and senseless brutality at the heart of American history as Penn's less coherent Little Big Man. The beautiful Missouri countryside seems to gradually turn into a hellish inferno, full of corpses and grinning evil. It's interesting to see Jack Nicholson in the midst of this landscape - one which would become familiar territory for him in later years - but playing the essentially decent moral centre of the film. Certainly, Logan is an outlaw and a criminal but his code of honour and regard for his friends is a good deal more attractive than the psychosis of Clayton and the senile platitudes of Braxton. In the scenes with Lloyd, Nicholson is as relaxed and likeable as he's ever been and it's good to see a film in which he isn't the most brazen overactor in the place. In one of his scenes with Brando - when the great man is in a bubble bath - the acting sparks really do fly and you can sense the competition between the two men. As for their brief final confrontation, it's the kind of scene you will either love for its sheer gall or consider a complete cop-out. I am, without a doubt, in the former camp.

Arthur Penn's direction is as sure and confident as you'd expect. He's skilful enough to offer us incidental details and to know when to place these at the centre of a scene. Brando's performance is, of course, all incidental detail, but this fits in with the tone and scheme of the film. The cinematography by Michael Butler is often stunningly beautiful but it's never allowed to dominate the characters. These are beautifully etched by a large supporting cast. John McLiam is superb as Braxton, all bluster and outward respectability, and the outlaws are played to perfection by four great cult actors: Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, John Ryan and the aforementioned Quaid. Pride of place, however, should go to Kathleen Lloyd who is a marvellously spirited heroine. She has a remarkably natural manner and the scene where she seduces Logan into bed is a joy. Her place in the where-are-they-now file is quite unaccountable based on her work here and in the following year's The Car. The icing on an already rich cake has to be John Williams' uncharacteristically quirky and adventurous music score, one of the most unusual ever to grace the genre.

The Missouri Breaks is certainly not a typical Western and it might be hard for some viewers to get used to the tone, which mixes picaresque comedy with thoroughly unsettling horror. But it offers a myriad of pleasures, from the off-hand and colourful dialogue to the dangerous pantomime of Brando's performance. It's also a Western which is explicitly and confrontationally political, something which many found hard to stomach back in 1976; a time when the emphasis was on Bicentennial regression and the "healing" of the nation. Missouri Breaks rips open the stitches and presents an America of festering wounds of violence and aggression upon which an entire civilisation was built. Like Michael Cimino with Heaven's Gate, Arthur Penn was attacked for his un-Americanism. But like the later film, the triumph of The Missouri Breaks is that, although it's poignant and often very affecting, it's not comforting or elegaic. It's confrontational and difficult; in short, it's alive and god-damned pissed off.

The Disc

Sadly, this masterpiece has been shortchanged by the increasingly unreliable MGM. A poor visual transfer is matched by a mediocre soundtrack and nothing whatsoever in the way of extras. If this really is the best that Leo The Lion can do, then I think I'd rather he didn't bother.

The film is presented in an anamorphically enhanced ratio of 1.85:1. That's the good news. The level of detail is reasonably good, especially considering the deliberate range of lighting styles used in the film, and I didn't notice many compression artefacts. But otherwise, it looks fairly horrible. The print used seems unnaturally dull with colours appearing very faded and blacks coming across as very weak indeed. There's a good deal of texturing on the image, more so than you'd get with a normal film-like grainy appearance. Scratches and smearing appear throughout. There is also some horrible edge enhancement during some of the interior scenes. The Missouri Breaks deserves the full restored special edition treatment. At the very least, it deserves more respect than is shown here.

The mono soundtrack is rather more acceptable. John Williams' score is at the forefront of the track and comes over very strongly indeed. Dialogue is clear, bearing in mind that Brando's Irish brogue seems to be deliberately incoherent at times. Using the subtitles enabled me to decipher some of his dialogue for the first time ever after seeing the film at least twelve times.

There are no extras of any kind. The film is divided into 16 chapters. A range of subtitles are offered.

MGM?s lowering quality threshold is very evident on this disc. A marvellous film like this should receive much better treatment than it gets here. If you haven't seen the film and you can get this disc cheap then I might cautiously point you in its direction. Otherwise, you might as well steer clear because fans of the movie are going to feel horribly disappointed with the picture quality on offer here.

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