(David) Sam(uel) Peckinpah

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Pauline Kael

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901

Sam Peckinpah is a great "personal" filmmaker; he's an artist who can work as an artist only on his own terms. When he does a job for hire, he must transform the script and make it his own or it turns into convictionless self-parody (like The Getaway). Peckinpah likes to say that he's a good whore who goes where he's kicked. The truth is he's a very bad whore: he can't turn out a routine piece of craftsmanship—he can't use his skills to improve somebody else's conception. That's why he has always had trouble. And trouble, plus that most difficult to define of all gifts—a film sense—is the basis of his legend.

Most movie directors have short wings; few of them are driven to realize their own vision. But Peckinpah's vision has become so scabrous, theatrical, and obsessive that it is now controlling him. His new film, The Killer Elite, is set so far inside his fantasy-morality world that it goes beyond personal filmmaking into private filmmaking. The story, which is about killers employed by a company with C.I.A. connections, is used as a mere framework for a compressed, almost abstract fantasy on the subject of selling yourself yet trying to hang on to a piece of yourself. Peckinpah turned fifty while he was preparing this picture, and, what with booze, illness, and a mean, self-destructive streak, in recent years he has looked as if his body were giving out. This picture is about survival.

There are so many elisions in The Killer Elite that it hardly exists on a narrative level, but its poetic vision is all of a piece. Unlike Peckinpah's earlier, spacious movies,… this film is intensely, claustrophobically exciting, with combat scenes of martial-arts teams photographed in slow motion and then edited in such brief cuts that the fighting is nightmarishly concentrated—almost subliminal…. [The] film is airless—an involuted, corkscrew vision of a tight, modern world…. [The] film isn't about C.I.A.-sponsored assassinations—it's about the blood of a poet. (pp. 112-13)

Peckinpah has been simplifying and falsifying his own terrors as an artist by putting them into melodramatic formulas. He's a major artist who has worked so long in penny-dreadful forms that when he is finally in a position where he's famous enough to fight for his freedom—and maybe win—he can't free himself from the fear of working outside those forms, or from the festering desire for revenge. He is the killer-élite hero … in this hallucinatory thriller, in which the hirelings turn against their employers. (p. 115)

There's no way to make sense of what has been going on in Peckinpah's recent films if one looks only at their surface stories. Whether consciously or, as I think, part unconsciously, he's been destroying the surface content. In this new film, there aren't any of the ordinary kinds of introductions to the characters, and the events aren't prepared for…. Peckinpah can explain this disintegration to himself in terms of how contemptible the material actually is—the fragmented story indicates how he feels about what the bosses buy and what they degrade him with. He agrees to do these properties, to be "a good whore," and then he can't help turning them into revenge fantasies. His whole way of making movies has become a revenge fantasy: he screws the bosses, he screws the picture, he screws himself.

The physical rehabilitation of the hero in The Killer Elite … is an almost childishly transparent disguise for Peckinpah's own determination to show Hollywood that he's not dead yet—that, despite the tabloid views of him, frail and falling-down drunk, he's got the will...

(This entire section contains 901 words.)

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to make great movies. He's trying to pick up the pieces of his career. Amazingly, Peckinpah does rehabilitate himself; his technique here is dazzling. In the moments just before violence explodes, Peckinpah's work is at its most subtly theatrical: he savors the feeling of power as he ticks off the seconds before the suppressed rage will take form. When it does, it's often voluptuously horrifying (and that is what has given Peckinpah a dubious reputation—what has made him Bloody Sam), but this time it isn't gory and yet it's more daring than ever. He has never before made the violence itself so surreally, fluidly abstract; several sequences are edited with a magical speed—a new refinement. (pp. 115-16)

No one is Peckinpah's master as a director of individual sequences; no one else gets such beauty out of movement and hard grain and silence. He doesn't do the expected, and so, scene by scene, he creates his own actor-director's suspense. The images in The Killer Elite are charged, and you have the feeling that not one is wasted. What they all add up to is something else—but one could say the same of [Pound's] The Pisan Cantos. Peckinpah has become so nihilistic that film-making itself seems to be the only thing he believes in. He's crowing in The Killer Elite, saying, "No matter what you do to me, look at the way I can make a movie." The bedevilled bastard's got a right to crow. (p. 119)

Pauline Kael, "Notes on the Nihilist Poetry of Sam Peckinpah" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. LI, No. 47, January 12, 1976), in her When the Lights Go Down (copyright © 1975, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Publishers), Holt, 1980, pp. 112-19.


Arthur G. Pettit