Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door: PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID (MGM 1973)

(PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID airs tonight at 11:45 EST on TCM. Do yourselves a favor… watch it!)

PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was director Sam Peckinpah’s final Western, and as usual it’s about more than just the Old West. It’s about the new breed vs the old establishment, about the maverick auteur vs the old studio guard, and about his never-ending battle to make his films his way. The fact that there are six, count ’em, SIX different editors credited tells you what MGM honcho James Aubrey thought of that idea! They butchered over 20 minutes out of the movie, which then proceeded to tank at the box office. Fortunately for us, PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID has been restored to its full glory, and we can enjoy Peckinpah’s original artistic vision.

I’m not going to try to make excuses for Peckinpah; he was a legitimate pain in the ass, a chronic alcoholic and drug abuser with manic mood swings and a violent temper. A real reprobate. But damn, he made some of the best films of the 60’s and 70’s! His takes on the western and crime genres were ultra-violent lyrical tone poems, influencing an entire generation of filmmakers who tried to copy his style, but rarely succeeded. Take a look at virtually any action-packed movie made in the last fifty years, at directors from Scorsese to Tarantino, and you’ll see the Peckinpah influence. Sam Peckinpah may have been a pain in the ass, but the man was an artist of the first order.

PAT GARRETT & BILLY THE KID concerns the familiar tale of two old friends, one an outlaw, the other now a lawman, and their final confrontation. The two leads are veteran James Coburn as Garrett and relative newcomer Kris Kristofferson, better known at the time as a singer/songwriter. Garrett has been hired by the powers that be in Lincoln County, New Mexico to rid the territory of Billy and his gang. The pair had ridden together as outlaws, and been on opposite sides before (Billy: “Wasn’t long ago I was the law, riding with Chisum. Pat was an outlaw. The law’s a funny thing.”). Garrett doesn’t want to kill Billy, but knows in his heart that’s exactly what it’s going to take.

Cinematographer John Coquillon got his start working on AIP horrors (WITCHFINDER GENERAL, THE OBLONG BOX ), and was a favorite of Peckinpah. There are marvelous location shots of the rugged Durango, Mexico scenery, notably the reflective river. A standout comes when Billy kills his religious fanatic jailer (a scary R.G. Armstrong), and at Billy’s capture, his arms stretched out like Christ on the Cross when he gives up. Coquillon and Peckinpah worked together on the director’s seminal STRAW DOGS, and later on CROSS OF IRON and THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND. They make a great duo, each man enhancing the other’s artistic vision.

The plaintive score, as you may already know, is by Bob Dylan, who also has a role as Alias, an enigmatic figure to say the least (Pat: “Who are you?” Alias: “That is a good question”). Dylan may not be an Olivier or DeNiro, but he’s just right in this role, saving Billy by throwing his knife at just the right moment, being intimidated by Garrett, and pretty much just being Dylan. The hit song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is featured on the soundtrack, which was released as his 12th album, and I’m sure you Dylan fans already own it!

The movie is stocked with some of Hollywood’s best character actors, all of whom get their chance to shine. Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado play a pair of lawmen (lawpersons??) aiding Pat, and Pickens’ death scene is played out to the aforementioned Dylan hit. Jack Elam is Alamosa Bill, who tracks Billy down and dies in a gun duel. Good Lord, there’s Luke Askew, John Beck, Richard Bright, Matt Clark, Elisha Cook Jr , singer Rita Coolidge, Jack Dodson, Gene Evans , Emilio Fernandez, Paul Fix Richard Jaeckel , L.Q. Jones, Jason Robards Charlie Martin Smith , Harry Dean Stanton, Barry Sullivan , Dub Taylor, Chill Wills, a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood Familiar Faces!

The final, fatal killing of Billy the Kid is haunting for both its beauty and its ugliness. That pretty much sums up the best of Sam Peckinpah’s work, the dichotomy of beauty and the grotesque, the proud and the profane, walking hand in hand through a random, chaotic world. PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID was Peckinpah’s final word on the Western genre, and I’m glad it’s been restored to its original form, so future generations can study the cinematic artwork of this difficult, self-destructive, brilliant genius.

Diamond in the Rough: RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 (Allied Artists 1954)

Back in 1951, movie producer Walter Wanger (rhymes with danger) discovered his wife, actress Joan Bennett , was having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang. The enraged husband tracked them to a parking lot, where Wanger shot Lang in the groin. That’ll teach him! Wanger was subsequently arrested, and sentenced to serve a four-month bid in a Los Angeles county farm. His stint in stir, though brief, affected him profoundly, and he wanted to make a film about prison conditions. The result was RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11, a ripped-from-the-headlines prison noir that’s tougher than a two-dollar steak.

Wanger hired Don Siegel to direct the film. Siegel was gaining a reputation as a director of muscular, low-budget features, and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 is a great early example of his harsh, brutal style. The movie’s sparse, shadowy setting was filmed on location at California’s infamous Folsom Prison thanks to the connections of one of Siegel’s assistants, a young man working on his first film named Sam Peckinpah . Gee, I wonder whatever became of him?

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 opens with narrator James Matthews intoning ominous newsreel footage of prison riots across the USA protesting inhumane conditions. We then turn to our fictional prison, where a single mistake by a rookie guard leads to chaos in Cell Block 11, led by hardened cons Dunn (Neville Brand ) and Carnie (Leo Gordon). They take over the solitary confinement block, using four guards as hostages, and trash the place. The warden (Emile Meyer) is called in as the inmates present their demands, and insist the press be alerted as well.

