THE MISSOURI BREAKS was not a success in 1976, with much critical honking on Marlon Brando’s bizarre performance, and a put-off public only showing $14,000,000 worth of interest in his antics, even when paired with new-Marlon-on-the-block Jack Nicholson. 43rd place was considered a flop, particularly galling in view of the cost of at least $10,000,000, a goodly amount of that for then-startling star salaries. Conflicting versions abound of how it all came together–or didn’t. Marketing leaned to a Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid kind of experience, which was hardly the case. At the time few liked it, including the people who made it. Today, it’s yet another “rediscovery” that a new generation of reviewer-fans breathlessly elevate to ‘overlooked masterpiece’ status. And I have a horse to sell you. Brand? What brand? *
Montana in the late 19th-century. Practical-minded horse-rustler ‘Tom Logan’ (Nicholson) and his gang try to one-up a regional land baron (John McLiam) by buying a nearby ranch to use as a conduit for their critter smuggling. Tom even gets a fling going with the man’s free-spirited daughter (Kathleen Lloyd). Tom’s close-knit crew (Harry Dean Stanton, Randy Quaid, John P. Ryan, Frederic Forrest) are rowdy but not vicious. Then a renowned “regulator” (nice word for assassin) shows up to restore Order, and with Law on his side, the decidedly strange ‘Robert E. Lee Clayton’ (Brando) lets the rustlers see how rough the range can really get.
Written by Thomas McGuane (Rancho Deluxe), handsomely shot on some great locations in Montana and Nevada, as directed–“watched over”–by Arthur Penn, the tone wobbles from horseplay nonsense (not helped by John Williams off-base score) to cold brutality, with only one character to warm up to (very well played by Harry Dean Stanton), and a downer finish that—since this is a western from the 70s—ensures we’re left a sour shrug as payment for 126 minutes of meandering. Nicholson and Lloyd—she’s about as 1890 Montana as Walmart—don’t strike any sparks.
Brando’s largely improvised, off-the-wall choices (put-on Irish brogue, fiddling with carrots and his horse, sporting a conical coolie hat, dressing in drag) are either—depending on the viewers fist-tightening patience or breath-caught rapture—absurd and smug, or inspired and insightful. On the fence, we’ll say all of the above.
With Steve Franken (a fun bit), Richard Bradford (hardly there), Sam Gilman, Luana Anders. Michael C. Butler was the cinematographer, his work and that from the late Mr. Stanton give the film more glue than every other element. **
* Director Penn had dealt with Brando on The Chase. Word is that here he just let Marlon do whatever the hell he felt like. Brando’s famous reliance on cue-cards was much in play, vexing other cast members. One report of a sample of this absurd catering to ego had Brando wanting cards pasted on John McLiam’s face. When McLiam protested that he couldn’t see, the star suggested cutting holes for his eyes. The cues were stuck to the wall behind McLiam, who at least emerged with some dignity. “Variety” quoted writer McGuane as saying Brando and Jack were “willful and capricious”: he distanced himself. Robert Towne did rewrites, sans credit. This was hardly the first time Brando dicked with a production to suit himself (The Young Lions, Mutiny On The Bounty, The Appaloosa), with more to come (Apocalypse Now and the worst, The Island Of Dr. Moreau), but along with the last-mentioned, it’s one of the showiest and strangest games he played. Some think it’s genius. Judge for yourself.
** Supporting player Steve Franken (1932-2012) is best-remembered from the classic TV series The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis, where he pulled down many-a-laugh as ‘Chatsworth Osborne, Jr.’ After seven years of TV work, Kathleen Lloyd’s feature debut fizzled out, with following turkeys like The Car, Skateboard, It Lives Again and Take Down leading back to TV.