THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, Sam Peckinpah’s 1961 debut as a feature director, isn’t much of a calling card for the maverick who would deliver two classics and another very good picture before the decade closed, all of them westerns. So is this, but his first movie ranks with his worst, a four or even five-way tie. It has a few almost-saving graces, but mostly the 93 minutes are a disjointed, dismal slog.
When their planned bank robbery goes askew and a stray bullet accidentally kills a young boy, the leader, called ‘Yellowlegs’ (Brian Keith) decides to accompany the boy’s saloon gal mother (Maureen O’Hara) when she takes his body to another town, to be buried next to his father. Naturally, she’s none too pleased to keep company with the man who fired the shot, let alone his scurvy companions (Steve Cochran and Chill Wills) who tag along into Apache territory.
First the good. Though at 40 a good decade older than her tarnished ‘Kit Tildon’, O’Hara’s beauty is timeless, even when she’s subjected to mire and abuse, and she does what she can to invest her end of the script with force. Since it’s Maureen O’Hara, innate dignity, gutsy spirit and raw emotion are guaranteed. Wills wallows happily in the most disreputable part he ever played, and can’t be held responsible for what script gibberish his ‘Turkey’ babbles. Strother Martin has a fun scene as a preacher, and longtime character hardy Will Wright has one nice bit. With the assorted Arizona desert locations shot by veteran cameraman William H. Clothier, you get some decent scenic value. When they finally arrive in ‘Siringo’, any western fan worth their buckshot will immediately recognize the elaborate set of ‘Old Tucson’, built for 1940’s enjoyable Arizona, and deployed afterwards in more than 400 movies and TV episodes.
But the rest is ridiculous. The script, written by A. S. Fleischman, is terrible. To be fair, we note that Albert Sidney Fleischman was a well-regarded author of children’s books. But he was also guilty of wankers like Blood Alley and Lafayette Escadrille, and this is even worse, in terms of logic, situation setups and dialogue. Arguments are gone over repeatedly, behavioral changes occur so often and so fast it may as well be comedy, and who put O’Hara skinny-dipping, alone at night, with Apaches ready to pounce? Never fear, they’re remarkably inattentive. At least Maureen gets to tell Brian “It’s strange – I feel I know better than any man I’ve ever known, yet I hardly know you at all.” That she can say this and keep a straight face is the mark of a real pro.
Cochran is all right, but he’d done smarmy bad guys so often that this was a sleepwalk, and his character is pure cliché, except for the name: a gunfighter named ‘Billy Keplinger’ ? Keith, normally compelling, is stuck with absurd motivation tripe, and broods more than Brando.
Some might blame the editing by Stanley Rabjohn, but Peckinpah’s pacing is poky (about as fast as a funeral procession), character positioning within frames is awkward (bad coverage on his part), scenes end arbitrarily. Loyalists blame interference from O’Hara—one of her brothers produced it, and another has a bit part. Maureen also sings the un-named song over the credits: she has a lovely voice, but the song is as meaningless as everything that follows. She was mightily displeased with Peckinpah, later calling him “one of the strangest and most objectionable people I had ever worked with” who “didn’t have a clue how to direct a movie”. Done on a budget of just $300,000, even coming in at 99th place it did make the money back by grossing $1,800,000.
Along with the alternately lethargic or jerky pacing, downbeat and unpleasant tone, foolish circumstances unlikeable people, and limp resolution, everything is accompanied by an abyssally wrong musical score. This aspect, intrusive, insistent and anachronistic, was perpetrated by Marlin Skiles. Just atrocious. Forget Skiles: who OK’d it?
At least O’Hara and Keith hit it off, immediately re-teaming for The Parent Trap. The terminally troublesome Peckinpah’s next was infinitely better, the great Ride The High Country.