I could watch Jeff Bridges eat potato salad. He’s one of our most gifted actors, and up until maybe 15 years ago, highly underrated. He’s finally come into his own, with cultists who can recite every line from The Big Lebowski claiming they have always thought he was great. But I’d go all the way back, when he first graced screens with that boyish, shit-eating grim from The Last Picture Show as the first time he got my attention. His early work in a variety of films, some much more successful than others, reveal his ability to play young scalawags and dreamers, naïve farm boys and innocent charmers; a far cry from his crusty Marshall Rooster Cogburn or the burned out Dude.
If you want to see one of the most impressive and believably prolonged death scenes, check out Bridges early work in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).
So I was very eager to open up the new Warner Archive Classic’s release of the mostly forgotten Bad Company. This was Robert Benton’s directorial debut, having co-written Bonnie & Clyde and What’s Up Doc?, he was a much sought after script doctor. Here, he shows his great understanding of subtlety, period and performance to deliver an easy-going anti-western; also known as the “acid Western,” a slice-of-life, tip of the hat to the 60s counter-culture, that does much to dispel the mythology and melodramas of the Old West.
It doesn’t hurt that Benton had the legendary Cinematographer Gordon Willis to lens his project; and the film is no cake walk for the Oscar winning DP. Usually Willis is known for his interior scenes, framing out certain characters, holding shots as if from a play, exercising restraint of camera movement. And there are several opportunities for him to work to his strengths; as the opening scenes are staged in parlours and kitchens, shafts of sunlight through a window making discriminating choices of just where to land; shadows in a corner protecting innocence and identities.
But then the story opens up and moves out to wide open vistas and prairies, Willis is forced to use even more subtle choices determining what to light and what to diffuse, as his canvas is now the grand country landscape of late 19th century wilderness.
And the center for your attention, even though he is not the protagonist, is a young Jeff Bridges. A well-to-do young Civil War draft dodger (Barry Brown) slips into St. Joseph, Missouri, hoping to board a wagon train headed west to Virginia City. He is waylaid by a smooth-talking young con man (Bridges) who pistol whips him and steals his money. The two come across each other again, and a sloppy, messy fight ensues. Bridges knows how to talk himself out of almost any situation, and convinces Brown that he will be discovered as a draft dodger if he doesn’t run away with Bridges and his kid gang of petty thieves. The scrappy gang that includes an amazingly young John Savage and 70s mainstay Jerry Houser take off to “live off the land” and make their fortunes.
Bridges, as the gang’s leader, reveals both an innate cunning yet worldly ignorance that is a deft tightrope to navigate. Not only does he struggle with both his ability to lead and a youthful inexperience as the character, but the actor himself is able to plumb the depths to reveal fear, confidence, jealousy and simplicity in split second facial change-ups. Perhaps it’s the unaffected way his character comes across that he went unappreciated as a great actor for so long. Here, his seemingly effortless performance becomes a marvel to behold. One standout, but hard to watch scene, is the gang’s shooting of a rabbit, and Bridges attempt to show them all how to easily skin it. We never see the skinning, but hear the sounds and watch Bridges feign experience, slowly turning to disgust and nausea as he clearly has no idea what he’s doing. It’s an impressive exercise in mime.
Along the gang’s Homerific journey, they come across many oddball but believable characters that offer up a revisionist take on traditional Western archetypes. A down on his luck farmer willingly offers up his wife for sex with the whole gang in exchange for eight dollars. A roving criminal gang bumble through their robbery of the kids, missing the most valuable item they possess, a gold watch and chain that the tenderfoot Brown holds most dear, and Bridges, in an uncharacteristic moment of empathy, keeps hidden from the robbers.
The immaturity and inexperience of the kid gang results in them stealing and stealing back from one another until they all go their separate ways. But the whole time the love/hate relationship Brown and Bridges share results in a surprising, yet satisfying conclusion.
Robert Benton went on to direct The Late Show, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Places in the Heart, and write everything from Superman to the underappreciated The Ice Harvest. Bad Company is a strong freshman piece of direction, and a necessary inclusion in any lover of 70s maverick filmmaking. And even back then, as a young rascal, the Dude abides.