Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #34/Peckinpals Project #1 The Deadly Companions (1961)
Welcome to the latest entry in Control Nathan Rabin 4.0. It’s the site and career-sustaining column where I give YOU, the paragon of human decency that is the Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place patron, an opportunity to choose a film that I must watch and then write about in exchange for a one-time, one hundred dollar pledge.
Or, if you’re feeling extra-generous and overflowing with Christmas spirit, you can re-up for a second Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 choice for just seventy-five dollars. And, if you’re feeling like a cross between Jesus, Santa Claus and Bill Gates you can do what super patron and wonderful human being Lawrence Allen has done and commission not just a movie, or two movies, but rather an entire filmography.
That’s right: you can pay me money to cover someone’s entire body of work. If you are, for example, an eccentric billionaire obsessed with the films of James Belushi (which, of course, you are), for example, you can commission me to write about every single one of his 154 acting credits and I will happily do your bidding with a goddamn Joker’s grin on my face I’ll be so grateful for the work. And the opportunity to really immerse myself in the world of James Belushi.
Alas, Lawrence did not hire me to reexamine the films of James Belushi. Instead, he commissioned me to write about an arguably greater artist and storyteller, director and manly man Sam Peckinpah for a sub-section of Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 I am thinking of calling Control Nathan Rabin 4.0: Peckin-Pahppy Dog Pals. It’s a portmanteau of the legendary director and tough guy’s last name and the show Puppy Dog Pals, which I think Bloody Sam would enjoy if he hadn't died in 1984, not long after having realized his life’s dream of working on a music video with Julian Lennon.
Legend has it that as soon as Peckinpah’s work on Lennon’s “Too Late For Goodbyes” ended he said “Well, my work on earth here is done. Time to ‘drop the body’ as my friends the Scientologists say, so I can kick it with baby Jesus up in tough guy heaven.” And then he was gone.
Yes, it all ended with “Much Too Late for Goodbyes” for Peckinpah. The end was glorious, but as far as film is concerned, the beginning was less auspicious. Peckinpah made his feature film directorial debut with 1961’s little loved The Deadly Companions. But Peckinpah’s maiden foray into cinema can be seen as extension of his groundbreaking work as a writer and director on Western shows like Gunsmoke, Bonanza and my father’s personal favorite, The Rifleman as much as a bold new start in the art form that would make him a legend.
Peckinpah reportedly got the gig because Brian Keith, the star of Peckinpah’s short-lived but much-loved western The Westerner suggested him for it after the critically acclaimed western was cancelled after just one year.
The Deadly Companions opens on a memorably brutal note with Keith’s vengeance-crazed Yankee veteran Yellowlegs entering a saloon that is bleak even by Old West standards in that grizzled card cheat Turk (Chill Wills) is in the process of being hung for his crimes when Yellowlegs enters in search of a little tequila and civilization.
Yellowlegs doesn’t think that’s right so he saves the older man’s life, at which point Turk’s buddy and criminal consort Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran), a dandy with a neckerchief and an emerald green vest that looks like it was made out of whorehouse curtains helps Turk escape justice and his would-be executioners.
Ah, but Yellowlegs does not save Turk from certain death because he is a good man. On the contrary, he is a bad man who sees in these two Southern-fried scoundrels accomplices who can help him rob banks.
Turk repays Yellowleg’s kindness by immediately plotting to murder him. He is a bad, bad dude not unlike these gents right here.
Generally when a character in a movie has a big dream, it makes them more sympathetic and relatable. That is not the case here. Like an Old West Mishima, Turk’s poignantly weird, overambitious dream is to use the money he makes robbing banks and cheating cards to buy Native American slaves that he can employ as his own personal army.
In a saloon that promptly turns into an impromptu church the moment the Parson enters it we meet Kit Tilden (Maureen O’Hara), a strong-willed single mother whose background as a dance hall gal of semi-ill-repute follows her around like Pigpen’s cloud of dust, making it devilishly tricky to make a new start uncorrupted by the sins of her past. Whenever you see a dance hall gal in a film of this era or before, you’ve got to wonder if there’s a draft of the script where she is instead a prostitute.
Kit is an oasis of pretty, sweet-smelling civilization in a lawless, violent realm. Billy, who clearly fancies himself something of a lady’s man immediately takes a fancy to her. This is a Sam Peckinpah movie, however, so even in 1961 that meant that this amoral gunslinger is more than willing to resort to sexual assault when his sleazy advances are appropriately rejected by a woman who knows predators like him all too well. You certainly can’t accuse Billy of false advertising: he wears a black hat on the outside and is a black hat on the inside. When the town’s religious leader asks if anyone expects to go to hell Billy happily volunteers himself as just such an anomaly. He’s deplorable but Turk might be even worse. He does talk an awful lot about his Indian slave army.
