"Bad Company" dir., Robert Benton, 1972

Jeff Bridges in Bad Company
There is a scene in Bad Company where a 23-year old Jeff Bridges, playing Jake Rumsey, the leader of a young gang of thieves who are wandering west from Missouri in a dodge of their being rounded up to fight for the Union, berates his young travelling companions for not knowing how to clean the rabbit they have just haphazardly riddled with pistol fire.  It's still early in their journey, and the goal of their travels is not even a glimmer on the horizon of the story being told.  A moment before, the six boys had lined up, each one holding his pistol in an awkward display of violent posturing, and now they slowly shuffle in around Jake, who has become their father as he moves forward from the pack and hunches over the dead animal while opening his knife.  "How can you not know how to clean a rabbit?" Jake demands, as he begins to display the process, throwing in the occasional bit of narration.  Even though we have seen the rabbit blown apart in graphic detail (a nod to the "rabbit hunt sequence" in Jean Renoir's 1939 The Rules of the Game),  now, as Jake cleans the rabbit, we see only Jake's face as he tears with progressive unease at the flesh.  We hear the skin being torn away and the squish of guts set against a series of close-ups on the members of the young gang who are not only disgusted by the sight, but with themselves.  The scene goes on for a while, pushing the sound of each violent gesture of the process to an unsettling degree, holding steadily on the faces of the boys.  Bridges performance takes over the camera toward the end of the scene, as his instructions become progressively mumbled, and we see the weight of what he's done creep quietly, slowly across his face.  The boys need to eat.  Jake holds up the skinned rabbit, and tosses it back into the dirt.

Jeff Bridges as Jake Rumsey
 Bad Company is a movie that has dropped off the radar a bit, but is definitely worth revisiting, not only as a reflection on the career of Jeff Bridges, who seems to have nearly reached guru-like status over the past few years, but for some indelible scene work, beautifully shot and acted.  The film was impeccably photographed by Gordon Willis, whose credits include two small films that sandwich Bad Company in his filmography, The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather:  Part II (1974), perhaps another reason why Bad Company was lost in the shuffle.  Of course, it may also have something to do with the writer/director of the film, Robert Benton, having previously penned the picture that nearly began the Hollywood Renaissance, Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde
For a movie carrying a "PG" rating, Bad Company is every bit as provocative and unsettling as Bonnie and Clyde, (and, another example of a 70's film that would never receive a "PG" rating today) although Bad Company seems to want to masquerade as a "buddy" comedy from time to time, accented uncomfortably in a few scenes by a jaunty, barroom piano score.  It's hard to tell whether or not the contrast of this light-fingered score with a rather horrific massacre scene that happens late in the film was an intentional juxtaposition or a studio attempt to offset the brutal truth of the scene.  In the scene the boys murder an elder gang of character actors (including David HuddlestonGeoffrey Lewis, and Ed Lauter), designed to mirror their own thieving gang in the film.  Lewis even goes to the extent of playing his death comically, slumping over with his arms out like a wind-up doll that's wound down, and Lauter's exclamation of "I'm dead!  The little rat got me!" just before he is gunned down in close-up has the air of a comedic punchline, when, in fact, everything about the scene is cold blooded.  The boys whose stomachs turned over cleaning a rabbit are now murderers, and seem to have come around to the fact that murder is survival in the West.

Joshua Hill Lewis, Barry Brown, Jerry Houser, and Geoffrey Lewis
in Bad Company
Bad Company is a revisionist western that comes after a series of films that used the western genre to reassess morality in the Viet-nam war era.  Another movie that was breaking the rules of film violence alongside Benton's Bonnie and Clyde was Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, with its famous opening montage of violence; a scene reminiscent in style of Eisenstein's "Odessa Staircase" sequence in the silent Russian masterwork, Battleship Potempkin, but with less accent on who the "bad guys" might be.  (As a side note, this scene, which was notorious in its time for sending patrons out of the theater vomiting, which was considered so violent for its time that it spawned parody, would routinely strike my film students as "pretty tame").  Bad Company comes at the tail end of an era when the western had collided head on with the counter-culture, from the "spaghetti" westerns of Leone and Corbucci to the pinnacle of the "acid western" with Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo (1970), as well as a number of American westerns that explored the myth of the west through a new lens of alienation, including Monte Hellman's Ride in the Whirlwind (1965) and The Shooting (1968), Peter Fonda's Easy Rider follow-up, The Hired Hand (1971), and, perhaps most notably, Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971).

Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo
Maybe Bad Company dropped at a bad time, amid a number of films that possibly overshadowed it's small scale, but there are also problems with the film's characterizations, particularly the central character of Drew Dixon, played by Barry Brown (a young actor who unfortunately committed suicide in the late 70's as a result of severe depression and alcoholism).  The character's arc is not strong enough to sustain the story in a plot-based way, and the performance has alternately false and truthful moments to a frustrating extent.  It seems that Bad Company could have been a classic with real staying power, but was foiled by a few performance, sound, and editing choices.  You see moments of brilliance in all of the actors here (did I mention a young John Savage?--terrific), and the brilliance of the script shines through at every turn, but it's the small choices--how we get from scene to scene, and how that affects the progressive, complicated arc of the main character--that ultimately hinder the film.  Still, Bad Company is worth checking out for the inventive and perfectly drawn ways it refuses the "slick" violence  of so many westerns that came before it .  The gun play is clumsy and hapless, an often startling commentary on the gun play of the John Wayne/John Ford era.  In one scene, Big Joe, the leader of the older gang (Huddlestein, who would go on to play another counter-part to Bridges), twirls his pistol in an attempt to impress the other men.  The gesture is decidedly unimpressive, and made only more uncomfortable by Huddlestein's closing line reading:  "I'll tell ya boys...I'm the oldest whore on the block."

Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown in Bad Company
Aside from the homage to Renoir, there is another interesting reference that returns a couple of times in the film:  Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre.  In one scene, Drew reads from the book to the impatient audience of the young gang, but Jake seems to be the only one who is truly interested.  Just before the final moment of the film, the gang torn apart, and the necessity for criminality seemingly second nature at this point, Jake pauses a moment and asks Drew, "Say, how'd that Jane Eyre turn out?"  In one of Brown's best moments in the film, he replies "Oh, fine, fine."  The ending of the film will not surprise fans of Bonnie and Clyde, although only the abruptness is comparable, not the actual events of the final scene.  Bad Company leaves us with some interesting questions, and doesn't simply act as a Viet-nam era allegory, but plays well in relation to both the history of the 1860's and the 1960's.

David Lean's Oliver Twist
Although I wasn't aware of it in my initial viewing, I should also throw in that the film's characters are loosely based on the characters in Oliver Twist--yet another lens through which to revisit this lost gem.  

Robert Benton

Director/writer Robert Benton would go on to write the first Superman movie, and direct Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), and (with Bridges, again) Nadine (1987).  

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