Saturday, 4 July 2009

Marlon Brando

Apocalypse Now (1979) – The high watermarks of Brando's early career make recommending Francis Ford Coppola's atmospheric and lyrical reimagining of Joseph Conrad's novella The Heart of Darkness as essential seem strange. But everything about this film is perfectly realised, an incredible feat considering that Coppola shot millions of feet of film, Martin Sheen suffered a heart attack and they started principal photography during monsoon season. From the stark opening sequence of 'The End' by The Doors sound tracking a napalm airstrike, to Martin Sheen's haunted countenance and those incredible cameos by Robert Duvall and Dennis Hopper the film draws you inexorably inward. In Conrad's post-modern novella Kurtz is a lucid commentator on the barbaric reality of colonial Africa, whereas Brando translates this into a series of quasi-philosophical and barely comprehensible vignettes. As an exploration of the insanity and horror of modern psychological warfare and neo-colonialism it stands alone. Initially Brando's performance drew criticism, but his disassembling of various acting techniques now makes perfect sense. In the context of the film it can be seen as a continuation of his method style of acting. The Redux version ties together various plot strands and adds linking scenes which contribute to the depth and power of the film, while the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse is a fascinating insight into the making of the film.

Approach With Caution
One-Eyed Jacks (1961) – Marlon Brando took on directorial duties on this post-modern Western after removing Stanley Kubrick, while early drafts of the screenplay were worked on by Rod Sterling (The Twilight Zone creator), Sam Peckinpah and Calder Wallingham before being completed by Brando and Guy Trosper. Yet another Brando film with a troubled gestation period, but it certainly has it's moments. The title comes from a line Brando (Rio The Kid) utters to Sheriff Longworth (played by Brando's lifelong friend Karl Malden) - “To these people you're a one-eyed jack, but I've seen the other side of the card”. Brando directs in a straightforward, unfussy fashion that allows the action and scenery to dominate. While what he was trying to achieve is clear (a subversion of Western generic conventions and exploration of psychological drama through Freudian devices) it feels strangely unrewarding at times, with curious lulls between episodes of hyper-real violence. I'd rather watch Brando as Stanley Kowalski slowly being driven mad in a claustrophobic apartment in steamy New Orleans than staring moodily out at the Monterey shoreline. He was always good as a caged animal, barely able to restrain his rage and disgust. Of note: It was the only film Brando directed, Paramount's last feature shot in VistaVision and the brothel in Twin Peaks was named after the film.

The Island of Dr Moreau (1996) – Uncontrolled adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic SF horror mashup, in which Brando stars as the eponymous doctor who is experimenting on animals in order to make them more human. David Thewlis, Val Kilmer and Fairuza Balk add support to what could have been an interesting allegory on the morality of genetic engineering. Instead the tone of delirium, awful acting and heavy-handed direction from Richard Stanley (who was replaced mid-shoot by John Frankenheimer) contribute to a terrible film experience. Stanley was apparently banned from visiting the set so came back disguised as an extra in order to see what was happening. He should have stayed away. Thewlis plays his part as if this was a period (ie 19th century) adaptation, while an overweight and unprepared Brando is horrendous. Watching it again felt like rubbernecking at the scene of a tragedy.

This article was written for culture zine The Dish. To view the article on the site please click on the title.

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