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Marlon Brando didn’t believe in acting, except in real life, and he took every opportunity, in interviews and his autobiography, to trash the profession. It’s tempting to say this is why he was a great movie actor, but the story is more complicated. For much of the time he performed on screen like a person who didn’t believe in acting, and threw a lot of his career away. But he also believed in acting more than he said he did, and perhaps more than he thought he did, and he occasionally worked very hard at it. The trick is that he could be really good in both modes, and it’s hard to tell the difference in quality. On the Waterfront and Julius Caesar would be good instances of the believing Brando at work. Guys and Dolls and Last Tango in Paris would be examples of his producing remarkable performances while seeming to be thinking of something else. His lunatic Westerner in The Missouri Breaks, complete with an array of accents and an even wilder array of clothing, seems to belong the further reaches of anyone’s idea of acting: beyond belief or disbelief.

You can see all five of these movies in the Brando season running until the end of July at the NFT. Plus 11 more, including his first film, The Men, and A Streetcar Named Desire, Viva Zapata!, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Queimada!, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and the single film he both directed and acted in, One-Eyed Jacks. With the exception of The Missouri Breaks, the freakier Brando is not represented, so we don’t get to see him as Napoleon or Superman’s dad or Lieutenant Christian of the Bounty, and no film in the season is later than 1979 (Brando died in 2004). This is the serious Brando, the actor-icon, not the sloppy legend or the gigantic ghost of himself who haunted movies like Don Juan de Marco and The Score.

Brando’s autobiography is called Songs My Mother Taught Me, and the chief song he learned, whether she taught it him or not, was to hate his father. The book has extraordinary passages expressing the wish to do violence to the old boy even after he was dead, and it’s hard to tell at this stage whether One-Eyed Jacks is so good a movie because it tells this story so perfectly – with such a remarkable combination of discipline and rage – or whether Brando perfected the story later because he knew the movie was so good. ‘You’re the one-eyed jack in this town,’ Brando as Rio, most often called Kid, says to Karl Malden, playing Dad Longworth, ‘but I seen the other side of your face.’

Longworth is the sheriff of Monterrey in California, and one of the most striking things about this Western is the constant sight of the Pacific Ocean, traditionally the sign that the West is finished. This movie’s implication is that the West, like revenge, is never finished. The point is wryly signalled when Ben Johnson, an actor known for many cowboy roles and for playing the old-fashioned outlaw in this film, says he’s tired of the sound of the ‘damn waves floppin’ in all day long’. Longworth wasn’t always a sheriff. Five years earlier he had been the senior partner in a bank-robbing pair with Rio, and had abandoned him on a dusty mountain to be picked up by Mexican lawmen. Rio has spent those five years in a Sonora jail, listening to the other prisoners scream, as he says, and picking maggots out of his ankles. Longworth didn’t mean to abandon his companion. They drew lots to decide who should go for new horses, and Rio – out of respect, affection, truth or youth – fixed the draw so that Longworth would go. Longworth found and bought a pair of horses but spilled some gold coins as he loaded the packsaddles. In a very fine wordless scene he looks at the coins in the sand, looks back at the mountains, looks away towards the plain, then takes one horse and rides off to safety. This quick sequence of glances is important because it shows us the interior logic of the movie, just what it is that Rio’s revenge is about. It is not about deception, the lies Longworth later tells him about this event, for example. And it is not about hypocrisy, the fox turned leader of the hounds. It is about betrayed friendship; and betrayal for money. As if a real bank-robber (or a real friend) would care about money.

Rio disguises and draws out his revenge, starting with the cynical seduction of Longworth’s stepdaughter, Louisa (Pina Pellicer), and there are many moments when it looks as if he will die before he gets it. There is even a faint-hearted suggestion, at the end of the movie, that Rio would have been willing to swap his vengeance for love, if events had not been against him, but this can’t be right, since Rio has no identity here except his rage and his pleasure in pretending not to have it. ‘A man can’t stay angry for five years,’ he says to Longworth when they meet up again, grinning amiably. ‘Can he?’ When he later talks to Louisa, who has forgiven him her seduction just as he has removed her from his revenge plan, he makes clear that his anger is his life, and that he is clinging to it because he wouldn’t know what to do without it. ‘Forget it?’ he says to the girl when she suggests he might move on. ‘Not as long as I breathe.’ Revenge of this sort is like guilt in Kafka and anxiety in Proust. It doesn’t have a cause, it just waits for something it can call a cause and then pounces on it. In these cases a man can’t stay angry for anything less than life.

The mood Brando carries from film to film is not always anger, in spite of what seems to be both his personal myth and the basis of his early reputation. The mood often looks like sorrow, or self-incomprehension, or a stunted, irritated curiosity. But it is always submerged, working through denial. The face is still, the gestures calm, everything moves slowly, maybe he will fall asleep in mid-scene. But the sense of real danger is constant, and this is what gives him his screen presence: in fact, friends and colleagues report that his stage presence was like this too. He takes up all the available affective space, his grief or rage, even unspoken, especially unspoken, has rights – all the rights the rest of us lack the ego to claim. His visibly hidden emotion – our not knowing quite what to call it is part of its power – could explode at any moment, and often does. But we also think it could do even scarier things than explode.

This is why the understated dialogue he is given or creates for himself suits him so well. ‘Reasons,’ he says to Louisa, who is wondering about his anger, ‘I got reasons.’ This sounds good whether he has or he hasn’t. To Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront he says: ‘You was my brother. You shoulda looked out for me a little bit.’ ‘Was’ is perhaps unconsciously accusatory – even the correct grammar would have kept the past tense – and ‘looked out for’ is so mild as to scream with resentful irony. Not only has Steiger not taken care of his brother, he has sold his boxing career to the Mob. Another betrayal, just like Dad Longworth’s, and perhaps like Dad’s.

These are the qualities that run through many Brando films, from A Streetcar Named Desire on: until he turns into a patriarch himself in The Godfather and a rambling sage in Apocalypse Now. And these are the qualities Bertolucci picks up in Last Tango in Paris and rests the whole movie on. He certainly can’t rest it on the sulky Maria Schneider, who makes a great belated image of the 1960s but can’t really do anything but pout and undress. ‘Vous êtes américain?’ she asks when they meet, but we already know the answer. He is not only American, and not only Paul, the bereaved character in the film seeking to find a renewal of life in Schneider’s youth and weirdly submissive attraction to him. He is Marlon Brando, a man who has made a career out of not saying what he wants, perhaps even not knowing what he wants, and getting it all the same. Bertolucci, like the great cineaste he is, made a hymn to old movies, and to an old movie star, before they were even that old.

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