The Deadly Companions / Trigger Happy (1961) ***

Bank robbers ride into town. They pass kids playing a vicious game. There’s something unusual on a roof. Innocents are killed in the resulting shootout.

Remind you of anything?

Sam Peckinpah’s debut is best viewed as an early dummy run for The Wild Bunch (1969) but the title could refer to any of his westerns since there is always malevolence afoot among any of his marauders, be they soldiers, lawmen or outlaws.

By the simple device of waiting a year until “The Parent Trap” had charmed audiences everywhere, UK exhibitors were able to launch “The Deadly Companions” on the back of it, as if O’Hara and Keith were re-teaming for the western rather than the other way round. “The Deadly Companions” wasn’t released in Britain until summer 1962, a year after its launch Stateside, and on the lower half of a double bill.

He’s done no favors by a genuine oddity of a script which has to shoehorn in various odd characters around a basic premise of escorting a woman across Indian Territory. And, it has to be said, more than occasionally the film doesn’t make much sense.

Strangers Yellowleg (Brian Keith), better known as The Man With The Hat since he refuses to take it off in case he reveals his scalped head, gunslinger Billy (Steve Cochran) and Turk (Chill Wills), former Confederate deserter, team up to rob a bank after the first two save card cheat Turk from an impromptu hanging.

But they discover they’re not the first to come up with robbing the new bank and in the shootout with the other robbers Yellowleg inadvertently kills the son of single mum and dance hall hostess Kit (Maureen O’Hara). She decides she doesn’t want to bury the boy in a town where she is openly despised but plans to put him to rest beside the grave of her husband in an abandoned village in Apache country.

Pricked by conscience Yellowleg offers assistance. But Billy goes along with the idea because, and there’s no getting round this, he wants to rape her. Turk goes where Billy goes. At first she resists all offers of assistance and manages to fend off the amorous Billy but of course she’s not able to fix broken wagon wheels or catch a runaway horse. Eventually, it’s just her and Yellowleg, though the other two turn up at the end, Billy not having given up on the notion of bedding her.

The Native Americans they encounter, as in The Pistolero of Red River/ The Last Challenge (1967) are mostly drunk and no threat. In fact, civilization is deadlier, Kit even cold-shouldered at church, and with travelling companions like Billy danger is a constant. Kit might have done better not to get herself wet so often, since that involves either a) being nude behind a wagon to dry off or b) splashing around in full view.

Surprisingly, the hat provides a couple of tender moments. But mostly it’s kept on because Turk is the guy who scalped Yellowleg. There’s an odd presumption that, although his facial features can’t have changed, that only removing it will alert Turk to his true identity. Yellowleg wants to scalp Turk in revenge. He’s only just found him after five years looking. So when he occasionally abandons Kit in dangerous Apache territory it’s to make sure his quarry hasn’t gone far.

There are some nice touches here, although the tendency towards gorgeous sunsets seems out of place. The person on the roof is, for unexplained reasons, Kit’s son playing a harmonica. The town has odd priorities. It may have a new bank but the local saloon has to double as the church, various paintings of nudes on the walls covered up for the occasion, the preacher (Strother Martin) happily challenging our trio to remove their hats in the presence of God. Yellowleg has “something wrong with his shooting arm,” a bullet embedded close to his collarbone that having found his prey he doesn’t have time for the convalescence required after an operation. Authenticity impinges – a rig carrying a coffin and two people is a lot more cumbersome than a single horse dragging a sled, body wrapped in cloth.  

Maureen O’Hara (The Rare Breed, 1966) in tempestuous mode is the star attraction here. She’s independent, sassy, tender in turn, and able, for the most part, to defend herself against Billy. It seems a tad inconceivable that she would fall for her son’s killer much as, for purely practical reasons, she might accept his protection.    

Brian Keith’s character doesn’t quite come off since it takes too long for his quest to be spelled out. Neither do he and O’Hara gell as they would in their next teaming, The Parent Trap (1961) .

Steve Cochran (Mozambique, 1964) is mostly in scene-stealing mode and it would have helped his character if it had been spelled out whether Kit was a mere dance hall hostess or one who gave out extras for a price. Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960) also seems to be on a different planet when it comes to acting. But it does seem a shame all the boys put so much effort into trying to steal scenes when Maureen O’Hara without doing very much sneaks away with the entire picture. A.S. Fleischman (The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin, 1967) wrote the screenplay based on his own novel, O’Hara’s brother produced, and, you might as well know, it’s the actress who sings the theme song.

