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Modern-day Westerns—that is, films that use the genre’s tropes and traditions but are set in the present—have a noble history. Classics include Edgar G. Ulmer’s “The Naked Dawn,” Allan Dwan’s “The River’s Edge,” Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot,” and Clint Eastwood’s “Bronco Billy.” And the past decade has brought David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” Chloé Zhao’s “The Rider,” and, of course, Jordan Peele’s “Nope.” Add one to this list: “The Losers,” a 1963 film directed and co-written by Sam Peckinpah, one of the masters of the Western, famous for films such as “The Wild Bunch” and “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” Yet “The Losers” is barely known and comes from an unlikely source: it was made for television, as part of “The Dick Powell Show,” an anthology series of dramas and comedies, which ran for two seasons, from 1961 to 1963; a trove of the show’s episodes are streaming on YouTube. (Thanks to the consummate cinephile Howard Salen, long of Video Room, for the heads-up.) This kind of show had become popular in the mid-fifties, a way of bringing the allure of Hollywood (with the names of stars in the title) to the small screen, and a way for Hollywood actors and directors to keep busy at a time when the movie business, under the onslaught of television, was in a downturn. (The most prominent of these shows was “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” which ran for ten years.)
Powell, who rose to stardom in film musicals of the thirties and transitioned to being a film-noir headliner in the mid-forties, launched his own production company in the fifties. Whereas another series of the time, “The Barbara Stanwyck Show,” featured its eponymous star in every single episode, Powell acted in only a handful of episodes of “The Dick Powell Show.” Mostly he hosted them, delivering an introduction to the camera. (After his death, in January, 1963, other stars took his place; “The Losers” is hosted by Robert Mitchum). Each episode runs nearly fifty minutes, and the transitions planned for its commercial punctuations are evident. Most of the episodes were directed by television specialists, but some were by noteworthy Hollywood figures of tough and relatively low-budget movies (one by Samuel Fuller, one by Joseph H. Lewis), and one was done by a young Hollywood director on his way up—Blake Edwards, who’d also started in TV but had already made a successful leap to features.
As for Peckinpah, he was a busy writer, producer, and director of TV shows; he’d already created a series, “The Westerner,” honing his skill in the highly constraining format of the twenty-five-minute-long drama. The show was set in the archetypal Wild West and centered on an itinerant cowboy-gunman named Dave Blassingame, whose occasional partner in mischief is a voluble gambler, Burgundy Smith. In “The Losers,” Peckinpah transferred the characters, and the premise of their alliance, to a contemporary setting—a horse dealers’ convention in the city of Hondo, Texas, where Dave is one of the horse traders, and Burgundy, now even more grandiloquent, is still a gambler. The picaresque tale that unfolds—about a pair of grifters with balls of steel and hearts of gold who find themselves on a giddy roller-coaster ride of fortune and misfortune—begins in the convention headquarters, a hotel tackily decked out as a saloon. There, in pursuit of two women, Dave stumbles into a poker game and runs into Burgundy, who’s already at the table. The men’s shenanigans lead to serious conflict with other players, and, to save their skins, Dave and Burgundy make their hasty but circuitous way out of town. Once out in the country, they lurch into other sorts of trouble.
When great filmmakers revisit their own material, they often push it to bold expressive extremes. That’s exactly what Peckinpah does in “The Losers,” starting with its casting: for the character of Dave, he replaced the stoic Brian Keith with Hollywood’s supreme villain and antihero Lee Marvin, a strutting whirlwind of violent fury and cold passion; for Burgundy, the glibly urbane Keenan Wynn took over from the character actor John Dehner. Above all, Peckinpah (who wrote the script with Bruce Geller) pulls the tone of “The Westerner” madly far in divergent directions, combining serious trouble and shocking violence with loopy comedy and outrageously sentimental melodrama. The adventures are thrillingly and bewilderingly peculiar: some wily card-sharking that involves Oscar-worthy extremes of pretense to pull off; a lusty rendition of the twist that leads to some suggestive lumbar massage; a car chase in multiple directions through crowded downtown streets which makes comic contrasts between a hay-spraying farm jalopy and a boat-size Lincoln Continental convertible; an entire swath of action that depends on the successful bribing of a police officer; a Keystone Cops-like slapstick automotive catastrophe on the open road; a farmer’s daughter, played by the singer Rosemary Clooney, who gets to sing along with a blind itinerant gospel singer (Adam Lazarre); a mode of unfriendly persuasion that wouldn’t be out of place at Guantánamo; and a hectically open-ended last scene to suggest that the reckless schemers have another movie hour of wild adventures just waiting to be filmed.
As prime-time network television fare, “The Losers” is jolting and extravagant. As befits the general too-muchness, the dialogue is wild and baroque. “Poker, gentlemen, is reputedly a pastime of permutation and combination,” Burgundy declares, to which another gambler (played by the rugged and hulking character actor and ex-wrestler Mike Mazurki) responds, “You’ve got the guts of a stud bull.” Despite its brevity, this is a film that feels big: it ranges widely, both geographically and emotionally; there are daring leaps forward in time, and the rough-and-tumble action feels much too boisterous for the sedate home screen. Peckinpah’s direction owes nothing to the theatre-rooted, Actors Studio-style school of TV direction (putting the actors front and center to stand and deliver). His way is florid, pugnacious, and vigorous, offering sharply composed and richly textured images that make “The Losers” a visual experience that bears comparison with the best Hollywood features of its time—a movie of relentless cinematic vitality. ♦