Rio (Marlon Brando) (also called "The Kid"), his mentor Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and a third man called Doc rob a bank of two saddlebags of gold in Sonora, Mexico. The robbery is successful, but Mexican rurales (mounted police) track them and catch them celebrating in a cantina, killing Doc. Dad and Rio manage to escape.
After getting cornered on a high ridge, with Rio's horse dead, Rio figures the rurales will be "swarming all over us inside an hour." Deciding that one partner might take the remaining pony, ride to a jacalito down the canyon about five miles and return with fresh mounts, they gamble for it, with Rio fixing the deal so his pal Dad can be the one to go.
Dad gets to a corral, strapping the swag bag onto a fresh pony, but he gets second thoughts. He casts one eye towards a point on the ridge sure to be taken by the rurales, and with the other he gazes off in the opposite direction out past a low-lying treeline towards the border and safety. One way leads to danger and a poor chance at surviving with half the booty, the other towards a virtual certainty with all of it. After a decidedly short moment of reflection, he leaves his friend to be taken by the rurales. Rio is arrested and transported to prison by way of the jacalito, where he learns firsthand of Dad's betrayal from the owner.
Rio spends five hard years in a Sonora prison, giving him ample time to mull over Dad's betrayal before escaping with new partner Chico Modesto (Larry Duran) and going hunting for him. When he locates him, Longworth has used his wealth to become the sheriff of Monterey, California. Instead of ambushing Dad, Rio gives him a chance to explain why he left him back in Mexico, pretending he had never been captured to put him off-guard. Longworth's awkward self-serving story is easily seen through.
All along Rio planned not only to kill Dad, but to pull off a bank robbery in Monterey with his new partners Chico and "scum-suckin' pig" Bob Emory (Ben Johnson) (who used his knowledge of Dad's whereabouts to force their partnership). Plans are sidetracked when Rio falls in love with Longworth's beautiful virginal stepdaughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer), taking advantage of a fiesta to spend the night with her on the beach. Dad tries to make Louisa confess to being deflowered, but after intervention by his wife Maria (Katy Jurado) he backs down. He nevertheless traps Rio and administers a vicious beating with a whip in front of the entire town, smashing Rio's gun hand with the butt of a shotgun in an attempt to end his gun-slinging days.
While recovering from his wounds near the ocean, Rio struggles with his conflicting desires to love the girl and to kill her stepfather. He decides to forgo vengeance, fetch Louisa and leave, but Emory, having decided that Rio will never be fast enough to challenge him again, kills Chico and pulls off the bank job without Rio's knowledge. The heist goes wrong and a young girl is killed. Rio is falsely accused and locked up by Longworth. Knowing that the trial's outcome is certain, Rio sure to be hanged in two days, Dad has one last private talk with him, again attempting to absolve himself, to which Rio replies, "You may be a one-eyed jack around here, but I’ve seen the other side of your face." Rio confesses to being imprisoned for the last five years, but Dad calls it a lie.
After Louisa visits Rio in jail to confess that she is going to have his baby, he is beaten by sadistic deputy Lon Dedrick (Slim Pickens) out of envy for Louisa's affection. Maria faces Dad about telling her the truth, stating she knew something was wrong since the moment Rio arrived and that Dad is going to hang him out of pure guilt. Longworth angrily leaves.
Louisa attempts to smuggle a Derringer pocket pistol to Rio, but she is discovered by Lon, who leaves the gun on a table. While they are out, Rio with great difficulty is able to get hold of the pistol, but it is without ammunition. Rio bluffs his way out of jail, helping himself to Lon's revolver after a tense confrontation. As he is making his escape, he is spotted by Dad in the center of town. Under fire and left with no choice, Rio kills Longworth in a final showdown.
