By Linc Leifeste | January 18, 2015
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: Thomas McGuane
Starring: Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Kathleen Lloyd, Frederic Forrest, Harry Dean Stanton, John McLiam
Probably most legendary for being the the only cinematic pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, and dismissed by many over the years as having little more to recommend it, 1976’s The Missouri Breaks has a number of other things going for it. For one, it was directed by Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man) at the height of his directorial powers. Second, it’s a quirky western made in the middle of arguably American cinema’s finest decade. Third, fourth and fifth, it features a stellar supporting turn by Harry Dean Stanton, whose haunting performance, while definitely less flashy or grandiose, is arguably better than that of either leading man. Never, ever underestimate the power of Harry Dean Stanton. And thanks to Kino Lorber Studio Classics, the film is now available on Blu-ray.
Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) is a small time bandit. A cattle rustler, horse thief and occasional train robber, he runs with five fellow bandits in the Montana Badlands, near the vicinity of the large ranch of self-made cattle baron David Braxton (John McLiam). When one of Logan’s gang is caught stealing from Braxton, who’s been losing seven percent of his stock, he’s summarily hanged. In short order, the ramrod of Braxton’s ranch is murdered, found hanging in the same grove of trees. In response, Braxton calls in famed “regulator” Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) to kill the men responsible, in the process setting in motion a lot of bloodshed.
From the moment Brando appears on screen, trick-riding hidden on the side of his horse, sporting long white hair and wearing a white fringed leather jacket, it’s clear he’s intent on stealing the show. Eccentricity is the name of the game. And there are the many stories about Brando’s behavior related to the film: drawn out contract negotiations, bizarre behavior throughout the production, relying on the use of cue cards and more. But it was his off the wall performance, mostly evidently improvised with endless ad libbing, which Penn supposedly finally gave up fighting against, that has led people to speculate that he was intentionally trying to sabotage the film. Personally, I can’t speak to Brando’s motivations but I’m grateful he made the choices he did. His performance is a delicious, unforgettable blend of eccentricity, comedy and frightening, sociopathic evil. The scene where he executes Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton), Logan’s closest comrade, while dressed in drag for some unknown reason, has to be seen to be believed. It is visually unforgettable.
As Clayton begins to hunt down Logan’s band one by one, using a variety of methods of murder, Logan is pursuing an affair with Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), who doesn’t approve of her father’s heavy handed justice or lust for power. It’s it in this quirky romantic storyline that the film slightly falters (along with it’s heavy handed 70’s score), with Lloyd’s character and performance both feeling somewhat undercooked, but Logan’s opportunities for rolling in the hay are soon cut short by his impending showdown with Clayton. They have two early encounters, and watching the two circle around one another like predatory wolves is a delight to behold, each having the opportunity to kill the other but neither taking the opportunity, before their third fatal encounter finally seals the deal.