Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Missouri Breaks

Directed by Arthur Penn and written by Thomas McGuane, The Missouri Breaks is the story of a rancher who hires a regulator to hunt down a horse thief whose gang has killed one of his men in an act of revenge while his daughter is in love with the head thief. The film is an offbeat western that play into a pursuit with some eccentric characters as it revolves around a man wanting to kill a thief. Starring Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, Frederic Forrest, John McLiam, and Kathleen Lloyd. The Missouri Breaks is a whimsical yet engrossing film from Arthur Penn.

The film revolves around a horse thief whose gang kills a rancher’s foreman who hung their friend over angering a rancher as they would later buy land from that rancher just to piss him off. Yet, the rancher is trying to find out who killed his foreman as he hires an eccentric regulator who plays by his own rules and would later cause all sorts of trouble. It’s a film that is about a thief trying to maintain a life that is honorable and decent yet he also copes with this regulator being around him and causing trouble as well as having issues with a rancher whose daughter he falls for. Thomas McGuane’s screenplay opens with the rancher David Braxton (John McLiam) hanging a young man named Sandy (Hunter von Leer) whose friend is the horse thief Tom Logan (Jack Nicholson) who runs a gang of horse thieves as they learn about their friend’s death. The first act is about Logan and his gang robbing a train to buy land near Braxton’s ranch to start a ranch of their own yet Logan would be the one tending to the ranch while his gang led by Cal (Harry Dean Stanton) travel to Canada to steal horses from the mounted police force.

Logan would meet Braxton’s daughter Jane (Kathleen Lloyd) who is intrigued by Logan though their affair would be kept secret except that her father’s hired regulator in Robert E. Lee Clayton (Marlon Brando) is watching as he suspects Logan involved in the death of Braxton’s foreman. Clayton is this man who is a real oddball as he arrives to the Braxton camp holding on to his horse on the side as if he’s hiding while he has an Irish accent and wears strange costumes. Yet, there’s an aspect of him that is ruthless and cunning in his pursuits though his initial meeting with Logan with Braxton is based on curiosity yet Logan is aware of his reputation as he just tries to not get into trouble. Even as the third act is about Braxton realizing the trouble Clayton is bringing as it would lead to all sorts of chaos in his pursuit of Logan and his gang.

Arthur Penn’s direction is definitely mesmerizing in the way he presents the American West as it is shot on various locations in Wyoming to play into this world of the West and in areas near the Missouri River. Penn’s usage of the wide shots do play into the vast scope and the attention to detail into the landscape from the trees on the mountains as well as the rivers and other parts of the film while he would maintain an intimacy through medium shots and close-ups as it relates to the characters. Penn’s compositions play into moments that are comical such as the train robbery scene as well as the way Clayton introduces himself. Penn would also maintain that air of humor and low-key drama to play into the characters that are trying to do their work in stealing horses or Logan trying to tend to his land. The smaller moments showcase Penn putting time in the characters while letting the action take hold during the third act as it relates to Clayton’s methods and what he does where the violence is intense. Even as it would play into this confrontation between Logan and Clayton with Braxton having some part in playing to the chaos that he’s created. Overall, Penn crafts an exhilarating and quirky film about a horse thief being watched and hunted by an odd regulator.

Cinematographer Michael Butler does brilliant work with the film’s cinematography with its gorgeous yet natural look for many of the daytime exteriors with some stylish and low-key lighting for some of the interior scenes set in the day. Editors Dede Allen, Gerald G. Greenberg, and Steven A. Rotter do excellent work with the editing as it is largely straightforward for some of the dramatic and comedic moments while using some stylish rhythmic cuts for some of Clayton’s antics. Production designer Albert Brenner, with set decorator Marvin March and art director Stephen Myles Berger, does fantastic work with the look of the Braxton home as well as the ranch that Logan runs and the home that his gang live in.

Costume designer Patricia Norris does amazing work with the costumes from the ragged look of Logan and his gang to the odd clothes that Clayton wears including a dress that he would wear as part of his disguise. Sound editor Richard P. Cirincione does terrific work with the sound as it play into the atmosphere of the locations as well as some of the usage of gunfire and other weapons. The film’s music by John Williams is incredible for its offbeat approach to country and folk with some orchestral elements that add to the film’s odd yet enjoyable tone.

The film’s wonderful cast include some notable small roles from James Greene and Luana Anders as a rancher and his wife that Cy would hide out at, Danny Goldman as a baggage clerk during the train robbery, Hunter von Leer as Logan’s friend Sandy who gets hung by Braxton, John P. Ryan and Frederic Forrest as a couple of Logan’s friends in his gang in their respective roles as Cy and Cary, and Randy Quaid in a superb performance as a young member of the gang named Little Tod who gives Logan the idea to rob a train as he is an able though na├»ve hood who is always helpful. John McLiam is terrific as David Braxton as a rancher who wants retaliation for the death of his foreman as he is also suspicious of Logan buying land near him. Kathleen Lloyd is fantastic as Braxton’s daughter Jane as a young woman who is often caring for her father as she becomes fascinated by Logan whom she sees as someone who has a lot more to offer as well as an escape from her stuffy life. Harry Dean Stanton is excellent as Logan’s right-hand man Cal who gets some of the film’s best lines and dialogue as he’s kind of the conscience of sorts who often puts Logan in his place but also is aware of how dangerous Clayton is.

Jack Nicholson is great as Tom Logan as a horse thief that is trying to go straight and live a decent life while falling for the rancher’s daughter as he becomes aware of Clayton’s presence as it’s a restrained performance from Nicholson where he displays some charm but also a grounded approach of a man that becomes uneasy by what is happening around him. Finally, there’s Marlon Brando in a phenomenal performance as Robert E. Lee Clayton as this offbeat and odd regulator that has Brando sport an Irish-American accent as well as a twangy-western accent in one sequence as it’s a strange yet exuberant performance that has Brando be funny but also ruthless in the way he does his job as it’s one of his more overlooked performances of his career.

The Missouri Breaks is a sensational film from Arthur Penn that features incredible performances from Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Along with its gorgeous visuals, top-notch supporting cast, John Williams’ exhilarating score, and a compelling screenplay by Thomas McGuane. It’s a western that doesn’t play by the rules while maintaining much of the visual tropes and plot devices expected from the genre with elements of dark humor. In the end, The Missouri Breaks is a spectacular film from Arthur Penn.

Arthur Penn Films: (Portrait of a Murderer) – (The Left Handed Gun) – (The Miracle Worker) – (Mickey One) – (The Chase (1966 film)) – (Bonnie and Clyde) – (Flesh and Blood) – (Alice’s Restaurant) – Little Big Man - (Visions of Eight) – (Night Moves (1975 film)) – (Four Friends) – (Target (1985 film)) – (Dead of Winter) – (Penn & Teller Get Killed) – (The Portrait (1993 film)) – (Inside (1996 film))

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