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The Deadly Companions
90 minutes 1961
Director: Sam Peckinpah
review by Richard Bowden

A trio of desperados escort a saloon girl and her son's body through Indian territory to be buried after a botched bank job...
   This film is best seen as an apprentice work, falling neatly between Peckinpah's TV work (in The Rifleman, The Big Valley, etc), and the string of Western masterpieces that began with Guns In The Afternoon (aka: Ride The High Country). It's noticable that, perhaps for the only time in director's genre work, there is no real sense of the old West passing, as Peckinpah is still working broadly within the confines of the traditional Western - which he would shortly transform and make his own. In this sense Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, made just a year later, is a more progressive work, at least in terms of where the Western was going.
   Main leads Brian Keith and Maureen O'Hara work surprisingly well together, even though in the light of the director's later work the insistance upon a strong and sympathetic female co-lead seems uncharacteristic. Apparently O'Hara's role in producing the film influenced the emphasis and development of her role - the first example (and not the last by any means) of 'interference' with Peckinpah's work by a third party.
   The film suffers from budget poverty, (most noticeable in the opening scenes where the bar room appears cramped and two dimensional), as well as over-insistant and pared down musical score - one which occasionally detracts from the rhythm of the film. I was reminded by the similar - but more effective - use of spare instrumentation in Lewis' Terror In A Texas Town (1958). Peckinpah's trademark montage editing style has yet to make itself felt. Very unusually for this director the first few moments of the film even seem (to this viewer) slightly rushed and confusing - almost as if Peckinpah is just finding his feet, sketching for the first time on a larger canvas than he had previously been used to. In later films Peckinpah would combine sharp editing during action sequences with characteristic moments of repose, (perhaps best termed as 'comrades at leisure'), to create a sense of movement within a film all of his own.
   Fans of the director will still find much to enjoy here, though fully representative of the director. The character of 'Turkey' (played by Chill Wills) is as colourful and as rounded as any of the minor low-life characters that appear in the later films. As an army deserter he even hides a Major Dundee-type military cap under his coat - in retrospect an item which can be seen as an appropriate cinematic 'embryo'. Riding into town at first, the desperate trio see a group of children playing and/or mildly tormenting each other - another Peckinpah trademark, and an image frequently placed at the start of his films. When the desperadoes are confronted soon after by a frontier prayer meeting, the anticipation of the grander meeting included at the beginning of The Wild Bunch is striking. The preacher (another first appearance by one of the director's favourite character actors) starts the long line of religious failures and bigots featuring in his films.
   Perhaps the biggest surprise, at least to those used to Peckinpah's later work, is the lack of violence (even the end shoot-out, although effective, is somewhat muted due to the infirmity of the hero). Peckinpah, it seems, had yet to discover the hallmark carnage which later was to mark his career out in controversy. These days, after a lot more blood has been spilt on screen, we can see that it is the forthrightness and power of Peckinpah's vision rather than just the gore it involves, which still has such an impact. And oddity then, worth seeking out - and certainly essential viewing to all Peckinpah fans.

Richard Bowden

DOWSE Guide to the Movies is compiled by Tony Lee editor of Pigasus Press
You can order videos and DVD releases reviewed on these pages at Blackstar

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