The entire prison devolves into chaos and rioting, and the state police are called in to quell things with smoke bombs and rubber bullets. An inmate is accidentally killed during the commotion, and five other guards are snatched by the cons. The warden hears Dunn’s demands: remodel the condemned solitary block, separate “the nuts” (those with mental health issues) from the other cons, get rid of leglocks and overzealous guards, teach the men a trade, and absolutely no reprisals for the rioters.

The warden has been asking for some of these same changes for years, but his pleas have fallen on deaf ears. He’s willing to sign off on them now, but the governor (Thomas Henry Browne) refuses, and the prison commissioner (Frank Faylen) orders TNT to be planted on the outside wall of the cell block. Meanwhile, warring factions in the cell block leave Dunn injured, and his lieutenant “Crazy Mike” Carnie takes command. Carnie plans to begin killing hostages, but when the commissioner’s plot is discovered, they chain the hostages to a pipe on the other side of the wall. Dunn recuperates just in time to take a phone call from the warden: the governor has relented, and the prisoner’s demands for change will be met. But two weeks later, it turns out it was all for naught. The state legislature repudiates the warden’s and governor’s signatures, and Dunn is to stand trial for leading a riot and kidnapping the guards. Though Carnie and some of the other “nuts” are sent to the State Mental Institution, the rest of the demands will not be met.

The cast of RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 consists of some legitimate hard guys. Neville Brand was a highly decorated soldier during World War II, earning a Purple Heart, Silver Star, three Bronze Stars, and six other medals for bravery and valor in combat. Leo Gordon was thrown out of the Army, and later served five years in San Quentin for armed robbery. The warden of Folsom reused to let Gordon in at first, but Siegel, who once called Gordon “the scariest man I have ever met”, talked him into it. Among the cons, guards, and reporters, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Whit Bissell (whose first credited role was in BRUTE FORCE ), Roy Glenn, Dabbs Greer (whose final film appearance was in THE GREEN MILE), Frank Hagney, Jonathan Hole, Alvy Moore , William Phipps, William Schallert , and Carleton Young. Some of the actual Folsom cons and guards appear as extras.

RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 tells a very bleak tale of desperate people driven to desperate measures. It’s lean and mean, like the best films noir, and delivers it’s message with sledgehammer potency. This compact diamond-in-the-rough is among director Siegel’s best work, and is highly recommended by yours truly.

First Shot Fired: THE DEADLY COMPANIONS (Pathe’-America 1961)

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Maverick filmmaker Sam Peckinpah got his start in television, writing and directing for Westerns such as GUNSMOKE, THE RIFLEMAN, and HAVE GUN- WILL TRAVEL. In 1959, he created the series THE WESTERNER, starring Brian Keith as a drifter named Dave Blassingame, noted for its extreme (for the time) violence. When Keith was cast as the lead in THE DEADLY COMPANIONS, he suggested his friend Peckinpah as director. This was Peckinpah’s first feature film, and the result is a flawed but interesting film which has brief flourishes of the style he later perfected in THE WILD BUNCH and PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID.

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Keith is again a drifter, this time an ex-Union soldier known only as Yellowleg. He hooks up with a pair of Southern outlaws and they ride to Hila City to rob the bank. They get sidetracked at the saloon when it converts into a church service. Next thing you know, some robbers beat them to the punch in robbing the bank, leading to a shootout. Yellowleg accidentally kills the young son of redheaded dance hall girl Kit, played by none other than Maureen O’Hara (whose brother Charles Fitzsimons was the film’s producer).

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Kit is determined to bury her son in Siringo, located across hostile Apache territory. Yellowleg, feeling guilty, offers to help, but is spurned by Kit. Nevertheless, he and his companions Billy and Turkey, follow along. Billy, who noticed Kit at the barroom sermon, has sexual designs on Kit, who wants no part of him. Yellowleg catches Billy in a rape attempt and, after a fight, sends him away. Turkey, who’s not right in the head, goes with his pal, and Yellowleg and Kit are left to cross the desert alone, battling the heat, the Apaches, and each other.

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Peckinpah plays on his theme of misfits banded together, working from A.S. Fleischman’s screenplay (based on his own novel). Yellowleg has a bum arm, and never takes his hat off, hiding a deep, dark secret. A Rebel soldier once attempted to scalp him, and revenge has fueled him for the past five years. Kit, a prostitute with a bastard son, has been ostracized by the women of Hila City. The only thing she ever truly loved was the boy, now shot dead by Yellowleg. Billy (Steve Cochran) is a good-looking man with a lustful dark side. Chill Wills turns in the best performance as Turkey, an unrepentant criminal who dreams of setting up his own little empire. He’s crazier than a loon, and twice as dangerous. It doesn’t take much to figure out it was Turkey who attempted to scalp Yellowleg during the Civil War.

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The trademark Peckinpah violence is there, not nearly as gory as what was to come, but probably shocking for 1961. The movie’s Arizona locations are vividly filmed by DP William Clothier , noted for his work with John Wayne and John Ford, together and separately. The problem laid in a choppy script, which slowed the film down. Peckinpah demanded script control from then on, and his next film, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, proved him right. It’s now considered a Western classic, while many critics dismiss THE DEADLY COMPANIONS. It’s worth watching for a look at what the director could accomplish on a low-budget. The four lead actor’s all shine (Maureen even sings the film’s mournful title song!), and Strother Martin and Will Wright offer strong support in minor roles. THE DEADLY COMPANIONS doesn’t get much recognition, but for fans of Sam Peckinpah, it’s required viewing to see the beginning of a controversial but brilliant career.