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The Deadly Companions
R2 PAL Finnish release

The Deadly Companions
Futurefilm (Finnish Import, Region 2 PAL)
1961 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 90 min. / Street Date July 18, 2007
Starring Maureen O'Hara, Brian Keith, Steve Cochran, Chill Wills, Strother Martin, Will Wright
Cinematography William H. Clothier
Film Editor Stanley E. Rabjohn
Original Music Martin Skiles
Written by A.S. Fleischman from his novel
Produced by Charles B. Fitzsimons
Directed by Sam Peckinpah

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A rather grim tale made under unhospitable circumstances, The Deadly Companions is Sam Peckinpah's first credited film as a director after a stellar run as a top TV writer during the heyday of prime time western fare. As is usual, most accounts of the filming are told from Peckinpah's perspective. Star Brian Keith was the lead character in Peckinpah's noble producing effort The Westerner (13 episodes in 1960) so it's assumed that theirs was the important creative relationship. The movie was actually produced by Maureen O'Hara's brother, Charles B. Fitzsimons; O'Hara and Brian Keith were fresh from co-starring in the boxoffice success of Disney's The Parent Trap. From their point of view Peckinpah was simply a director for hire, and any hope of a creative collaboration broke down in a power struggle. Being a low budget undertaking, The Deadly Companions didn't have room for the egos involved, and Peckinpah's first directed movie was eventually taken from him. This last might account for the awful music score, which all too frequently meanders about with annoying, inappropriate guitar solos. It's like they pulled up to the music pump and asked for eight gallons of ethyl, to fill it up good.

The movie was always considered an interesting failure with interesting scenes and characters. Although Peckinpah didn't write the script and was forbidden to change the dialogue (a shame, as his colorful western speeches are unmatched), The Deadly Companions has themes lot in common with his later work: a tortured, crippled hero, a wild and wooly villain and a contemptuous attitude toward frontier hypocrisy. The big news with this release (Savant rarely reviews Region 2 releases) is that Futurefilm's Finnish release (said to be similar to the UK Optimum release) is a beautiful widescreen transfer. Since its abbreviated initial release, The Deadly Companions has only been available in miserable (the word is too kind) pan-scanned TV prints and video releases. Seen in its proper Panavision screen shape, it finally looks like a real movie. Savant is indebted to Finnish reader Olli Larimo for the opportunity to view this new release.


Ex- Union soldier Yellowlegs (Brian Keith) enters Gila City with two troublemakers, intent on robbing the bank. Billy Keplinger (Steve Cochran) is a showoff who wears stylish clothes, and Turk (Chill Wills) ia cheating gambler. Yellowlegs learns that Turk is the same man who tried to scalp him in the Civil War, but determines to forget that matter even though he never takes off his hat for shame of the scar left on his forehead. The trio break up the Bible meeting run by the local parson (Strother Martin) and prepare to rob the bank, only to see another gang has beaten them to it. They shoot at the retreating thieves and Yellowleg accidentally kills a small boy. The boy's mother is Kit Tilden (Maureen O'Hara), a bar girl who claims to be a widow and is ostracized as a tramp by the local bluenoses. Kit angrily determines to take her son's body through Indian country to the ghost town of Siringo, where she claims her husband is buried. Yellowleg and his dangerous fellow travelers invite themselves on the journey, for different reasons.

The Deadly Companions plays like a morbid variation on one of the Budd Boettticher Ranown films with Randolph Scott, minus much of a sense of humor and plus a lot of grotesque details. Brian Keith's unlikely hero Yellowleg has a bum shoulder and repeatedly drops his gun when he tries to shoot, and his shyness about the scar on his hairline is an obvious castration complex. He comes off as a too-exaggerated version of one of Peckinpah's later 'cripples' with old leg wounds or nagging guilt complexes. Chill Wills' Turk is a shambling weirdo who wears a shaggy fur coat in the desert and rambles on about Freedonia, the private kingdom he wants to establish with slave labor. He returns in practically the same role in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and is echoed in Slim Pickens' furry muleskinner in Major Dundee. Steve Cochran's Billy Keplinger is a stock girl-chasing dandy, and predictably gets the heave-ho when he tries to rape the leading lady. The rather tasteless ad for the film shows menacing silhouettes hovering over Maureen O'Hara cowering nude in a water hole.

Peckinpah was never known for directing women, and Maureen O'Hara's main sequences are probably even less interesting because, as Peckinpah once said, she more or less refused his direction (some accounts say she forbade Peckinpah to speak to her). We see Kit Tilden in her dance hall costume only once, and most of her scenes concentrate on her various states of distress and anguish.

The scenes in Gila City are rather flat and sometimes even awkwardly blocked, with the only memorable image that of the cheating Turk half-hung in the saloon, his cards pinned to his shirt.The movie picks up out in the open desert, where William Clothier's beautiful cinematography takes over. The character action is predictble until Kit and Yellowleg find themselves alone in the wild, eventually dragging the son's coffin by hand. Kit is determined to prove to someone that her dead husband, Meade Tilden, really existed.

The Deadly Companions is noted for two more sequences. One is pure western art for its own sake. Instead of having the lone Yellowleg (established as a western hero who cannot shoot his gun!) hold off Indian attacks, Peckinpah shows a group of drunken Indians playfully re-enacting a stagecoach robbery that perhaps happened the day before. Indians on horseback chase their friends, who are dressed up in the clothing left by the presumed victims. The unique sequence is rather eerie.

The other noted moment is the confused ending, (Spoiler) Yellowleg elects to shoot it out with his ex- partners, who have returned from robbing the bank for real. Peckinpah wanted the gunfight to be Yellowleg's victory over his handicap, which turns out to have been more a mental problem than a physical one. O'Hara and Fitzsimons apparently insisted on 'protecting' Brian Keith's star player status by having Turk shoot Billy in the back, for the vaguest of revenge reasons. Poorly staged and awkwardly cut, the death of Billy is an almost complete letdown. Yellowleg's role in the story is thus limited to finding a bond of common trust with Kit Tilden. The townsmen offer to let her return to Gila City, but Kit and Yellowleg choose to ride off alone.

The Deadly Companions looks great on Futurefilm's DVD; the main logo on the transfer is Lakeshore Entertainment. Colors are rich and I assume that the picture is a bit sharper on a real PAL screen; my converting player probably adds a level of softness. The 25fps speedup is noticeable in some of the dialogue. Futurefilm's disc comes with subtitles in Suomi (Finnish, I assume), Swedish, Norwegian and Danish. All are removable. I remember the stagecoach scene as being Day for Night and it's timed for day here, but the pan-scanned prints I saw are unreliable. The film has other Day for Night sequences, which look on a par with the ones in Major Dundee

The show definitely gave Peckinpah a rough launch in feature film directing, although he already had his share of 'creative differences' on his western TV shows. If we see a pattern in the progression of Sam's westerns, it's that his masterpieces were both filmed by the artist Lucien Ballard, and he appeared to do best when working with a strong creative cinematographer. On this film William Clothier excels when given landscapes to paint, and in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid John Coquillon imbues the screen with a rich, ruddy look like red clay. On Major Dundee Sam Leavitt too often just lets Peckinpah set up the camera wherever, resulting in a dispiriting variance in quality. The Deadly Companions in its full Panavision width brings to a close a thirty-year wait to see all of Sam Peckinpah's westerns in watchable versions; they're now all out on DVD. The Deadly Companions is a respectable career start, and it's a shame that Peckinpah was unable to customize the script to his liking.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Deadly Companions rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent (Region 2 PAL)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Text bios
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 9, 2007

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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