So, for a while we had a run of reviews where I would list a lot of things that were wrong about the film and then say that I still liked it. I’m afraid we’re on the flip side here – where there’s a lot of things that put this film above what I usually expect of a Western, but….I still wasn’t a fan.
“Kid Rio” (Marlon Brando) and “Dad Longworth” (Karl Malden) start us off with a literal bang – we meet them robbing a bank in Sonora, Mexico in 1880. Mexican police surprise them celebrating at a cantina, and the pair barely manage to escape, both riding on a single aging horse Longworth steals on the way. When police corner them atop a high ridge, Rio realizes they’re close by another ranch and suggests one of them ride their exhausted horse over and trade it in for two better ones. Dad ends up making the trip – but balks at returning to the ridge, and instead rides further on to safety, abandoning Rio to the police and to a Mexican prison. So when Rio finally escapes after five years, he’s worked up a very healthy grudge, and is bound and determined to exact his revenge.
Another outlaw named Bob (Ben Johnson) soon seeks out Rio, offering him some intriguing information – Dad is now the sheriff of Monterey, California, which is exactly where Bob is heading for a bank robbery himself. So he suggests they team up – Bob will benefit from Rio’s expertise, and Rio would likely get the chance to kill Dad at some point. They plan to hang about Monterey a few days before making their hit – enough time for Rio to check in on Dad and give him one last chance to explain himself. Rio doesn’t by Dad’s story – however, he does get his head turned by Dad’s pretty stepdaughter Louisa (Pena Pellicer), spends most of the next few days with her and ultimately uses a town-wide fiesta (including a good deal of drunken carousing from Dad) to have a moonlit tryst with Louisa on the beach. Dad is infuriated when he discovers this, and when Rio gets into a scuffle with a local barfly Dad uses it as a pretext to whip Rio in the town square for “disturbing the peace”, finishing by breaking his fingers and exiling him from Monterey. The humiliation only makes Rio even more intent on revenge.
So I felt there was quite a bit that sets this film apart from other Westerns. The story is a little more complex – Rio doesn’t just ride into Monterey with guns blazing, he tries to give Dad the chance to redeem himself first. Dad’s story arc reminds me a bit of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, but in a good way – he’s told his wife and stepdaughter some stories about the old days, but not all, and there’s still some secrets he’d prefer stay hidden.
Speaking of Louisa – the film’s treatment of its Mexican characters was another point I appreciated. Other Westerns I’ve seen keep their Mexican characters firmly in the background or treat them like caricatures (I’m looking at you especially, Rio Bravo), but here, Louisa and her mother are a good deal more fleshed-out than usual, and I actually buy their respective relationships with Dad. Other more minor characters also get treated with respect – they’re not caricatures, they’re not just background color, they are people, who just so happen to exist in the same space as a bunch of gringos do, and that’s just that.
But this film still didn’t really grab me completely. Part of it might be my own grudge against Westerns – but part of it may be because of the sheer weirdness of having a Method actor playing the lead in a melodramatic genre. This was the same issue I’d had with Brando in Guys and Dolls – Brando’s giving a good performance, but it’s a mismatch between his performance style and the genre he’s in, to the point that it got distracting. By the film’s final scenes, I was actually able to accept the other actors’ work more so than Brando’s – they were a little melodramatic, but melodrama is what the genre calls for, and Brando’s work started to look wooden by comparison.
Ultimately not a favorite, but I do acknowledge the good work all around.