"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Bad Company (Paramount, 1972)


"I'd like to get my hands around the throat of the son of a bitch that told me to go west."





 

 
I was discoursing the other day (I kinda do discoursing) on the abysmal quality of early-1970s Westerns (click here for those pearls of wisdom) and indeed many of those movies were shockingly bad. But they weren’t all terrible. I'm not saying that Bad Company is a great film, certainly not, but it’s no shocker either, and parts of it are rather good.

Jeff Bridges, then 22, topped the billing as Jake Rumsey, though in reality it is Barry Brown, as Drew Dixon, who is the central character. Mr. Bridges, son of another good Western actor, Lloyd, has become something of the grand old man of the Western since his role as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen brothers’ version of True Grit, but this was his first outing in the saddle. He went on to do Rancho Deluxe and Hearts of the West, take a smallish part in Heaven’s Gate, then star for Walter Hill as Wild Bill.

Jeff's first Western
 
Bridges’s part is almost a juvenile one – in fact all the gang or posse he leads are youths, three teenagers (John Savage, Jerry Houser and Damon Cofer) and one just a boy of ten or eleven (Joshua Hill Lewis). Part of the comedy (and tragedy) is their viridity and ingenuousness in the face of the harsh world of the 1860s frontier.

Posse of kids
 
Brown I didn’t know (he had a minor part in The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid the same year but that’s all she wrote as far as Westerns are concerned) but he is rather strong in this as the good Methodist boy who goes West from Ohio to dodge the Union army draft (a topical matter for 1972) and falls into, yes, bad company. Bridges plays the much more experienced, though equally youthful, fellow he unwillingly throws in with in St Joe, an amoral lout who alternately robs and befriends him. The result becomes almost a buddy movie, with echoes (faint ones, maybe) of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as the two pal up and get into shooting scrapes and, eventually, crime.

Ohio Methodist trying to stick to the straight and narrow
 
The director (his first stint in the chair) and co-writer with David Newman was Robert Benton. Benton and Newman did the screenplay of Bonnie and Clyde, and there are perhaps some similarities. The director does a good job on the pacing of this one (which could have dragged but didn’t) and on some of the dialogue too.

Robert Benton
 
There is some high-quality support acting from the ‘grown ups’, especially, I thought, David Huddleston as Big Joe, the leader of an incompetent white-trash outlaw band, slightly reminding us of Uncle Shiloh Clegg in Wagonmaster. Of course Bridges and Huddleston would cross paths again later as fellow bearers of the name Lebowski.

Huddleston good
 
Also good was Geoffrey Lewis (Clint’s buddy Orville Boggs in Every Which Way But Loose) as one of Big Joe’s inept brigands. Surprisingly good, you might say because a priori one would not have thought him cut out for Western badman parts, though he was the bumbling bandit Amos Tucker in the TV show Gun Shy in the 80s and he did something similar in another movie about a green kid out West, The Culpepper Cattle Company the same year as Bad Company.

Lewis as bumbling outlaw
 
The great Jim Davis is ideally cast as the tough marshal who has no compunction about hanging the bandits he catches from the nearest tree, and though it was a small part I thought Charles Tyner excellent as a mean farmer the boys come across – his nasty looks got him small but memorable parts in all sorts of Westerns, such as The Outlaw Josey Wales, Jeremiah Johnson, The Cowboys, and others.

Marshal Jim Davis is arresting officer, judge and jury
 
Not a nice man
 
I liked the music. It’s often just solo piano and this gives the picture almost the air of a silent movie as the characters caper about. It’s by Harvey Schmidt.

It’s filmed in a kind of washed-out color designed, I guess, vaguely to suggest sepia. It was shot in some nice Flint Hills, Kansas locations by Gordon Willis, who did The Godfather parts and various pictures for Woody Allen, but this and Comes a Horseman were his only Westerns.

There are two scenes which were shocking – to me, at least. One was where a homesteader returning from a failed life out West casually sells his wife for sex to the boys, a scene played for laughs, really, but chillingly unfunny, and the other when the small boy is shot in the head for stealing a pie, this latter all the more effectively done by not showing the murderer: we just hear the shotgun blast from the window.

He is bored. She is used to it.
 
The boys feed store-bought cartridges into the Colt Peacemakers, which was quite clever for 1864, and Marshal Davis asks Big Joe if he knew Curly Bill Brocius in '53, implying that Curly Bill was already an outlaw then (Joe says he taught Curly Bill the border roll). Actually, Curly Bill Brocius was eight years old in 1853. Still, we forgive factual errors in Westerns, don’t we?