Mozambique (1964) ***

Here’s a great idea for a movie. A pair of nubile young girls sign on for a yacht trip with a renowned Hollywood lothario. A couple of days in the star dies. Neither of the girls knows anything about sailing. The boat drifts. If this was a Hollywood movie there would be circling sharks and at least a squall. But it’s not, the girls are picked up 10 days later complete with festering corpse. Witness the sad end of Steve Cochran.

He never made it as a big star, Sometime top-billed in B-movies, but mostly supporting roles, so it was somehow ironic that producer Harry Alan Towers, on the look-out for any kind of name who didn’t mind spending a couple of weeks on location in a remote African spot, gave him his first starring role in six years as down-on-his-luck pilot Brad sent to infiltrate a smuggling gang in the eponymous country.

In the German market, the Germans were the stars, Steve Cochran relegated below the title.

And this would have been a fitting send-off because, in among the sleaze, there’s a decent story and some pretty good lines. But it really needed the dry delivery of a Rod Taylor to give those lines the zest they required.

There’s a sudden contemporary feel courtesy of former kickboxing champ and influencer Andrew Tate, arrested in Romania for alleged human trafficking, because the underlying story here is white slave trade. Or, put another way, the one-way ticket. The prospect of a job, any job, anywhere, is sometimes enough, no time, or need, to think how you will get back home. Here, a place of dreams for those running out of anything else that might fit the bill, might become home.

Christine (Vivi Bach) is one such dreamer, a singer. What she doesn’t realise is that in the club where she is employed the girls are part of the deal, a commodity. Her one-way ticket is destination human trafficking. What used to be called in those sensationalist times as the “white” slave trade, as if any other type of slave trade was acceptable or less worrisome. She is sold to an Arab sheik (Gert can den Bergh), to form part of his harem.

Luckily for Christine, Brad has taken a shine to her so when the Arab appears on his smuggling radar their paths converge. But trafficking is a sub-plot. Brad has been hired as a pilot for Col Valdez but he has died intestate so his wife Ilona (Hildegarde Knef), in this corrupt country, is also up for grabs and has to (literally) sing for her supper before segueing from black widow to femme fatale. Standing in Ilona’s way are her husband’s associate Da Silva (Martin Benson) and his one-time business rival Henderson (Dietmar Schonherr) and quickly those two guys are in Brad’s way too.

So it’s a solid old-fashioned tale, Brad digging up the dirt, pausing for a bit of romance, chasing the villains. Smashing the human trafficking isn’t part of his brief, so that’s put to one side, but a missing will, which could rescue Ilona from her impoverished situation, runs parallel to the plot.

The exotic locale was typical Harry Alan Towers. But this has a better plot than most of the ones reviewed so far in the Blog, it’s not rammed with cameos (Five Golden Dragons, 1967) or a star out of his depth (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, 1966) or a story that takes forever to come to the boil (24 Hours to Kill, 1965).

And, discounting the tribal dancers shaking their booty in a nightclub, it displays some finesse and comedic touches. Stonewalled by Da Silva on arrival, Brad insists on seeing his employer only to be led into a funeral parlor. A waiter knocks back unfinished drinks. “Nobody’s seen her since last night,” is followed by “then, we’d better stop looking for her, hadn’t we?” And did I mention the snake on the plane?

But Towers always got his money’s worth. Although making a (plot) point, there was another reason for Ilona singing. Knef had relaunched her career in the early 1960s as a singer, so her voice was a welcome interlude, and an improvement on that of Vivi Bach, married to Dieter Schonherr, so perhaps hired as a package.

Steve Cochran (The Deadly Companions, 1961) really only requires masculinity to see this through, though has a way with throwaway lines. Hildegard Knef (The Lost Continent, 1968) adds a touch of class but Vivi Bach (Assignment K, 1968) is merely competent.

Robert Lynn (Dr Crippen, 1963) directed from a script by Peter Yeldham (The Liquidator, 1965).

More topical than most Towers’ pictures and in fact one of his best.

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