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Sam Peckinpah's First Film: Deadly Companions (1961)
July 14th, 2005 2:51PM

You can see hints of the director that Sam Peckinpah would eventually become in his first film, 1961's The Deadly Companions. There are images early on, like a shot of children fighting with sticks in the street, or a hypocritical parson holding a church service in a saloon, that eerily foreshadow similar scenes in The Wild Bunch. The Deadly Companions doesn't offer the visual pyrotechnics or crackling atmosphere of his later classics, but it has a weird, almost nightmarish quality that makes it well worth watching despite its many flaws.

The film stars Brian Keith as a mysterious, taciturn Yankee cowboy known only as "Yellowleg" (presumably for the yellow-striped Union uniform pants he wears). For reasons we'll soon discover, he never takes off his hat, even when sleeping. When we meet Yellowleg, he's saving the life of a no-good scoundrel named Turkey (Chill Wills), who's being hanged for cheating at cards. Turkey, who reminds me of Warren Oates' grimy bandit character in The Wild Bunch, is a shambling, half-mad bear of a man (he even wears a brown, furry coat that accentuates the bearish appearance) who seems to be "tetched in the head," rambling constantly about his dream of forming his own republic and raising an army of Indian slaves. Soon afterwards, we meet the third member of this motley triumvirate, Billy (Steve Cochran), a smarmy gambler with a silver tongue.

The trio make their way to Gila City, where the plan is to rob a bank (Turkey apparently plans to use the proceeds to fund his new country). Yellowleg, however, has other ideas: unbeknownst to his companions, he's on the trail of the man who, years before, during the Civil War, grievously wounded and disfigured him. The bank robbery plans go awry when, in a scene that makes me wonder if Woody Allen borrowed it for Take the Money and Run, the would-be robbers go to the bank only to find that it's already being robbed.

In the ensuing shootout, Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of a "dance-hall hostess" (I guess in 1961 you couldn't make a movie about a whore) named Kit Tilden (Maureen O'Hara). Kit decides to bury her son next to the grave of her husband, in a deserted town deep in hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, remorseful over shooting her son, volunteers himself and his companions to accompany Kit.

The bulk of the film follows Yellowleg and Kit on their arduous, increasingly desperate journey. Turkey and Billy fall away early on, leaving Yellowleg and Kit to engage in the time-tested "two characters who don't get along but grow to love each other" road romance. Keith and O'Hara make an appealing couple (as they also did in that same year's much better known film, The Parent Trap), and despite the predictability of their eventual connection, it doesn't feel contrived or sentimental. These characters are played as people who've travelled a hard road and don't have time for a lot of romantic illusions or puppy-love foolishness. Keith in particular is a revelation for those, like myself, who mostly remember him from TV's Family Affair, where he always looked like he couldn't wait for the day's filming to end so he could go home and crawl into a bottle of bourbon. Here, he comes across like a cross between John Wayne and William Holden.

There's an oddly disjointed quality to The Deadly Companions, probably due to extensive tinkering by the producers with Peckinpah's original cut. In a way, it works to the film's favor, creating a dreamlike, hazy atmosphere (accentuated by some truly incongruous music). There are moments when the film feels almost neorealistic in its odd and messy rhythms. If you're looking for lots of stylized violence, you won't find it here; the film seems to be heading towards a bloody finale, and heads right up to the brink before becoming something else entirely, something less violent but more disturbing, and probably more apt. Peckinpah's not exactly known for his warm, romantic side, and I get the feeling his original vision for Yellowleg and Kit's relationship was a little harder-edged than it turns out here.

Still, this marriage of Peckinpah with what might otherwise have been a much more melodramatic romance makes for a strange but interesting mixture, sort of like pickles and ice cream. Not to everyone's taste, but definitely a different cinematic experience.

As a public domain film, The Deadly Companions has several DVD incarnations, and from what I can tell, all of them are pretty bad. The chief problem is that, as far as I know, all the currently available releases offer the Panavision widescreen film in a badly cropped pan & scan transfer. This makes a film that already feels a little close-in (due to the low budget) almost intolerably claustrophobic. Also, I don't know if there's a decent print of this film in existence, but the one I saw looks pretty awful -- washed out and fuzzy, and too dark in some of the nighttime scenes to make out what's going on. Audio is tinny and lacks presence. I understand that there's a new, cleaned-up widescreen release of the film on the way; while I can definitely recommend the film to fans of Peckinpah or westerns in general, I'd advise waiting for a quality DVD presentation.


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