Last of the Monster Kids

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Saturday, August 18, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1961)

From the moment I became a film nerd, I've had a massive amount of respect for Sam Peckinpah. Chalk it up to the evergreen appeal of the incorrigible, rebel filmmaker to the adolescent movie obsessive. Never mind that Peckinpah was as much an abusive alcoholic as a genius filmmaker. Despite my admiration of his work, I had only seen his key pictures. So a Director Report Card focused on Peckinpah allowed me to fill in the blanks and get to know this notorious, groundbreaking director for more than just his reputation.

1. The Deadly Companions

Sam Peckinpah got his start in the industry by writing scripts for TV westerns, something he pursued on the advice of Don Siegal. He would provide screenplays for “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun – Will Trouble” and “Zane Grey Theater.” He would co-create the popular series “The Riflemen,” eventually directing four of its episodes. After that, he would create the series “The Westerner.” Starring Brian Keith, the show was grittier and more naturalistic than most television westerns of the time. It would be critically acclaimed but failed to catch on with audiences, being canceled after one short season. After “The Westerner's” end, Keith would be cast as the male lead in a feature western called “The Deadly Companions.” He would suggest Peckinpah as the director. This is the unsuspecting beginning of the career of one of cinema's most notorious infant terribles.

Three men come into a frontier Arizona town with the intention of robbing its currently unguarded bank. They are Yellowleg, a former Union officer who survived a scalping during the war; Turk, a former Confederate officer who is a crooked gambler; and Billy, a charming but calculating gunslinger. As they prepare to rob the bank, another gang strikes first. In the ensuing shoot-out, Yellowleg accidentally shoots a dancing girl's young son. Kit, the dead boy's mother, is ostracized by the local community. She decides her son must be buried beside his father, whose grave resides in Apache territory. Feeling guilty, Yellowleg decides to shepherd the woman through the dangerous area. Billy and Turk follow along but soon the agreement between the four individuals turn sour.

Sam Peckinpah did not have a good experience on “The Deadly Companions.” The film was produced by Maureen O'Hara's brother, who bossed Peckinpah around. Supposedly, he prevented the director from changing a word of the script. However, you can still see the emerging director's interest in the final product. Like a few of Peckinpah's later movies, “The Deadly Companions” is about a group of morally gray men leaving on a mission together. The film's atmosphere is unusually grim, as the story revolves around a dead child. A sense of futile dread hangs over the story, as the journey seems more and more doomed the longer it goes on. Though he would disown the final product, some of the themes Peckinpah would develop over his later movies are evident in this debut.

In other ways, “The Deadly Companions” is very much a typical western of this time. The characters begin as antiheroes out to rob a bank, only interested in lining their pockets. As the story goes on, it's quickly shown that Yellowleg has a moral center that his partners lack. By the end, it's thoroughly established who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. The film ends with a confrontation between the do-gooders and the evildoers. And this is, after all, a western that plays the troupe of the savage Indian completely straight. “The Deadly Companions” comes close to being something subversive but is still wrapped up in the cliches and conventions of the time.

I've never seen “The Westerner,” though the show was released on DVD. So it's hard for me to compare Brian Keith's performance here with his role on that series. However, from what I've read, it sounds like the parts are similar. In “The Deadly Companions,” Keith plays an incredibly stoic character. Yellowleg, a nickname gained from the color of Union uniforms, rarely says what's on his mind. There is a certain rugged heroism to Keith's unemotional approach. The slowly revealed moral code is shown in interesting ways, the man standing up for certain beliefs. If nothing else, Keith has the kind of classical screen presence that many old school western stars succeeded on.

“The Deadly Companions” was primarily conceived as a vehicle for Maureen O'Hara. As one of the star leading ladies of her time, O'Hara appeared in quite a few westerns. “The Deadly Companions” would come after “Rio Grande,” “Comanche Territory” and “The Redhead from Wyoming” but before “McLintock!” and “Big Jake.” In this film, O'Hara does well as a woman who is frowned upon by her neighbors but has a fierce independent streak of her own. Her best scenes occur when she points a shotgun at the men who hope to protect her, showing an ability to stand up for herself even when she's grieving.

