Everyone involved creatively with the making of Arthur Penn’s landmark of sixties cinema, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), benefited greatly from its astounding international success. Certainly the director and all the key cast members saw an immediate acceleration in their careers and it enabled screenwriter Robert Benton to make his directorial debut in 1972 with Bad Company, working from a script he penned with his Bonnie and Clyde writing partner, David Newman. Structured in a manner similar to the Arthur Penn film, it was a picaresque and episodic road movie, set during the Civil War, with an authentic sense of period detail and moments of biting wit and sudden, shocking violence that gave a contemporary edge to the Americana on display.
The story opens in Greenville, Ohio in 1863 as Union troops round up all available young men in the area to serve in the army. One of the locals, Drew Dixon (Barry Brown), manages to avoid enlistment and heads westward with only a gold watch and $100 on him, hoping to reach Virginia City, Nevada which is outside Union jurisdiction. When Drew reaches St. Joseph, Missouri, he is quickly befriended by Jake Rumsey (Jeff Bridges), who turns out to be a con-artist and thief. He knocks Drew unconscious and steals his possessions, leaving Drew no choice but to seek charity from the local Methodist church where he is taken in by the Reverend’s wife. After a surprising turn of events, Drew ends up reunited with Jake and becomes a member of his gang of young misfits. As they make their way west across the plains, the ragtag group becomes more demoralized and desperate as they encounter hostile farmers and run afoul of the notorious Big Joe Simmons gang. Jake ends up joining Big Joe’s band of cutthroats while Drew signs up with a posse determined to lynch the criminals. [Spoiler alert] Eventually Jake is apprehended and faces hanging but Drew intervenes and the two of them strike up a new partnership which is revealed in an ironic final freeze-frame.
A showcase for young talent, Bad Company provided excellent roles for both Jeff Bridges and Barry Brown as well as such up-and-coming young actors as John Savage (The Deer Hunter, 1978) and Jerry Houser (Slap Shot, 1977) as disgruntled members of Jake’s gang. Bridges was already being groomed for leading man status when he signed on for Bad Company, having previously appeared in The Last Picture Show (1971, he received a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his performance) and John Huston’s Fat City (1972). His portrayal of Jake Rumsey is among his best early work, displaying a mixture of braggadocio, tough cynicism and a mischievous sense of fun.
Barry Brown, in his first major film role, was more familiar to television viewers for his appearances on such series as The Mod Squad and Marcus Welby, M.D.. He had actually worked with Jeff Bridges previously, though in a much smaller role, in the racial drama Halls of Anger (1970) but Bad Company should have brought him greater opportunities. Unfortunately, except for the male lead in Peter Bogdanovich’s poorly received Daisy Miller (1974), Brown’s career stalled in the mid-seventies and, beset with personal problems, he committed suicide in 1978.
In an interview with Kurt Lassen on the making of Bad Company, Brown said, “Jeff [Bridges] wanted to play my part – you know, the nice kind of kid. I admit it, I’m a bit wild at times, and I saw myself in the part Jeff got…When I got the part in Bad Company I was supposed to be a nice kid from Ohio. I don’t know how people speak in Ohio, so I got some friends of mine to make me a bunch of tapes of people talking and I listened to them for hours, then began talking as Midwestern Ohioans speak. The director didn’t know I did it. He must have thought that’s how I talked. Nobody else that sees the film will probably know either. But that’s not what I found important. When I hear myself in that part I know that in some measure I get at the truth of the character I was supposed to be and that made it worthwhile for me.”
Director Robert Benton later revealed his own impressions of Barry Brown in an interview: “I had conceived of Bad Company in the spirit of those Anthony Mann Westerns with Jimmy Stewart and Arthur Kennedy; you know, where the men were friends when they were younger, probably on the wrong side of the law, but now one of them has gone straight and the other has remained a criminal. Well, I wanted to do a kind of prequel, a movie about those same men when they were young. So when I cast Barry I was looking for a young Jimmy Stewart. However, when he (came in), he started talking about Montgomery Clift. I kept saying “Jimmy Stewart.” He kept saying “Montgomery Clift.” So I went to David Newman and said, “Here’s the first important monologue the character has; write it so that if Daffy Duck did the part he would sound like Jimmy Stewart. David did a wonderful job, and when I gave the pages to Barry, he read them and said, “You’ve won.” Now, I used to think that was an amusing story, but the truth is, I never really gave him a proper chance. With hindsight, my guess is he was closer to being right than I was.”
Bad Company was filmed in the Flint Hills region of Kansas near Emporia over an eight week period with individual scenes shot in Neosho Rapids and Elmdale. Costume designer Anthea Sylbert based the look of the characters’ clothes on old Montgomery Ward catalogues. Some portions of the film feature voice-over narration by Barry Brown as he reads entries from Drew’s diary.
The film was the first production of Jaffilms, the independent production company of the former President of Paramount, Stanley R. Jaffe. He originally read the screenplay when he was still at the studio and took it with him upon his resignation as President. Upon completion, Bad Company was given a prestigious premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival but reviews were decidedly mixed. Pauline Kael of The New Yorker wrote, “There’s dazzle in the script by Robert Benton and David Newman, but Benton’s direction is tepid, and the yellow-brown autumnal West is getting very tired. The movie is sparked by a caricature of a big-time movie director (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, to be specific) in the character of the cynical robber chief, Big Joe (David Huddleston).”
The New York Times called it “naturalistic, irreverent and sometimes broadly comic” while Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times admitted “it has a nice, blunt, slice-of-life quality about it that grows on you.” He also noted that “The movie is built as a series of more-or-less-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….left me suspended in midair.”
Bad Company enjoys a much more favorable reputation today and some critics feel it might be Robert Benton’s best film, surpassing such later efforts as The Late Show (1977), Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984). Tom Milne of TimeOut stated that Bad Company was “a Western good enough to make everything he [Benton] has done since seem disappointing by comparison…it offers Vietnam parallels for the asking, but is really more concerned with the old mythologies as the innocent young hero sets off in best Horatio Alger fashion to seek safety, fame and fortune out West…Elegantly and engagingly funny, it is filmed with a loving care for period detail which gives the images the feel of animated tintypes.”
Bad Company didn’t garner any Oscar nominations but the Benton-Newman screenplay was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award (Best Drama Written Directly for the Screen). You still might be able to find the film on DVD. It was released by Paramount in 2002 and has been reprinted on DVD since then but it has yet to be released on Blu-Ray. Criterion – if you’re listening, this request is for you.
*This is a revised and updated version of the original article that first appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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