Release Date(s)1976 (December 9, 2014)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: C-
- Audio Grade: C
- Extras Grade: F
Sometimes movie studios and audiences are so fixated with the movies they think they are going to get when certain directors and/or stars are paired together that their expectations blind them to the qualities of the movie they actually get. Such is the case with 1976’s The Missouri Breaks, a fantastically odd character-driven Western that had the “misfortune” of featuring the only filmed pairing of Oscar winners Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, each still very much in his potent prime. It’s utterly bewildering that a movie featuring such superlative performances from two icons and superb direction from Arthur Penn could be a critical and commercial flop. Seeing it today the eccentricities that probably threw audiences and critics off- the slow pace and focus on characters and relationships- are undoubtedly its greatest strengths. In 2014 The Missouri Breaks plays somewhere between a cult classic and a minor masterpiece
The broad outlines are so: around the prairies at the breaks of the Missouri river, Jack Nicholson’s Tom Logan runs a gang of horse rustlers who cross a local baron, David Braxton, who hangs by the neck a junior member of Logan’s gang. Logan’s gang retaliates by hanging Braxton’s ranch foreman, pushing him to hire a “Regulator” with a heavy rep by the name of Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) to wipe out the rustlers for good. Wary of these emerging threats and the challenges of moving their stolen horses over so much open ground, Logan’s gang robs a train to buy a small ranch to provide a “relay” property at which they can hide the horses between stealing and selling them. Logan’s charge is playing the part of a small-time farmer on the ranch, during which time he spars with Clayton and has a passionate affair with Braxton’s well-educated, sassy daughter.
The Missouri Breaks is no shoot ‘em up, and while it’s infused with some remarkable (and funny) physical comedy, that’s not its identity either. This is a film about the changing West that takes its time, lingering over conversations and words said, especially between Nicholson and his right-hand man Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) and, well, Brando and his horse, who he affectionately attributes as having “ … the lips of Salome and the eyes of Cleopatra.” (Yes, lips, and yes he actually knows.)
Brando’s bravura performance as Lee Clayton might be the most off-kilter of his career, the most he ever just let it all hang out on screen. From the first second we see him on screen (as unforgettable a character intro as I’ve ever seen) with his Irish brogue, he’s strange, riotously funny and yet utterly menacing. As he hunts Logan’s gang down and eventually murders them one by one, he’s by turns hilarious in his disguises- posing as a two-bit horse thief with a southern accent (still channeled through Ireland, remarkably) then “Granny” – and ruthlessly sadistic. The film superbly illustrates Clayton’s peculiar viciousness by showing him raucously enjoying himself while chasing down a hare on horseback before dispatching it with a hand-made throwing weapon; the playful but homicidal cruelty of this scene is echoed in an even more disturbing sequence in which he has a lot of fun play acting before drowning “Little Todd” (a very young Randy Quaid). In spite of his intellect, the man clearly enjoys his work, which is killing people, to an unhealthy degree.
Coming off his Oscar-winning turn in One Flew Over theCuckoo’s Nest, Nicholson is magnificent in a sly, strong and nuanced performance in a career full of seemingly larger, more iconic ones. Before becoming “Jack” the character of the 1980’s and 1990’s, Nicholson in the 1970’s regularly delivered performances like this one. He amazes at delivering intelligent, believable dialog, and yet there’s something unpredictable layered beneath, like he could explode at any second. Very eccentric rhythms and you really can’t take your eyes off him even if you can’t explain why. Here his foil Brando is the one who figures out that farmer Tom Logan is just a little too damned smart and too tough to be a simple farmer. A scene in which Brando tests and tries to intimidate Logan by shooting up his vegetable garden around him is extraordinary interplay between these two acting titans.
Best known for the American New Wave masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn was a fascinating avant-garde director who made films as varied as The Miracle Worker, the compelling but unsuccessful art film Mickey One (starring Warren Beatty with a great jazz score by Stan Getz), and 1975’s gritty and terrific Night Moves. The Missouri Breaks was actually a return of sorts to the Western genre; Penn had great success with in 1970’s Little Big Man starring Dustin Hoffman, a tall tale film that was the Forrest Gump of its era. His direction here is deliberate, and assured with great performances by every member of the cast.
While The Missouri Breaks is obviously a movie I love, there are two legitimate criticisms that can be leveled. For all the patience and precision it shows throughout the film, the ending meanders, becoming more of an ellipsis than the exclamation point it feels like it’s building to. It doesn’t exactly go out with a whimper, but maybe too much of a whisper. Far worse, John Williams’ (yes, THAT John Williams) score is a shockingly amateurish blunder. Even when it’s trying it’s never quite as evocative as the material consistently warrants, and worse, it consistently misses the emotional mark of what’s happening on screen by veering far too often into something more suited to a Western spoof. Writing this score Williams seems to have been watching The Apple Dumpling Gang, not The Missouri Breaks.
The image quality, as I’ve come to expect from Kino Lorber, is very mixed, but serviceable. Early on, digital hash and noise are consistently evident to the point of distraction, especially in the naturalistically lit interiors and nighttime shots, the latter of which are truly awful looking with very poor contrast and washed-out detail. However, the daytime shots show lovely colors, natural flesh tones and a semblance of depth. Fine detail is mostly MIA, which is a shame because the exteriors are compelling. Interestingly, a good chunk of the film toward the end looks noticeably cleaner and sharper. Overall, the presentation is dragged down by its considerable flaws, which are too visible too often.
The sound is better and more consistent. While presented in DTS-HD Master Audio stereo, it’s clean with clear intelligible dialog and reasonably good fidelity throughout. While the score sucks, the aural presentation of it here is respectable. The only extra is a pretty good trailer that’s notable for showing some apparent alternate takes of some scenes. Not surprisingly it plays up what action there is as though there’s more, and really pushes the drama between Brando and Nicholson.
I think the first time I saw The Missouri Breaks was back in the day on TV. I read its description in TV Guide, and thought, “wow, Nicholson and Brando, who cares if it’s got a two-star rating, I’m in.” And I always saw a 4.5-5 star movie. Kino Lorber has presented this unfairly maligned picture with a serviceable transfer, and practically nothing else. Until someone does something better with this, it’s worth having, but probably by virtue of the movie being good enough that it will be a great discovery for those who haven’t seen it and a welcome revisit for those who have.
- Shane Buettner