#8 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
Sam Peckinpah’s last television project, The Westerner starring Brian Keith, came to an early end, and Keith went off to star in a movie with Maureen O’Hara. However, they had no director, and Keith recommended Peckinpah to the producers. Peckinpah, eager to make the jump into feature films, worked for dirt cheap on a script on which he had no say, all while, apparently, disgusting O’Hara with his personal habits the whole time. Peckinpah was so frustrated with the experience, especially the fact that he couldn’t make changes to the script, that he decided that going forward in his career he would only work on films where he did have control over the screenplay. Should this be dismissed regarding Peckinpah’s body of work? I’m not so sure how it fits thematically, but Peckinpah managed to craft a film of surprising emotional weight from a script he didn’t seem to like until the movie’s final ten minutes when everything just wraps up super tightly and not all that convincingly.
I finished this film, and some of my earliest thoughts were revolving around a contrast between Peckinpah’s television work and his first film. The problem was that I hadn’t seen any of Peckinpah’s television work, so I set out to find the first episode of The Westerner (on Amazon Prime), something Peckinpah co-wrote, produced, and directed. I found some of what I had expected (a fair amount of closeup conversations), but I also found a surprising number of interesting tracking and dolly shots. Peckinpah was stretching even there. My early impressions of The Deadly Companions were also not helped by Paramount+’s awful copy, pan-and-scanned to cut off so much from the 2.35:1 image, leading me to find an alternate source that opened up the image and made it a whole lot better to look at.
Anyway, the movie is about a man named Yellowleg (Keith) who comes across a card cheat named Turk (Chill Wills), a man that Yellowleg has a history with that Turk doesn’t remember, tied to the end of the Civil War. Yellowleg has designs on exacting vengeance upon Turk, but Turk’s partner in crime, Billy (Steve Cochran), tags along, delaying Yellowleg from making his move. They end up in a small town where they see one of the Dance Hall women, Kit (O’Hara), and her son Mead (Billy Vaughn), treated poorly by the local women in the makeshift church service that takes over the bar. After a brief, unexplained shootout that Yellowleg tries to help stop, he accidentally kills Mead.
Kit hates the people of the town, and their efforts to attend a funeral for the boy mean nothing to her. She is going to take Mead to the town of Siringo, on the other side of Apache occupied land, where she says that the boy’s father is buried. The women of the town have dialogue that heavily implies that Kit is a prostitute, saying she couldn’t possibly even know who the father is, though all of the dialogue about her actual profession from Kit herself says that she just danced with men (this is probably something Peckinpah wanted to change but couldn’t). She is going to go there whether people believe her or not. Filled with guilt, but torn between his guilt and his sense of vengeance against Turk, he drags Turk along with Billy tagging along as well because he’s lusting after Kit. So begins the kind of weird and quite touching journey to Siringo as four people steadily lose their horses and wagon to carry a small coffin across the rugged countryside.
The bulk of the film is this journey, and it provides a wonderful focus on our four characters. Yellowleg is simply trying to do the right thing while also keeping what has driven him for the past five years within reach. Turk comes along because he is both a coward (so cowardly he won’t even shoot Yellowleg in the back) and strung along with Yellowleg’s tales of a great bank to rob. Billy is going to have Kit if it’s the end of him. Kit wants nothing to do with the three men tailing her, only begrudgingly accepting their help at first when she loses a wheel on her wagon in some water.
Steadily, the core relationship between Yellowleg and Kit grows, and it’s all kinds of wonderful. Both are wounded people with deep histories that inform who they are, and Kit is forced to accept help from the man who killed her ten-year-old son. When they’re left alone with the coffin and an Apache warrior toying with them and Yellowleg goes out to try and deal with it, there’s a real connection there between them.
And then they get to Siringo. The film doesn’t fall apart the second they show up. There’s actually a very good moment where Yellowleg looks for the grave of Kit’s husband and can’t find it, and then everything just starts tying up really neat and tidy. Lost characters come back to wrap up character questions super neatly. There’s even a posse that allows for an out of vengeance that allows certain characters to end up together instead of making hard choices. The final ten minutes of this film isn’t exactly bad, but it undermines the moral complexity of two people in a terrible situation finding a way to connect. It’s not good, and it takes a movie that was edging towards potential greatness and pushes it down pretty hard.
The overall film suffers a bit because of that neat and tidy ending. It’s interesting, but that first episode of The Westerner, titled “Jeff”, has a more open ending that embraces the complexities of the three characters that it quickly draws in twenty-five minutes. Without reading anything in depth about the production, I’d guess that the ending is where Peckinpah had the most issue with the script. It’s an ending the movie doesn’t deserve. It deserves something better.
Still, the first 80 minutes are somewhat messy (the shootout that the whole plot hinges on just kind of happens, for instance) but ultimately quite wonderful. O’Hara shines as Kit, giving her all in a film her own brother (Charles Fitzsimmons) produced, and Keith is a rock as Yellowleg. The supporting cast is good as well, and Peckinpah really gives the film a great visual sense, using the entire wide frame well to tell the story visually. In my first five minutes of viewing on Paramount+, I assumed that Peckinpah was ineffectively using his television training in a feature film setting. However, once I switched over to a widescreen presentation, I saw the command of the frame that more naturally fit the film. This was an extension of how well Peckinpah managed things visually in The Westerner.
Is this movie some kind of lost gem of Peckinpah’s career? Maybe. The first four-fifths of the film are something special, but that ending is just not at the same level at all. I think the film ends up working despite the ending, though. I kind of love that first four-fifths.