[Originally published in Movietone News 51, August 1976]
I was prepared—by Tom McGuane’s insipid earlier scripts and by Brando’s increasingly self-indulgent performances in recent years—to dislike The Missouri Breaks, and so was considerably surprised to find myself enjoying it. Now I’m just as surprised to find that I am relatively alone in having liked the film. Even people who liked Rancho Deluxe don’t seem to have found much to redeem The Missouri Breaks, which is basically the same story minus the comic touch, the contemporary setting, and the intemperate amoralism of McGuane’s essentially adolescent fantasy. In The Missouri Breaks, McGuane is still in the pat-on-the-ass world of male friendships and lockerroom values; but director Arthur Penn appears to have provided a mitigating, steadying influence on McGuane’s unsure hand where Frank Perry—of an adolescent temperament himself—could not. Penn seems to me more and more not an auteur himself but a skilled craftsman whose strength lies in the intelligent direction of other people’s exceptional scripts. Gore Vidal’s The Left-Handed Gun, Horton Foote’s The Chase, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, Newman and Benton’s Bonnie and Clyde, and even Alan Sharp’s postproduction-altered Night Moves are all literate scripts by good, careful writers; and most of Penn’s movies seem to depend as much on the writing that preceded the film (add Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man to that) as on directorial influence and the cinematic process. But if Penn’s films tend to showcase their writing (and, incidentally, consistently fine acting), this does not minimize his personal skill as a creative director. For me, Penn is approaching the stature of William Wyler—a capable director whose personality and vision are subjugated by the dedication of the disciplined craftsman to make the idea at hand into the best film it can be. Sometimes, as with Alice’s Restaurant and Little Big Man, that’s none too good; but more often, the results have been more than satisfactory.
In the case of The Missouri Breaks, the film’s continuity is a compromise between tight, singleminded, classic Western narrative, which moves always toward the moment of showdown; and the rambling, episodic, often uncontrolled adolescent odyssey of McGuane’s world evidenced previously in Perry’s Rancho Deluxe and the writer’s own 92 in the Shade. Penn has used a kind of associative imagery to bind the edges of the film during its early exposition sequences, which might otherwise have run amok. The hanging man image from the opening scene, for example, is restated in variations to inject a unity into the episodic continuity: Booted feet swing from the upper gallery of the saloon where rowdy customers enjoy Braxton’s parody of the trial of a robber; the still-hanging body of the milk-white young rustler Sandy (“You didn’t cut him down!” “Yes, I did!”) is replaced by that of Braxton’s own foreman; the train-robbing rustlers vote on what to do with the remaining money while a man glides back and forth on a garden swing in the just-out-of-focus background; Robert E. Lee Clayton makes his appearance at Braxton’s ranch using the old Indian trick of hanging from his horse so the horse seems empty (while, inside, a funeral is taking place).
Like the narrative, McGuane’s characters are more grownup, more controlled here than in previous efforts. Logan the rustler actually falls genuinely in love, and finds a certain satisfaction in the life of a fruit-and-vegetable farmer (which he first unwillingly takes on to provide the rustlers a front for the relay of stolen horses), calling up the spirit of Voltaire’s Candide, whom he resembles in a number of ways. Clayton, by contrast, is—for all his bubble-bath-and-dude-duds foppishness—a conscienceless killer, interested in the art and thrill of the kill, not in the law he is hired to enforce, the money he is paid, or the property he is to protect. Brando’s use of different accents in the role, his changing guises and characterizations, are appropriate to Clayton, in that they reflect the fetishist’s need to dress up the climactic act in new and different ways to intensify the excitement. The fetishist is essentially one for whom the natural excitement of sexual activity is quickly dulled and must be rediscovered, re-created, by the implementation of new trappings and adornments. Clayton, the killer, assuming his successive disguises, kills one man by cutting an umbilical rope, letting him be swept away by the river; another by rifle blast as the victim is in the throes of sexual congress (the woman’s hurried “You’ve got four minutes” becomes retrospectively ominous as the rustler is blown away by the Ultimate Orgasm); a third in a toilet, his underwear soiled in mud, blood, and waste; and a fourth with a hideous primitive weapon of Clayton’s own devising, the death blow delivered whilst disguised as a kindly old granny (who has just burned the rustlers’ hideout to the ground).
Clayton’s sick sensibility is starkly opposed to Logan’s normality. Ironically the law enforcer, not the lawbreaker, is the man of violence: Clayton’s cabbage-shooting pistola becomes the emblem of that distinction. Logan’s earlier effort to provoke Clayton into arming himself and confronting him in honored Western style is foiled when Clayton peevishly refuses to cut short his bubble bath to face the challenge. Logan’s traditional sense of Western honor causes him to leave in frustration; but later, after his fellow rustlers are dead, he will have no more of honor. He stalks the regulator just as Clayton stalked his victims, surprising him in camp (“You know what woke you up, Robert Lee?”) for a Reckoning unlike any the Western genre has ever seen. From Clayton’s bathtub to the open-air boudoir of his campfire, Logan’s opposition to the killer unfolds in the images and ambience of spontaneous erotic encounter, in sharp contrast to Clayton’s labored theatrics. The reckoning itself is as unusual a moment—and as unexpected—as any I can recall. The film doesn’t end there—there are other issues and characters still to be dealt with—but it’s an important moment, not just for Clayton, Logan, and the film, but also for McGuane, Penn, and the movies.
THE MISSOURI BREAKS
Direction: Arthur Penn. Screenplay: Thomas McGuane. Cinematography: Michael Butler. Production design: Albert Brenner. Editing: Jerry Greenberg, Stephen A. Rotter, Dede Allen. Music: John Williams. Production: Elliott Kastner, Robert M. Sherman.
The players: Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Kathleen Lloyd, Harry Dean Stanton, John McLiam Randy Quaid, Frederic Forrest, John Ryan, Sam Gilman.
© 1976 Robert C. Cumbow