Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Beginnings and Endings: Sam Peckinpah's The Deadly Companions (1961)
I'm sure we're all aware of the story of Sam Peckinpah, the barely functioning alcoholic auteur (another fancy critical term I'll be abusing) who drank like a fish, verbally and physically abused the women in his life and made sure all his transgressions ended up on screen. Eventually, he succumbed to his drinking at the age of 59 which, considering how much he drank, should be considered a ripe old age. Yet, despite his temper, his drinking, his physical altercations, he maintained several relationships that lasted until his death. Some of his friends even loved him, claimed he was misunderstood, etc. He worked with the same actors over and over. Guys like Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, James Coburn, Kris Kristoferson, Slim Pickens, Steven McQueen, etc. Not many women worked with him more than once though. Not many women had important roles in his pictures. The women in his pictures were rarely what could be considered strong. Almost always subservient to their men. Whores, harlots, prostitutes, rape victims, etc. I'm getting a little redundant here. Point is, Peckinpah apparently had a problem with women. I'm not for advocating most of his views. I mean, I like a little gun violence from time to time but demeaning women ain't really my thing. It's just not a very politically correct thing to do, even for a guy like me. I love women. However, it doesn't change the fact that the man knew how to shoot and put together a picture. Some of what he created are outright masterpieces. Others, brilliantly flawed. Some, interesting failures. Very few can be considered mediocre. Some might be awful, but worth a viewing. Maybe one or two are hilariously bad. In his later years, he was supposedly too drunk to make it to many of his sets so whichever picture he was shooting at the time had to be shot by someone else (usually James Coburn). Eventually, the drink claimed his life. Thankfully, he left behind some pretty great shit (I'm referring to his movies).
Anyway, Peckinpah's first film, The Deadly Companions, doesn't feel much like a Peckinpah picture at all. It's the story of an ex-Union soldier named Yellowleg (played by Brian Keith) who comes into a typical western town with his two companions (I'm guessing they're pretty deadly), named Billy and Turkey. Their plan: to rob a bank. However, before they can get to robbing the joint some other hoodlum already started robbing it. There's a shootout and amidst the chaos a little boy is shot and killed. Turns out this little boy is the son of the town harlot (Maureen O'hara - a pretty big name since even I heard of her). And the killing bullet was revealed to have shot out of Yellowleg's pistol. The harlot, her name's Kit, beset by grief, decides to journey across Apache country to bury her son with his father in a small, long abandoned, town called Sorenko (or some shit like that). Yellowleg, beset by guilt, offers to guide her safely through Apache country. Of course, Kit isn't too thrilled with him so she doesn't accept his offer. He follows her, determined to protect her, along with his two companions; the grizzled old Turkey (Chill Wills - heard of him too) and the young, brash Billy (some guy, can't be bothered to look him up).
Now, I'm no Peckinpah expert. I mean, I've seen a bunch of his pictures, read his biography called "Bloody Sam", and refreshed my brain by skimming on the wikipedia. Maybe that does make me a scholar of the guy, I don't know. My guess is not. What I do know is the guy had some serious issues. He was a boozer, a womanizer, a drug user, prone to violence, fits of rage, etc. Anyway, typical issues and shit. This kind of shit is always showing up in his movies too. His characters always drink, push around women, and shoot other characters, usually in artsy slow motion. When I say "push around women" what I meant to say was forcibly have sex with them to the point where the woman actually starts to enjoy it. See, what did I say? The guy's a real sweetheart.
Also, the guy (Peckinpah, again) has a thing against mirrors. He likes to have his characters look at themselves in a mirror and then shoot out the mirror. I guess they don't like what they see. It's some sort of metaphor or something. Guy shooting a mirror is a guy figuratively shooting himself. See, that's pretty artsy. To be honest, I only remember one other movie of his where a guy shoots a mirror. It's right at the end of Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid when Garrett shoots himself in a mirror after killing the Kid. Sorry, for the spoiler there. Garrett shoots, and kills, Bill the Kid. I hope you've already seen the movie. I'm sure there was a similar mirror scene in The Wild Bunch (but I don't remember it) and maybe in Straw Dogs. There's no way Dustin Hoffman could have liked looking at himself in the mirror after what happens to Susan George in that movie. Anyway, in The Deadly Companions the Billy character shoots himself in a mirror at the beginning of the picture. They're in a saloon and he and Yellowleg have just rescued Turkey from being strung up after cheating at cards. This mirror shooting scene is one of a few Peckinpah touches in this movie.
