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Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando's Bizarre Western: 'The Missouri Breaks'

M. Night Shyamalan's new thriller Old takes place on a mysterious beach where people age rapidly. But as one character descends into madness, it's not the beach that plagues him. He's fixated on something he can't remember: what movie starred Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando? "Jack Nicholson! Marlon Brando!" The man, played by Rufus Sewell, laments. And unless a Western fanatic (like me) was sitting in the theater with you screaming out "The Missouri Breaks!" you might be wondering the same question.

'Old'

In an interview with FOX 5 Washington DC, the director M. Night Shyamalan revealed the purpose of invoking The Missouri Breaks in his latest horror flick. Rather than make a pointed cinematic allusion, it turns out, the choice was quite personal:

"I've never seen it... It's from my dad [Dr. Nelliyattu C. Shyamalan], who actually has some dementia, and he would not stop talking about Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando, this movie that they were in. And I was like, 'Dad, I have never seen it.' And he goes, 'Jack Nicholson! Marlon Brando!' And he kept going on and on about it. I was like, 'Dad, I'm putting this in a movie if you keep talking about this.' And he did.

"For me it represents this thing that someone's holding onto for their sanity. Everyone must know, these are the two greatest actors of all time, why doesn't anybody know this? And so they can't understand this but they're holding onto it... It was just a kind of funny, sad, beautiful thing about my dad and cinema."

So what about this forgotten Nicholson-Brando movie is so fascinating?

'The Missouri Breaks'

Director Arthur Penn's Western The Missouri Breaks premiered in 1976 and co-stars Nicholson and Brando, along with Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton, John McLiam, and Kathleen Lloyd in supporting roles. Set in late 1800s Montana, Nicholson plays Tom Logan, a rustler whose posse of horse thieves sets out to exact vengeance on a corrupt land baron named Braxton (McLiam.) In defense, Braxton calls on the eccentric, fearsome Robert E. Lee Clayton: a vigilante "regulator," played by Brando. Bloody chaos ensues.

Read More: What Is a "Revisionist Western"?

Brando had a heavy hand in molding Clayton's characterization. (Meaning, he steamrolled the director entirely.) As the nasty hired gun, the famed method actor flaunts a laughable Irish accent... while donning a number of colorful disguises and fabulous fringy get-ups. Riding confidently through the frontier, Clayton's identity is highly unstable -- not unlike our understanding of Brando himself. In fact, Clayton's signature weapon, a harpoon-mace hybrid, was purely an invention of Brando's inspired by his own fascination with knives.

Robert E. Lee Clayton via YouTube: YouTube Movies

Throughout filming, Brando was in rare form -- even for him. In addition to improvising most of his lines, and using distracting cue cards for the ones written for him, he also engaged in rampant on-set pranks. According to Peter Manso's biography of the star, Brando used rubber spiders to frighten co-stars and mooned the crew frequently. He also, inexplicably, took a big chomping bite out of a frog -- a live frog! -- while shooting a scene in the river. By 1976, this type of behavior had come to be associated with the kooky actor. Still, he was a hot commodity in Hollywood at the time.

In 1973, Brando won the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather; in 1976, Nicholson won the same coveted award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Coming off those historic successes, The Missouri Breaks should have been a massive hit. However, the madcap Western flopped. It earned just $14 million at the box office and faced harsh reviews. In recent years though, the film has garnered real appreciation from cinephiles. In 2003, the Guardian critic Xan Brooks wrote: "Time has worked wonders on The Missouri Breaks... Today, its quieter passages resonate more satisfyingly, while its lunatic take on a decadent, dying frontier seems oddly appropriate... there is a whiff of a method to [Brando's] madness." Lucky for us, the entire movie is available for free on YouTube! Watch above.

Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando's Friendship

The Missouri Breaks movie poster via Wikipedia

"Marlon Brando is one of the great men of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and we lesser mortals are obligated to cut through the shit and proclaim it," Nicholson boldly wrote in a Rolling Stone tribute to the late movie star. The two men were neighbors in Los Angeles for 30 years, sharing a fence between their Mulholland Drive homes. On that property line, the two-screen legends became close. But even before that, Nicholson idolized Brando.

When working in the MGM offices as a young man, Nicholson recalls being floored by the mere appearance of Brando. Later, when Nicholson was a bona fide celebrity and could afford a mansion beside Brando's home in Beverly Hills, fate brought the actors together again. And just two years later, they became co-stars on The Missouri Breaks. In his piece for Rolling Stone, Nicholson acknowledges the difficulties of filming that project. In addition to Brando's (more annoying) quirks, the actor brought a relentless intensity that intimidated Nicholson. He describes it:

"For me, the toughest experience I ever had with Brando came during making The Missouri Breaks together. We talked about doing many projects together over the years, but that's the only time it actually came together. I think Marlon probably had more fun shooting The Missouri Breaks than any movie he did. He liked all the guys in the movie. We were out in Montana. He lived out on the ranch where the movie was shot. He liked being close to nature. He was in his element.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. Somewhere deep in my subconscious was always this idea: 'One day you're going to be working with Marlon Brando, and you better be ready, Jack.'

It started off fine. In our first scene, he's a killer, and I'm hiding out from him. Whatever feelings I had of being intimidated seemed to fit this scene. Then one night after that I made a big mistake: I watched some of Brando's dailies. This was a scene where he's sitting there with John McLiam. I watched nine or ten takes of this same scene. Each take was an art film in itself. I sat there stunned by the variety, the depth, the amount of silent articulation of what a scene meant. It was all there. It was one of the wildest things I ever put my eyes on."

After Brando's death in 2004, Nicholson actually purchased his neighbor's home for $3.4 million. But due to its rundown state and rampant mold, Nicholson had the house demolished two years later. He still lives next door.

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Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando's Bizarre Western: 'The Missouri Breaks'