As Roger Ebert said, “The boys are held together by no greater bond than the fact that they happened to start out together. They steal each other's horses and guns, abandon each other, save each other's lives and then cheerfully pull a double cross. Their world is totally pragmatic.”

He also wrote, “The movie is built as a series of more-or-less self-contained episodes, and the episodes that work are worth the effort. But we get the feeling the movie doesn't know where it's headed and the last scene (one of those freeze-frames that's supposed to crystallize a significant moment for us) left me suspended in midair. If there were ever a movie that just plain stopped, instead of arriving at a conclusion, this is it. Still, there were some good moments along the trail.”

Buddy movie - sort of
 
The New York Times critic was nicer, and talked of it as “naturalistic, irreverent and sometimes broadly comic”

Brian Garfield said of the movie, “I found it banal and tasteless”. Myself, I see what he was getting at but on the whole found it better than that. It even had some charm. It’s violent and cynical in an early-70s way, yes, but I think it’s the hopeless naivety of the boys that is quite endearing, in a twisted fashion.

 

5 comments:

  1. Jim Davis would have been pretty experienced at catching criminals since he captured or killed every famous western badman in history on Stories of the Century.

    Richard

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    Replies
    1. Yes, he managed to capture every known outlaw from before the Civil War until well into the 20th century, all without looking a day older.
      Jeff

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  2. Never heard of it before, thank you ! I must say that the French title is not very stimulating - the rebels are coming from hell... I guess that if the film would be released today it would keep its original one. Researching more informations, I have discovered it was shot in eastern Kansas Flint Hills refion, roughly between Wichita and Coffeyville famous thanks to the Dalton brothers, an other inspiring bad company... JM

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    Replies
    1. Yes, I see that on the IMDb page. I've changed the text. Thanks.
      Jeff

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  3. Jeff, a good review of a good 1970's Western movie. I first saw BAD COMPANY(filmed 1971, released 1972) on the CBS THURSDAY NIGHT MOVIE in the mid 1970's. I liked the movie for being realistic. I come at this viewpoint from probably a little different direction. I was really into reading about the Real West and the War of the Rebellion, at the time. Also, I knew several stories from the War of the Rebellion(1861-65), told me by relatives and other people who knew individuals that lived during this harsh and dangerous era along the Middle Border country(Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and the Indian Nations{Eastern Oklahoma}). Actually the War began with the Kansas/Missouri Border War in 1855. "Bleeding Kansas" anyone? And you thought the War began at Fort Sumter in 1861.

    The ages of the boys in this movie are correct. In many war movies, the soldiers and would-be ones, are too old. My Great-Great Grandfather John Patterson was 18 and his two older brothers James and Duncan were 20 and 22 when they were persuaded to enlist in early 1863. Uncle William Emanuel Davis was 18 when he joined up.

    Draft dodgers, you betcha. It wasn't just the Vietnam War, which was ongoing during the filming of this movie. Ever hear of the New York City draft riots of 1863? The mining fields of Colorado, Montana, and Nevada were filled with draft dodgers and deserters. Drew Dixon(Barry Brown) was heading for Virginia City, Nevada.

    Nobody dresses like the usual studio Westerner. Needless to say they didn't wear wardrobe from Paramount Studios. The boys dress like the children of Eastern settlers. Nobody wears movie western gear here and only the marshal(Jim Davis) sports a Stetson. Credit should be given to costume designer Anthea Sylbert, who also worked on THE COWBOYS(filmed 1971, released 1972). I wish that someone would have selected the correct pistols for the 1860's, although the soldiers at the beginning of the movie were carrying Enfield carbines of 1856 vintage.

    The movie was actually filmed in the Flint Hills country near Emporia, Kansas. This added to the realistic touch and the sets do have a spartan Western flavor. Gordon Willis' photography does have a somewhat dreary beauty to it to go along with the feel of the movie.

    I really got a kick out of the gunfight that Jake(Jeff Bridges) and Drew(Barry Brown) had with Big Joe's(David Huddleston) gang of tidbit outlaws(Geoffrey Lewis, Raymond Guth, Ed Lauter, and John Quade). I thought it was realistically handled.

    I think BAD COMPANY is well worth watching.

    Walter S.

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