From what I read about this picture, Peckinpah had no input on the script or control in the editing room (I guess that's why we got no slow motion shootouts). Apparently, he wasn' even allowed to talk to his leading lady. So, any of his touches probably had to be smuggled into the movie, so to speak. I'm sure he told Billy to shoot that mirror even though it likely wasn't in the script. Weird aside: I remember reading that Peckinpah used to get drunk and shoot out mirrors in his house. Not sure if this is true or not. If it is, he really had a thing against mirrors. Wonder if Martin Sheen drunkenly Tai Chi'ing that mirror in the beginning of Apocalypse Now was some sort of homage to the guy? What's the subject again? Oh yeah, those Peckinpah touches. Let's just say that the character of Kit was a typical Peckinpah lady. A whore, devoid of competence, constantly needing to be saved, a target of sexual violence, incapable of driving a stage coach across even the smallest of streams, etc. Of course, since Peckinpah had no input on the script and couldn't even talk to O'hara he probably had some go between tell her what he wanted. Or, maybe he used telepathy. Or, maybe this type of female character was more common in the old style westerns which, let's be honest, this sort of is.
So, let's get something straight. After Yellowleg kill's Kit's son, she eventually, albeit reluctantly, agrees to let him drive her stage coach? She agrees to let his two deadly companions come along as well even though the younger one is constantly cracking wise about how he's going to get with her? The old west was a strange place, a place where women were pretty much good for one thing. Whoring themselves out, apparently. Or gossipping in church about women whoring themselves out even though they, themselves, were probably turning tricks out behind church as soon as service got out. Or maybe during the sermon they snuck out to give nickel handjobs or something. The west was a fucked up and pretty great place I must confess. Nah, I'm just kidding. It was only so-so. I'm sure none of the whores (the movie's word, not mine) back then looked anything like Maureen O'hara.
Well, I'm now going to talk about something that will make any women readers out there (Do you even exist?) a bit uncomfortable. Peckinpah really, I mean really, had it in for women. He had it so far in for them (bad choice of words?) that almost all of his sex scenes would (by modern standards) be considered rape on some level. That's bad enough. It gets worse. Not only do a bunch (all?) of his female characters get raped but they usually end up getting...ahem...into it. We're talking moaning, some oohing, some ahhing, etc. Does Peckinpah believe that women enjoy rape? It sure seems like he might. Is he going to be winning any feminist of the year awards anytime soon? Probably not, but that's because he's dead. Also, a misogynist. I wish I remembered more details about his personal life to provide some insight here. I could make some shit up if you'd like? Anyway, Kit doesn't get raped, but she does get almost-raped. At no point does she seem to enjoy her almost-rape and then she is saved by Yellowleg. I bet you assumed the almost rapist was a sex starved Apache? Racist. No, clearly it was Billy. If Peckinpah had been able to rewrite the script we definitely would have had Yellowleg save Kit only to push her down and ravish her himself. That's just the kind of hero he should be, is what Peckinpah probably was thinking to himself.
Well, shit, I'm running a bit long on a picture that isn't very Peckinpah and was actually pretty mediocre. I only included it because I wanted to show how he began. As a gun for hire. That's pretty much the same way he ended (see The Osterman Weekend). The picture's only interesting in showing where a legendary director began. Otherwise, it would be forgotten by just about everyone (it likely has been). It's poorly shot, the night scenes (of which there are many, including an absolutely incomprehensible Apache raid of the companion's camp) are horrendously lit, the acting ranges from slightly over the top (the guy that plays Billy) to homeless man's John Wayne (Brian Keith). Speaking of Yellowleg, there's an interesting bit about his hat. It's kind of a motif (there's that word again) throughout the movie. Why does he refuse to take it off? Even in church? The reveal is pretty ridiculous and then I forgot all about it. Also, he wanted revenge on the guy who was responsible for him never wanting to take off his hat. Could be his barber. I really don't recall. The old west was known for barbers giving out bad haircuts. That's why everyone wore hats. Even the women had bonnets and shit.
Oh, one other thing I sorta liked. Yellowleg had a "ball" (old west term for bullet) lodged in his shoulder. So, his gun arm was pretty useless. It lead to some pretty embarassing moments of him dropping his pistol when confronted by Billy, etc. The last shootout also shows him to be a pretty bad shot. That's one more theme in these Peckinpah flicks. Flawed heroes. Although, most of them can shoot straight. I don't think many other Peckinpah "heroes" would have much time for this Yellowleg fellow. Also, he's got "yellow" in his name. It's pretty fucking obvious.
Anyway, this is where Sam Peckinpah started (excluding his television work). A mostly shitty movie with only a few of his trademarks (mirror shootings, abused women). Also, there's a church service, I alluded to earlier, that takes place in a bar. I guess the church hasn't been built yet. I liked how the bartender had to pull blinds over the nudie pictures adorning the tavern walls because the pastor didn't appreciate them as much on sundays as he did on other days. Not sure if that was Peckinpah or not, but it sure felt like it was. This one just feels small and stagey. The score isn't by Jerry Fielding so we can surmise that it's a non-iconic, typical Westerny, middling affair. The wide open west, in this picture, is not so wide open. This one's on Netflix instant. Don't bother checking it out unless you're some sorta ridiculous completist.
Next up: Peckinpah's first masterpiece (I'll get to it when I get to it).
Motifs: aging men in changing times, abused women, drinking, shooting oneself in a mirror, betrayal
Peckinpah regulars: Chill Wills