Charles Neider’s novel, The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, is the source of the tellingly direct screenplay. It is the brooding, deliberate tale of a young man (Marlon Brando) consumed by a passion for revenge after he is betrayed by an accomplice (Karl Malden) in a bank robbery, for which crime he spends five years (1880-85) in a Mexican prison.
His vengeful campaign leads him to the town of Monterey, where Malden has attained respectability and the position of sheriff, but romantic entanglements with Malden’s stepdaughter (Pina Pellicer) persuade Brando to abandon his intention until the irresistibility of circumstance and Malden’s own irrepressible will to snuff out the living evidence of his guilt draws the two men into a showdown.
It is an oddity of this film that both its strength and its weakness lie in the area of characterization. Brando’s concept calls, above all, for depth of character, for human figures endowed with overlapping good and bad sides to their nature. In the case of the central characters – his own, Malden’s, Pellicer’s – he is successful. But a few of his secondary people have no redeeming qualities – they are simply arch-villains.
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Brando creates a character of substance, of its own identity. It is an instinctively right and illuminating performance. Another rich, vivid variable portrayal is the one by Malden. Katy Jurado is especially fine as Malden’s wife. Outstanding in support is Ben Johnson as the bad sort who leads Brando to his prey.
The $5 to 6 million production, framed against the turbulent coastline of the Monterey peninsula and the shifting sands and mounds of the bleak Mexican desert, is notable for its visual artistry alone.
1961: Nomination: Best Color Cinematography