Phantom Phones

More from Goin’ Crazy with Sam Peckinpah and All our Friends by Max Evans “as told to” Robert Nott.

Not many people know that Sam Peckinpah was a mystic, though Fern Lea, his only sister, said once that only she and I knew about it. About ten days after his return from the Major Dundee shoot, he asked me to go into town with him to meet some industry people for a business lunch at a place that was called either the Steak ’n’ Ale or the Scotch ’n’ Sirloin. We were driving down Highway 101. He was driving a Corvette at the time. A car was coming straight at us in our lane, but it was quite a ways off. Then a phone in Sam’s car rang, and then again—except there was no phone in the car. Lord.

And just at that time the car coming at us went right through us—head on.

Sam looked at me and said, “Did you hear the phone?”

“Yeah.”

“Twice?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you see what just happened?”

“Yeah.”

It was a miraculous metaphysical phenomenon. We were sober. It happened. I don’t care what anybody else thinks.

This fascinates me partly because it’s so cinematic. And yet I can’t think of a single really mystical scene in a Peckinpah film, though scenes like the departure from the village in THE WILD BUNCH have a kind of unstated magic to them.

Since Sam didn’t discuss this with anyone, apparently, I guess when he worked with Ida Lupino on JUNIOR BONNER he probably never learned that she;d received a mysterious phone call from a family friend, the mystery being that said friend had hung himself three days before.

Sam expected his friends to know what he was thinking. After that phone incident, he would often say to me, in a crowd or during one of his business luncheons, “Did you hear the phone?” to tip me off that he wanted something to change. Sometimes I would catch on; sometimes not. If he was in a business meeting with some industry people he didn’t like, and he wanted it to end, and I was there, he would turn to me and say, “Did you hear the phone?” and I was expected to find a reason to end the meeting there and then.

This jibes with L.Q. Jones’ remark that Peckinpah would get frustrated with actors and crew because he’d have thought he told them to do something when he really hadn’t. Maybe he’d used telepathy and it hadn’t worked. Or maybe, as Jones suggests, he’d been thinking about each project for so long her assumed everyone else understood it as thoroughly as he did, and would know what was required.

Not long afterward, while Pat, the girls, and I were still living in Studio City, the four of us were going down to Sam’s Broad Beach house for another mandatory weekend. Pat was carefully driving the twins and me from Studio City, where we lived, to Broad Beach. The road down to Broad Beach was a narrow pavement drive with what I would call “land waves” up and down along its surface to the front or back of the houses along Broad Beach. There was only one dangerous spot on this Broad Beach road, right at the bottom of the last of the “land waves,” just before the turn parallel to the beach. As Pat navigated the car at this point, a phone rang in our car three times, so loudly it shocked the hell out of all of us.

There was no phone in our car. The twins stood up in the back seat and peered over the front to double-check, wide-eyed—they wanted validation.

Pat slowed to a stop as we hit the turn. Just then a huge car came our way at a great, reckless speed, missing us by about six inches. We were all stunned and thankfully silent as Pat stopped our Buick sedan. That phone sound saved our nice little family from becoming a pile of hamburger meat—and we were thankful. Without any doubt, we were still alive because of that nonexistent ringing phone.

We didn’t talk about it at all that day—except for when Pat and I decided not to bring it up to the girls again since it was something we could not explain. We were justified in this silence as the twins slowly adjusted to similar “happenings” as they grew up. Varied beyond-the-norm incidents became a part of natural life for them over the years.

I told Sam about the incident. He wasn’t surprised. “The ringing is saving us for something, huh?” he said with a smile. “We better get after it.”

What Evans and Peckinpah wanted to get after was a film adaptation of Evans’ novel of the cowboy life, The Hi-Lo Country, to star Lee Marvin. The magic moment when Lee was available, his star riding high, and Peckinpah was employable, never quite materialised. Stephen Frears filmed the book in 1998 with Woody Harrelson. The invisible phone didn’t ring to stop him, or if it did, he never heard it.

One image is from THE GETAWAY, a Sam Peckinpah film, the other from VANISHING POINT, not a Sam Peckinpah film, but a mystical one.

14 Responses to “Phantom Phones”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    My first thought, looking at the GETAWAY image, was that it looked like a version of the last shot of THE DEVILS. In a Southwest, U.S. kind of way.

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Sam Peckinpah was Cuckoo For Cocoa-Puffs. No surprise that he expected people to read his mind. He was a delusional psychopath who lived out his antasies of saughter on screen rather than real life. Thankfully.

    “Vanishing Point” is a Cuban film. “G. Cain” is the nom-de-screenplay of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, novelist, screenwiter and film critic whose A Twentieth-Century Job belongs on every film lover’s bookshelf

  3. Tony Williams Says:

    Well said, David E. I have this book read other CG fiction and critical essays, and am a friend of his translator Kenneth E. Hall (who is on FB). Ken has been trying for years to get another translation of C.G’s writings launched but sadly, nobody is interested. I quite C.G in my Robert Aldrich book on KISS ME DEADLY.

    Yes, along with Leonardo Padura Fuentes (happily still with us), a great Cuban writer.

  4. Tony Williams Says:

    Well said, David E. I have this book, read most of his fiction and critical reviews in translation, and know Kenneth E. Hall who has translated most of it. For the past few years he has been trying in vain to get a translator interested in CG’s late critical essays. Ken has also written a study of this great talent also.

  5. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I must get ahold of your Aldrich book. Such a strange man and strange director. I expect you know he was a Rockefeller. Yet he worked closely with brilliant communists like Abraham Polonsky.

  6. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, as well as saving Hugo Butler’s family from starvation when they were in Mexico as Jean Rouverol once told me. She regretted Polonsky had died before I began the book as he would have been a great source of information. I believe he broke with Nelson Rockefeller over Attica but never used his Long Island connections
    at all when he began his career. Have you ever heard the Memorial tape of his funeral service where many (including Polonsky and Frank DeVol speak) including African-Americans who testify to the fact that he often gave them their first jobs on film unit?

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    No I haven’t seen that memorial tape. Alas.

    Abe was quite a guy.

  8. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, I remember him on NPR during the time Kazan received that unnecessary award – Somebody shot have shot him. At least it would have livened up the event.”

    The tape is audio and I received a copy from the DGA.

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Abe won LAFCA’s “Career Achievement Award the same time Gadge was getting a special Oscar. He said to us “Well was it worth it?Was it worth the shit you’re going to get for giving me this award? Cause elsewhere in town another film group is giving an award to a RAT! Everyone says ‘Forgive and forget.’ Well I NEVER forgive because I NEVER forget!”

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    He forgave Sterling Hayden because he admitted he was wrong and got Abe’s respect. Not the others.

  11. Re the phantom phones: what I like is that if they’re hallucinatory, they’re SHARED hallucinations, which is much harder to explain. Peckinpah and Evans might both be “goin’ crazy” but in the same way?

    The collective madness of HUAC, however, was of a whole different order.

  12. Jeff Gee Says:

    If the phone rings twice, it means “keep going, it’s ghost car.” If the phone rings three times, it means “Stop. This one is real!”

  13. A kind of satnav of the spirit world!

  14. Jeff Gee Says:

    When Peckenpah’s phantom car phone rings three times in a row / The car ahead is a phantom car, so just step on the gas and go / But when Peckenpah’s phantom car phone rings just once or twice, you / Best hit the brakes, cuz a REAL car’s coming, and it could totally ice you.

    (The meaning of a single ring hasn’t been established, so I’m fudging a bit for the sake of scansion)

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