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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.
Guide to the Movies
compiled by Tony
Lee editor of Pigasus
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