Rio and Louisa ride out to the dunes and say a sentimental farewell. Rio will now be a hunted man and is already wanted in Mexico, so he tells Louisa that he's going to Oregon, but to look for him in the spring, when he will return for her.Marlon Brando as Rio
Karl Malden as Dad Longworth
Ben Johnson as Bob Emory
Katy Jurado as Maria Longworth
Pina Pellicer as Louisa
Slim Pickens as Lon Dedrick
Larry Duran as Chico Modesto
Sam Gilman as Harvey Johnson
Timothy Carey as Howard Tetley
Miriam Colon as Redhead
Elisha Cook, Jr. as Carvey (billed as Elisha Cook)
Rodolfo Acosta as Mexican Rurale Captain (billed as Rudolph Acosta)
Tom Webb as Farmer's Son
Ray Teal as Barney
John Dierkes as Chet
Philip Ahn as Uncle
Margarita Cordova as Nika, Flamenco Dancer
Hank Worden as Doc
Rod Serling, already famed as the creator of The Twilight Zone series, wrote an adaptation of the novel The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider (1956), at the request of producer Frank P. Rosenberg. The book was a fictional treatment of the familiar Billy the Kid story, relocated from New Mexico to the Monterey Peninsula in California. The adaptation was rejected.
Rosenberg next hired Sam Peckinpah, who finished his first script on 11 November 1957. Marlon Brando's Pennebaker Productions had paid $40,000 for the rights to Authentic Death and then signed a contract with Stanley Kubrick to direct for Paramount Pictures. Peckinpah handed in a revised screenplay on 6 May 1959. Brando later fired Peckinpah and hired Calder Willingham, but after he and Brando stalled, both Willingham and Kubrick were fired. Guy Trosper became the new screenwriter and worked on the story with Brando, who volunteered to serve as director.
The movie had very little resemblance to the Neider novel, and what remains has much more resonance with history than fiction. At various times, the two credited screenwriters and the uncredited Peckinpah have claimed (or had claimed for them) a majority of the responsibility for the film. When Karl Malden was asked who really wrote the story, he said: "There is one answer to your question — Marlon Brando, a genius in our time."
The film was Paramount Pictures' last feature released in VistaVision. Cinematographer Charles Lang received an Academy Award nomination in the Best Cinematography, Color category that year. Upon release, it made little money, leading to a string of unsuccessful films for Brando.
Marlon Brando shot a total of five hours of additional footage, some of which was later destroyed. Later, other directors worked on the rest of the film after Brando walked away from the production. He did not direct another film in his later years, but he did continue to act. In a 1975 Rolling Stone interview Brando said of directing, "You work yourself to death. You're the first one up in the morning... I mean, we shot that thing on the run, you know, You make up the dialogue the scene before, improvising, and your brain is going crazy".
The film was released on March 30, 1961 in New York City. The film was selected for screening as part of the Cannes Classics section at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. The Cannes screening was that of a 4K restoration supervised by Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and The Film Foundation.
One-Eyed Jacks received mixed reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 54% critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.2/10. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, favorably influenced by Brando's efforts, noted: "... Directed and played with the kind of vicious style that Mr. Brando has put into so many of his skulking, scabrous roles. Realism is redolent in them, as it is in many details of the film. But, at the same time, it is curiously surrounded by elements of creamed-cliché romance and a kind of pictorial extravagance that you usually see in South Sea island films." Variety, on the other hand, wrote: "It is an oddity of this film that both its strength and its weakness lie in the area of characterization. Brando's concept calls, above all, for depth of character, for human figures endowed with overlapping good and bad sides to their nature." Dave Kehr of The Chicago Reader wrote: "There is a strong Freudian pull to the situation (the partner's name is “Dad”) that is more ritualized than dramatized: the most memorable scenes have a fierce masochistic intensity, as if Brando were taking the opportunity to punish himself for some unknown crime."
One-Eyed Jacks is the name of a brothel in the TV series Twin Peaks created by David Lynch and Mark Frost. That it shares the same name as this film is acknowledged in dialogue between Donna Hayward and Audrey Horne, where Audrey asks Donna if she has heard of "One-Eyed Jacks" and Donna responds "Isn't that that Western with Marlon Brando?"
Johnny Burnette released a tie-in song The Ballad of the One-Eyed Jacks.
The film fell into the public domain and for years was only available via numerous low quality, budget reissues on VHS and DVD. In 2016, work was completed on a "New 4K digital restoration, undertaken by Universal Pictures in partnership with The Film Foundation and in consultation with filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg". This restoration was issued on Blu-ray and DVD in November 2016 by the Criterion Collection in the US, and in June 2017 by Arrow Video in the UK.