Directed By: Arthur Penn
Starring: Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid
Tag line: "One Steals, One Kills, One Dies"
Trivia: Due to the production's alleged mis-treatment of animals, the film was placed on the American Humane's Association "unacceptable" list
1976’s The Missouri Breaks has one hell of a cast. Along with stars Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, it features Randy Quaid (National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), Frederic Forrest (Apocalypse Now), Harry Dean Stanton (Repo Man) and John Ryan (Bound). The behind-the-scenes talent was just as impressive, starting with director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde) and including cinematographer Michael C. Butler (Jaws 2), co-editor Dede Allen (The Breakfast Club), and composer John Williams (far too many classics to pick one). All of the above pool their collective skills to deliver what amounts to a thinking man’s western, where spacious plains and action sequences play second fiddle to its characters.
And they are an interesting bunch, to be sure.
As the movie opens, horse thief Tom Logan (Nicholson) and his cohorts Little Tod (Quaid), Calvin (Dean Stanton), Si (Ryan) and Cary (Forrest), are mourning the death of their good friend and compatriot Sandy (Hunter Von Leer), who was hanged for stealing mares belonging to land baron David Braxton (John McLaim). Hoping to get even with the noted businessman, Logan poses as a prospective rancher looking to buy land on Braxton’s vast estate. If all goes according to plan, he and his associates will swipe every horse Braxton owns right out from under him.
But a couple of “eventualities” pop up along the way that Logan wasn’t counting on. The first is Braxton’s daughter, Jane (Kathleen Lloyd), with whom Logan has fallen deeply in love. The second is notorious bounty hunter Lee Clayton (Brando), who Braxton called in to help find the thieves plaguing his business. Caught between romance and danger, Logan begins to have second thoughts about the whole arrangement, but it may be too late for him and his pals to turn back now.
The Missouri Breaks is, at times, a funny movie (a scene in which Logan and Little Tod rob a train doesn’t end as planned for the two would-be thieves), and it has one or two exciting moments as well (Calvin, Si, and Little Tod head into Canada and steal horses belonging to Mounted Policemen, only to be ambushed before crossing back into the states). What’s more the scenery is about as beautiful as it gets (the entire movie was shot on-location in Montana).
But what makes the film are its characters, thanks in large part to the fine work of its extraordinary cast. As played by Nicholson, Logan is a decent guy who just happens to be a thief, and when he finds himself falling in love, he genuinely considers giving up his life of crime and settling down for good. Equally as strong are Logan’s partners, chief among them Harry Dean Stanton’s Calvin (who tells Logan a story from his past, involving a dog he once owned, that offers real insight into his frame of mind). In her first film role, Kathleen Lloyd is quite good as Jane, Logan’s love interest who has no patience for her father and his own personal brand of “justice” (in the opening scene, we see the hanging of Logan’s friend Sandy, and its too much for Jane to bear; she rides off the moment the rope tightens up).
Topping them all, though, is Marlon Brando, who is strange as hell, yet at the same time oh so interesting as the ruthless bounty hunter Lee Clayton. He’s such a bizarre cuss, in fact, that, before long, even Braxton wants him dead (when he’s not busy shooting men in the back from a distance, Lee is bird-watching or taking baths in Braxton’s hand-carved tub). A ruthless SOB with a golden tongue (some of his dialogue is absolutely priceless), Lee is the true villain of The Missouri Breaks, but damned if you don’t miss him when he’s not on-screen!
You would think that a 2+ hour western with not much action to speak of might wear out its welcome, and fast. But that is definitely not the case with The Missouri Breaks. If anything, its characters were such an engaging bunch that I found myself wishing the movie was even longer.