[box cover]

The Missouri Breaks

Flogged in pre-release advertising as both a western-action flick in the style of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and as the historic cinematic pairing of Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, 1976's The Missouri Breaks was greeted with a tepid reception by both audiences and critics. Part of the reason is that the movie wasn't exactly what was being sold — for starters, the celebrated Brando is absent for the first 40 minutes of the picture, and he has precious little screen time with Nicholson. And the story, by Thomas McGuane (Rancho Deluxe, Ninety-Two in the Shade) with an uncredited polish by Robert Towne, is a dark, strange, and convoluted one — hardly the fast-paced, light adventure that ticket-buyers expected. Director Arthur Penn was on a hot streak when he shot the movie, coming as it did on the heels of Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, and it's the sort of complicated, mature film that cinephiles rightly say probably could never be made today, full of black humor, unexpected violence, eloquent dialogue by a mature ensemble cast, and decidedly unusual plot twists.

At first, The Missouri Breaks is the story of a horse thief named Sam Logan (Nicholson) and his motley outlaw band — smart, jaded Calvin (Harry Dean Stanton), burly, dumb Si (John Ryan), sweet, even dumber Little Tod (Randy Quaid), and just plain stupid Cary (Frederic Forrest). Eking out a modest living by rustling, they set up shop in the Montana Badlands near the breaks of the Missouri River, running afoul of a wealthy, literate rancher, David Braxton (John McLiam), who feels that it's his right and duty to bring order to this lawless territory by hanging and/or shooting people like, well, horse thieves. When the gang goes off on an ill-fated attempt to steal horses from Canadian Mounties across the border, Logan stays behind to keep an eye on the ranch — and begins an awkward courtship with Braxton's daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) while finding himself enjoying the peaceful life of a rancher. But when Braxton hires a "regulator" — a hired killer — to find and dispatch whoever's behind the horse thievery, that's when the crazy starts. It comes in the form of said regulator, Robert E. Lee Clayton (Brando), a nutjob with an Irish brogue and a penchant for funny hats.

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With a short shooting schedule for the actor due to complicated contract negotiations, all of Marlon Brando's scenes in The Missouri Breaks were shot first, with the mythically eccentric actor changing lines, improvising scenes, and adding bizarre bits of business. Thus, the character of Clayton — who sings love songs to his horse, enjoys a plate of raw carrots during a meeting with his employer, and commits a particularly vicious murder clad in a dress and bonnet (which is never explained) while referring to himself as "Grandma" — had to be written and shot around, with Jack Nicholson and Arthur Penn working together to re-write and film scenes that could be edited to fit with Brando's footage. As a result, the film went into production without a clearly resolved script. Nicholson's pal Towne — a crackerjack script doctor, in addition to writing film-school favorite Chinatown — was hired to pen the final scenes, which makes Missouri Breaks sound like it should be a godawful mess. Critics weren't kind to the film on its release, but, looking back from a distance, it's a complex, dark, sometimes very funny work, anchored by one of Nicholson's most interesting performances. A classic anti-hero, his Sam Logan isn't a bad guy despite being a horse thief. In fact, he has a stricter sense of ethics than the supposed good guy, Braxton. In perhaps the most famous scene in the film, Logan faces down Clayton while the killer is lounging, unarmed, in a bubble bath. And, while he has the opportunity to shoot the man who's playing cat-and-mouse with his gang, he's simply not a murderer. Nicholson plays these scenes with a deft understanding of his character and the material, at one point ending a scene with Stanton by saying, "You know, I'm tired, Cal," and letting the slight pause before he continues with, "I'm gonna turn in" say volumes about Logan's weariness with his outlaw lifestyle. And then there's the cold violence in his ultimate confrontations with Clayton and Braxton, when Logan has finally been pushed as far as he'll go. It's a virtuoso performance from Nicholson, and one that makes Brando's bizarre business with carrots and bonnets just seem pointlessly fussy.

Sony/MGM's DVD release of The Missouri Breaks offers a very good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) of this often-stunningly beautiful picture. Shot on location in Montana (using, due to pre-production time constraints, many of the same locations as Little Big Man), the rolling green hills and rushing waters of the Missouri River are simply majestic, and the crisp picture here offers terrific color saturation and excellent detail. However, the monaural Dolby 2.0 audio (in English, with optional English or French subtitles) doesn't fare as well, with the volume varying wildly between scenes and John Williams' extremely strange soundtrack coming in far louder than the dialogue. Mixing traditional Western-movie instruments like harmonica, banjo, and fiddle with distinctly out-of-place elements like electric guitar and harpsichord, the score is sometimes jazzy, sometimes jarringly percussive, and other times simply an obvious rip-off of Aaron Copland. Coming as it did between Jaws and Star Wars, it's an interesting break from his heavily orchestral pieces for Spielberg and Lucas, stealing outright from his earlier work on 1972's The Cowboys with echoes of 1974's The Sugarland Express. And it's very loud. Also on board are previews of other MGM releases — but, oddly, not the theatrical trailer for The Missouri Breaks. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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