However, the film eventually attempts to push Keith and O'Hara's characters together into some sort of romance. This seems to be another side effect of the time period when the movie was made. It was just natural that the male lead and the female lead would fall into each other's arms at the end. Even though the two have a somewhat hostile relationship up to that point. O'Hara warming up to Keith is a natural part of the story. However, it feels like they should be headed for a mutual understand, not a full-blown romance. It does not feel like a natural trajectory of the story.

“The Deadly Companions” is a film, more or less, revolving around only four characters. Steve Cochran as Billy Keplinger is introduced as a hell raiser and a rogue. He pulls a gun out in church and happily looks forward to robbing the bank. As the story progresses, Billy reveals a more unpleasant side. Especially through his treatment of Kit. At first, the movie almost seems to be playing his lecherous attitude towards her for comedy. However, that comes to an end during a scene where he attempts to force himself on her. So, yes, Peckinpah's odd and frequently problematic obsession with sexual assault begins here as well. Cochran nicely rolls from slick to villainous fairly easily.

Another odd example of comic relief in the film is Chill Wills as Turk, the gambler. Wills mumbles through most of his dialogue. He's frequently difficult to understand at all. The character also seems to be an attempted source of comic relief. He's somewhat ridiculous, introduced in a noose and balanced atop a barrel. Turk seems to be intoxicated for most of the story. He responds to Cochran's barbs in a frequently glib manner, when you can actually tell what he's saying. Wills certainly gives an interesting performance but it's a very odd character, one that is hard to read both literally and figuratively.

In the lead-up to the quartet leaving on their journey, we hear a lot of references to how dangerous Apache country is. As the gang begins their journey, they see arrows littering the ground. However, this subplot doesn't pay off in a very satisfying fashion. As their mission becomes more grim, Keith and O'Hara are eventually stalked by one Apache brave on a horse. Just one. And the reason he's trailing them doesn't seem to be more complex than them being white intruders on Indian land. This subplot is then resolved bluntly before being completely forgotten in the final third of the film. It's disappointing that more isn't done with that angle, considering “women being led through dangerous territory” seems to be the capsule synopsis of the movie.

In fact, “The Deadly Companions” really gets messy in its last act. The story becomes a bit shapeless, as Yellowleg and Kit encounter more misfortune on their journey towards the cemetery. Upon finally reaching the graveyard, there's a long scene devoted to the two of them looking for her husband's grave. At that point, Billy and Turk wander back into the story, leading to the necessary showdown between heroes and villains. The film then wraps up with an overly tidy resolution about the price of revenge, also resolving Yellowleg's character arc in far too smooth a fashion.

Even this early in his career, even on a work-for-hire job like this, you can see Sam Peckinpah's visual sense developing. From the beginning, there's a sense of isolation as the characters stand against the huge blue sky and empty Arizona desert. That alienated feeling only grows as the cast ventures further out. There's also a few really cool, surprisingly fluid tracking shot. Such as one devoted to the men on their horses, tracking across a lake. Or another, focused on Keith as he marches towards Cochran for the final showdown. It's clear that Peckinpah knows what he's doing.

“The Deadly Companions” would be a largely negative experience for Sam Peckinpah. He fought frequently with the producer. In her autobiography, Maureen O'Hara said Peckinpah was “the strangest and most objectionable person she ever met.” Yet the debut would eventually prove to be a positive one for the young director. After the difficult experience, Peckinpah decided that he would never make a movie unless he had control over the screenplay. As it stands now, “The Deadly Companions” is an occasionally interesting film, with darker themes than you'd expect for the time and place. It doesn't quite hold together as a whole but, even outside its status as Peckinpah's debut, is sort of engrossing. [Grade: B-]

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