When it’s on: Saturday, 20 February (8.40 am)
The Deadly Companions is being screened as part of a Maureen O’Hara double bill, with This Land is Mine also figuring in the schedules to form a loose tribute to the legendary actor, who of course passed away in October 2015. I’m always happy to indulge in Maureen’s film work, and the two choices produce a nice contrast bridging aspects of the lady’s career, the earlier movie made when she was building up to her “Queen of Technicolor” period and bringing her association with Charles Laughton to a close. This one arrived as she was entering her 40s and beginning to move away from action-adventure films as a direct consequence of having suffered a slipped disc. Her choices started playing less to type and naturally became more interesting. The Deadly Companions also used her singing talents, which she was attempting to promote at the time through Broadway appearances (O’Hara lends her voice to the film’s title song).
The film was produced by Charles B FitzSimons, O’Hara’s brother, effectively ensuring it became a vehicle for her and resistant of any attempts to make it into anything else. That matters, because the other noteworthy aspect of The Deadly Companions is the identity of its director. Sam Peckinpah’s career on the big screen is generally thought to have started with the brilliant Ride the High Country. It’s readily identifiable as a Peckinpah movie, but the reality is that this one was his directorial debut, albeit a project in which he was expected to assume a ‘director for hire’ role without having the freedom to gain any control over the screenplay or add the signature flourishes that would mark him out as an auteur. His early days on the project put Peckinpah firmly in his place. FitzSimons threw his projected script rewrites into the trash, leading to tensions between the two and an unhappy working relationship. Quite simply, Peckinpah thought little of The Deadly Companions, whereas FitzSimons – who’d worked on the treatment with its writer and author of the source novel, A.S. Fleischman, for some time – believed it could become an edgy classic.
The upshot is a movie that many people have come to see as a trainwreck, not a real Peckinpah, a vanity project for its star, and an ignominious start to the great director’s career. Is it? Well, with some reservations I rather enjoyed it. The Deadly Companions carried a shoestring budget of less than half a million and Peckinpah had just 21 days to carry out the shoot. It’s a small, tight picture, featuring a minimal cast and several locations across the state of Arizona. Most famously, its town filming was completed in Old Tucson, the purpose built location that served many Westerns (its website proclaims that more than 300 movies and TV shows were filmed there). Martin Skiles, veteran of countless film compositions, provided an idiosyncratic score that lapses into bizarre folksiness in places, indeed many segments seem incongruous with the action, whilst other cues – the drumbeat that appears whenever the Apache warrior puts in an appearance – are a bit irritating.
Yes, there’s an argument that it’s all a bit of a mess, especially where Peckinpah fans are concerned, their ire fuelled by the knowledge that after the shoot was completed his footage was picked apart by FitzSimons, his involvement in the picture ending ignominiously. Unhappily for the producer, the film made little impression on the box office whilst any critical praise went to Peckinpah, whose reputation was in the ascendancy after his work on TV series The Westerner. It was through association with the show’s star, Brian Keith, that led him to this project. Keith, carrying a list of screen credits as long as your arm, plays ‘Yellowleg’, a Civil War veteran who lives for the opportunity to gain revenge against the rebel who attacked him five years previously. The trail leads him to Gila City, by which time he’s picked up two travelling companions (trigger-happy firebrand Billy (Steve Cochran) and his friend Turk (Chill Wills), who turns out to be the object of Yellowleg’s retribution) and a resolution to rob the bank. By chance, whilst they’re there another gang makes the heist and in the ensuing shoot-out Yellowleg accidentally guns down a young boy. The lad happens to be the only son of Kit Tildon (O’Hara). She’s a single mother working as a ‘burlesque dancer’ in Gila and attracting the townsfolk’s scorn, and when she decides to transport her son’s body to the ghost town of Siringo, a journey that means crossing dangerous territory occupied by murderous Native Americans, Yellowleg changes his course in offering to help her. It’s an invitation that understandably holds little appeal to her, but Yellowleg persists and becomes her protector when Billy decides to get himself some sweet loving. The pair’s unlikely alliance starts becoming more romantic, but the shadows of Yellowleg’s former companions are long and the Apache are never far away, making their journey one that’s fraught with peril.
It’s an uneven experience, one in which Peckinpah’s qualities as a director are only on screen fitfully. It seems clear his style and what he wanted to tease from the script were completely at odds with Fitzsimons’s and O’Hara’s aims. The latter criticised Peckinpah in her autobiography, stating he had no idea how to shoot a cohesive picture, but the actual issue was the difference between a lead actor and producer who were after something made in the classic style and a director committed to trying new approaches. Still, there are some very nice shots in the film, not least the scene where Kit is alone in a cave, the camera at ground level picking out her worried expression, whilst far above a cavity in the roof shows an Apache warrior silently easing himself down to where she stands.
The relationship between the stars also has a good ring of truth about it. Keith and O’Hara would go on to appear together again in 1961’s The Parent Trap, made immediately after this one, and the pair definitely achieve some chemistry here, both bringing welters of baggage to their parts and somehow finding a way out of their tormented previous with each other. O’Hara always played determined and fierce characters, and while Kit’s frequently out of her depth in The Deadly Companions there’s plenty of fire and spark about her to enjoy. Keith is brilliant. His character is ostensibly a stock Western hero, stoical about his past and single-minded in his quest for vengeance, and yet he does a fine job of bringing out Yellowleg’s sense of pathos, the scar beneath his hat as obviously shielded as the weight of his feelings.
A bit of an oddity then, cheaply made and sometimes looking it, an unhappy experience for many of the people involved and in places that becomes very clear. But I don’t think it’s without merit, and in its star – fixed within the Golden Age – and director – who helped move the industry decisively along – there’s a fascinating juxtaposition of the two film making worlds colliding.
The Deadly Companions: ***