Let me start with an apology for the images on todays edition. I watched this on Amazon Prime and the edit they have is simply awful. I saw some other images on-line that looked better, but none of them featured Strother, and I’m not sure I want to buy a copy of the film on DVD.
“The Deadly Companions” is the first of the three films that Strother did with Director Sam Peckinpah, and it was Peckinpah’s feature debut after directing a number of TV Western episodes. Frankly, it is not a very well made film. It seems like a learning experience for the director, but in his defense he was unhappy about the lack of control he had over the project, so maybe there was a better film in his head.
The premise of the film has ex-union soldier Brian Keith, stalking a Rebel soldier who had tried to scalp him five years earlier during the Civil War. After luring the unsuspecting “reb” into a plot to rob a bank, they get to the bank too late, another group has already started and a shootout occurs. In the cross fire Keith accidentally shoots and kills an innocent, and he tries to salve his conscience by helping transport the body across Apache territory to be buried in a far off abandoned town.
The previous entry in “Strother Martin Wednesdays” was “McClintok!”, which included Maureen O’Hara in the cast. This film was a few years earlier and it is the first time Jay shared the screen with O’Hara. She plays a dance hall girl who has a tragic past and present and it is she who must cross the territory to complete the burial. Strother is the Parson in the town and he has only three scenes, but as usual, he makes the best of them.
After he walks in to the bar, which is serving as the church for Sunday Service, he greets the three strangers and Kit, the character played by O’Hara, as new congregants, and admonishes the men to remove their hats. That confrontation is complicated by Steve Cochran’s character pressing advances against Kit and her standing up to him. The Parson admires her fortitude and largely ignores the tut tutting of the townswomen who don’t approve of Kit.
As the story progresses, Kit is determined to transport the body to the abandoned other town for burial in a cemetery where she has loved ones. The town Mayor and the Parson arrive at the funeral parlor to try and dissuade her from undertaking the journey. The townsfolk apparently feel a bit of remorse at their treatment of Kit after the tragedy, and seem to be trying to make amends.
Sometimes Jay’s voice can sound like it is uttering platitudes, but he modulates it really effectively to make sincerity the emotion that comes through and this is one of those scenes where he manages to do that.
Much like “The Ballad of Cable Hogue”, Strother is in the opening section of the film and then reappears in the closing act. Unlike that other Peckinpah film, Jay’s part in the last act is not central to the events but he does have one very good line that helps close the film and satisfy the emotional reconciliation with the town and O’Hara and Keith’s characters.
After arriving with the posse chasing after the two bank robbers that had abandoned Keith and O’Hara on their journey, the Parson assures the laconic vengeance seeking Keith, that he will say the right words over the grave of the departed that everyone has traveled so far to deposit in this spot.
“I’ll say the right kind of words”
The middle act of the film is the journey, fraught with betrayal by evil companions Steve Cochran and Chill Wills. Wills also appeared with Strother and Maureen O’Hara in “McLintock!”, there he was the usual avuncular companion. In this film, he plays the prairie scum part that Strother would later own, and he was quite reprehensible in the role.
Strother was Fifth billed in this film, after the main lead actress and the three men who accompany her on the journey. This film came out in 1961 and Strother was not established as a name figure at the moment, but he was rapidly moving in that direction. An indication of how his status had changed over the years can be found on the packaging of the DVD where his name actually appears on the cover.
As a side note, the screenplay was written by Albert Sidney Fleischman, supposedly based on his book, although it appears that the book grew out of the screenplay. Regardless, I think he was better known as Sid Fleishman, the author of children’s books. Fleischman was also a magician and an acquaintance of my Father, Magician Kirk Kirkham. I have a copy of one of my favorite childhood books, “Mr. Mysterious and Company”, about a magician and his family in the old west, that was signed for my Dad by the author. Just a coincidence that I found interesting.