Yellowleg also takes a liking to the beautiful mother so when he accidentally kills her boy during a shootout he feels honor-bound to transport the body of the child through dangerous Apache territory so that he can be buried next to his father, thereby enjoying in death a respectability he was denied during his all-too-brief, much gossiped-about life.
Turk and Billy decide to tag along with ill intentions. Turk, who doesn't take kindly to Yankees, is pretty persistent about wanting to murder Yellowleg and, after scene after scene heavy with the intimation of sexual violence, Billy tries to sexually assault the grieving mother but is stopped by Yellowleg.
Yellowleg and Kit make for strangely simpatico figures. They’re both tough, stoic survivors irrevocably scarred by death-haunted paths they’re understandably not eager to talk about. They’re outsiders operating on the fringes, whispered about, pitied, misunderstood but resolute in their convictions.
O’Hara, whose younger brother produced the film, is magnificent as its heroine. She’s headstrong to an almost suicidal degree, willing to risk possible, even probable death for the sake of making a point, to herself as well as a society that shuns her, about her fundamental dignity and the dignity of her offspring.
She’s motivated by honor, by the need to make this journey for herself as well as her dead son and his dead father even if it kills her. In The Deadly Companions, in order to be any kind of a mother in a lawless realm like the Old West you need to be a lioness fighting off tigers to protect your offspring even after they die.
O’Hara brings an appropriately animalistic desperation and heaving sadness to the role, a sense that grief has overtaken and overwhelmed her, leaving her with only a fierce, white-hot burning need to do right by a family the busybodies of the Old West insisted was a fabrication designed to make her look undeservedly respectable.
O’ Hara is so convincing and compelling as a creature of pure will and determination that when she and the equally taciturn, rage-fueled Keith kiss it feels like a betrayal of the solitary, cursed nature of both characters.
The Deadly Companions was apparently an unhappy experience for its principals. In her memoir, O’Hara derided Peckinpah as an inept and unprofessional director and the two-fisted, hard-drinking, hard-living filmmaker was reportedly so frustrated by the lack of control he experienced over the film’s screenplay and final edit led him to demand more power over his subsequent films.
The Deadly Companions may not occupy a place of honor or distinction in Peckinpah’s filmography but it nevertheless feels very much like the work of the man who would give the world The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. It surveys with prematurely world-weary exhaustion a brutal, overwhelmingly male world of violence and anarchy where the conflict is less between good guys and bad guys than bad guys and even worse dudes. Yellowleg is a bank robber, for example, but he’s not into sexual assault or murder and has a code of ethics and a sense of honor that aligns him with Kit and sets him apart from his more savage cohorts.
The Deadly Companions is brutal. It’s fatalistic. This is a different side of the West, an uglier, grubbier, more desperate underbelly overflowing with violence and heavy both with intimations of sexual violence and actual attempted sexual assault.
I found Peckinpah’s debut engaging even if the print I saw of it, on Amazon Prime was absolutely abysmal, a pan and scan abomination with bad sound and weirdly, distractingly stretched out dimensions. It was so shoddy it made Netflix’s Santa’s Summer House look like a Criterion Blu-Ray release of Citizen Kane by comparison.
The same year O’Hara and Keith sparred and smooched so unconvincingly in Deadly Companions they starred in a slightly frothier, slightly better remembered concoction for Disney called The Parent Trap. Peckinpah did not direct that one, but boy is it ever tempting to imagine what it would have been like if he had, and subsequently became a Disney house director instead of the preeminent madman of the American Western and a man whose wildly uneven but utterly fascinating oeuvre I am excited to explore with y’all over the next year or so in thirteen entries stretching from here to 1983’s The Osterman Weekend..
I mean, Keith did recommend Peckinpah for the gig directing The Deadly Companions, but I think it would have been more interesting for everyone involved if Keith and his heretofore unknown identical twin brother tricked and manipulated Disney executives into hiring Peckinpah for the Hayley Mills kiddie classic. Alas, that alternate version of The Parent Trap starring Brian Keith and Sam Peckinpah will have to exist only in my feverish imagination and, of course, the fan fiction I will no doubt be writing about Sam Peckinpah in connection with this series. I’ve already written my first entry: What if Sam Peckinpah Met a Dinosaur? You can check it out on my LiveJournal page.
Would you like to choose a film, or 13 films for me to see and write about for this series then you can do so over at https://www.patreon.com/nathanrabinshappyplace but any level of pledge would be