Bad Company is so great at times yet my how it struggles to live up to its ultimate potential. This film had everything going for it when it came out: it re-teamed Robert Benton and David Newman, the writers of Bonnie and Clyde, and it had Benton in the director's chair, as well. Then as its star it had one of the best young actors of the time, Jeff Bridges, who was fresh off his success in The Last Picture Show. Topping that off was the movie’s DP, Gordon Willis, already on his ascension to greatness with The Godfather, released in March of ’72, seven months before Bad Company came out.
Benton’s agenda seems pretty clear early on: to make something that’s real. A kid named Drew (played by Barry Brown, a good young actor at time, bearing many similarities to James Stewart, but who unfortunately committed suicide six years after this movie came out) runs away from home to avoid fighting in the Civil War, and joins up with a gang of young thieves, led by Jake Rumsey (Bridges). Benton takes his title literally: these fellows are bad company. There are very few redeeming qualities about them. Drew is pretty straight-laced and he winds up with them sort of by default. He needs to go out West and he doesn’t want to do it alone.
One of the pleasures of the film is watching Rumsey balance his conniving treachery with his charisma. As played by Bridges, he’s a natural leader, which is one of the reasons Drew (and the other kids) are inclined to follow him. He’s got a winning smile and an amiable personality when he needs it. With his slightly hefty physique and wonderfully deep, rich voice, he’s got a presence you might call domineering. He’s also got experience, exemplified in the great scene when he orders one of the others to skin a rabbit. His command is indicative of his often imperious nature, yet when he ends up skinning it because no one knows how to, it become clear why he’s the leader of the pack. They wouldn’t survive without him.
But he’s also selfish and often mean-spirited, untrustworthy and devoid of the honorable codes we see in the idealized Old West. Our ultimate impression of Rumsey is negative, which leads me back to what I said about Benton’s realist motives. But if that’s the case, I’d argue Bad Company suffers from some serious tonal problems. The movie more often than not fulfills its agenda, even over-compensating in some instances (as when the youngest member of the gang, only eleven, is abruptly shot in the head when trying to rob a house).
However, there’s a playful piano soundtrack by Harvey Schmidt that would have been at home in something Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but not this. In one scene, Drew and Rumsey engage in a shootout with an older gang who they keep crossing paths with out on the prairie. It’s one of the few action scenes in the movie, and inexplicably Benton chooses to set the scene to the goofy piano melody. It lends a comedic spirit to the scene, which is completely out of place. The tone erases the proper mood of what's really an important scene.
Another major problem is that while the movie does take its time early on (and that’s a beautiful thing), it suddenly seems to realize it only has fifteen minutes left and still a lot of material to cover. The final few minutes of the movie are simply awful, while the final shot, which I won’t reveal, is brutally ineffective.
And so we’re left scratching our heads, trying to figure out why this movie wasn’t the awesome film it could have been. On paper it looks like something that would stand along side the great Westerns of its time, McCabe and Ms. Miller and The Wild Bunch. I’m inclined to believe Benton and Newman maybe weren’t cut out for the revisionist Western. After all, in ’68 they worked on What’s Up, Doc? And guess what their project was after this? Superman.