Peckinpah's Western Trap
"The Deadly Companions" is an interesting western to watch because it is director Sam Peckinpah's first movie and you can see touches of his style which would become more prominent in later movies. From the depth of shots, the capturing of wide expanses as well as characters and scenes, such as kids playing as we enter a town it has what you could say is the genesis of Peckinpah's style. But it is also quite a laborious, dark movie with its tale of going across country to bury a young boy as whilst there is drama it is not full on action. In fact these moments punctuate this heavy going journey which never really flows, cut in the editing room into something close to a disjointed series of episodes.
Former Yankee officer Yellowleg (Brian Keith - Run of the Arrow) saves a cheating gambler by the name of Turk (Chill Wills) from the noose and along with Turk's partner Billy (Steve Cochran) head to Gila City where they plan to rob a bank. But another robbery leads to disaster when Yellowleg accidentally kills the son of dancer Kit Tilden (Maureen O'Hara - War Arrow) who with no husband is the woman of shame in the city. Declaring she is taking her son to Siringo in the heart of Apache country so she can bury him next to the husband no one believes exists Yellowleg, Turk and Billy accompany her. But things are not as they seem as for 5 years Yellowleg has been hunting down a man looking for revenge for a secret he keeps hidden under his hat.
In truth "The Deadly Companions" is a simple movie as following the accidental killing of Kit's son we have a story of Kit and the men travelling across country to bury her son. Now the expected aspect of this is the tension between everyone because Kit understandably is angry at Yellowleg although you can also detect fondness between them. And Billy has a thing for Kit, not romance but a primal urge to have his way with her so we have this tense journey which also has some moments of Indian trouble. Now at the same time we have Yellowleg's story and as we learn early on is the fact that Turk is the man he has been hunting down because during the war Turk tried to scalp him and so is just waiting for the right time when they are alone so he can get his revenge.
This means we have a storyline which technically has a decent amount going on as we have revenge, romance, trouble all leading to tension and there is more as in Gila no one believed that Kit had been married and her son was legitimate leading to bad feeling. But the trouble is that whilst we get all of this it feels laborious, like one long funeral procession across the desert. The moments of drama are short and the whole thing feels quite disjointed as if huge chunks have been left out to keep it at a reasonable running time. It makes it hard work because whilst there is character evolution not a lot seems to happen and when it does it is over too quickly.
Now as already mentioned "The Deadly Companions" is Peckinpah's first movie and you can see lots of elements which he would later expand upon in his other westerns. There are scenes and characters such as the children playing which he would later use and visually he delivers this eerie sort of feeling. Scenes in an abandoned town have an almost ghostly quality to them making them quite uneasy bordering on the awkward to watch.
What is for certain is that whilst the star pairing of Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith were no strangers to westerns under Peckinpah's direction you get a different sort of performance. They deliver characters with various layers, toughness yet also fragility, a sense of need but a sense of independence and both O'Hara and Keith deliver this as well as the chemistry. But again it feels so heavy that it becomes hard work watching them almost circle around each other. It is the same with Chill Wills as Turk and Steve Cochran as Billy because they are just that little bit different to what you expect in a normal western.
What this all boils down to is that "The Deadly Companions" is hard work because it is a dry almost laborious western which doesn't flow. But for fans of Peckinpah it is well worth a watch to see the genesis of his style which he would later on in his career get so right.