The Professionals Review

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by Chris McEneany Jun 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    The Professionals Review
    “Just wondering ... what makes you worth a $100 thousand dollars?”

    “Go to hell!”

    “Yes, ma'am. I'm on my way.”

    Richard Brooks created a delightful fusion of hard-edged, realistic-toned Mexicana with Old School bravado, keen machismo and winning dialogue when he made the 1966 western-adventure The Professionals. Brilliantly adapting Frank O'Rourke's novel and bolting in such stalwart, larger-then-life character actors as Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance, he created an iconic movie that brought tremendous warmth and energy to a genre that, by now, was tired and clichéd to Hell and back. James Garner had pushed the boundaries of action and violence with the oft-forgotten Duel At Diablo (a BD release soon puh-leeze!) already and Sam Peckinpah still had to make his mark and transform the Western from the wandering doldrums into the era of revision, his Major Dundee falling from the saddle due to studio meddling a couple of years before, but Brooks and Co. somehow did the unthinkable - in retrospect, at any rate - and make a violent, controversial counter-culture Western accessible, witty, intelligent and downright fun. His all-star cast went a long way to ensuring this, of course, but there was more to this yarn than met the eye. For audiences and studios virtually weaned on this type of setting, these types of characters and this gun-toting, horse-riding type of story, this particular narrative was a breed apart, renegade in its execution and a definite stranger in an otherwise very familiar town.

    The plot is simple. Four experts in their own given field of violent skills are brought together and employed by Ralph Bellamy's cattle tycoon in order to rescue his wife from the clutches of Jack Palance's Mexican revolutionary, Raza, who is holding her for ransom in his hidden lair. We get the terrific backbone of the film's thrust delivered squarely into our laps via a smartly conceived and highly economical introductory section that sees us meet, and then hear of the prior exploits of Marvin's military tactician Henry “Rico” Fardan, Lancaster's athletic explosives expert Bill Dolworth, Ryan's horse-handling sure-shot Hans Ehrengard and Strode's muscle-clad special-weapons supremo and tracker Jake Sharp. Their relationships to one another are a moot point. Some have prior knowledge of their brethren, some are mutually respectful strangers - but all are consummate professionals within their chosen field and all find the lure of a well-paying job too good to pass up.

    “We just killed ten men, nobody bats an eye. But when it comes to one of God's most stupid animals...”

    “But harmless.”

    “Nothing's harmless in this desert unless it's dead.”

    That the details of the mission are not quite as they seem is a given, and the shifting sands of the desert plains over the border can hide a multitude of sins, and desires. The professionals are going to discover things not only about the opposition, but about themselves too. The woman they have been sent to recapture and bring back to Bellamy's abrupt and powerful Joe Grant is not the helpless waif they had anticipated and considering that the errant Mrs Maria Grant is played by the unbelievably alluring Claudia Cardinale, no-one could be blamed if their judgement takes an unexpected turn or two in the process of carrying out their task. The film may strike out on a familiar course - the oft-utilised men-on-a-mission shtick that can pop up in virtually every genre - but it is the sure-fire presence of such high calibre personalities as Lancaster and Marvin that make it resonate. Marvin's taciturn nature is not as blunt as it is in, say, Point Blank or The Dirty Dozen, and the rather middle-of-the-road pullover that he sports at the start of the movie also conspires to take the edge of his usual hard-man image. That voice, though - a mixture of tossed gravel and the growl of an aging guard-dog - could still stop an armed man dead in his tracks at twenty paces. His ammo-belt, khaki cavalry hat and shotgun slung over his shoulder nicely predate the iconic image of William Holden or Ernest Borgnine in The Wild Bunch. His narrow, leathery face looks like it has crossed the desert a couple of times and those usually unforgiving eyes actually betray a degree of warmth and humility on more than one occasion. For me, Rico is one of Marvin's most likeable roles.

    Woody Strode was a familiar bit-parter in films and on TV, a towering hulk of chiselled muscle who always found an opportunity to reveal his pecs. Famously getting the better of Kirk Douglas' Spartacus in Gracchus' little provincial training arena in Kubrick's mighty classic, Strode was no stranger to the bloody sand of the Old West either. He'd appeared as Indian chiefs, bounty hunters and scouts in things ranging from Rawhide to Shalako, The Revengers to the great Spaghetti Keoma. He even wound up in Sam Raimi's canny gunslinger The Quick And The Dead, which, sadly, ended up being his final film. Big, bold and primal, Strode was also inordinately noble and intensely mesmerising on-screen and I only wish that he could have been the star of just one movie in his lifetime, instead of just propping up - or destroying - the sets of many others. Robert Ryan, the venerable, career-hangdog Robert Ryan, wasn't a well man during the shooting of The Professionals but his own, ahem, professionalism saw to it that he didn't flinch from the occasional dive from a train, or delirious, heat-crazed blunder through the rocks or swift chin-socking roundhouse. However, it is quite apparent that he was left out of much of the action and there is a tiredness to his gait and some obvious grimaces of pain that he couldn't quite mask in front of the cameras. However, this would translate well to his character. A man of principle and no admirer of carnage, his love of horses was also a trait that Ryan shared and his tenderness towards the fine roster of equestrian extras is wholly apparent. Funnily enough, in The Wild Bunch, his character would be an even more tired adventurer, a little more jaded and even more cynical towards his fellow man, almost like a continuation of Ehrengard. He even manages to miss most of the action in that, as well.

    “You're gonna have to get over this nasty habit of always losing your pants. It's not dignified.”

    “It's drafty, too.”

    But no-one can deny that the film belongs to Burt Lancaster. With his famed athletic prowess brought to bear in virtually every scene - leaping head-first through a mistress's window when her old man shows up; rolling across rocks as though they made of marshmallow; shinnying up a sixty-foot crevice without safety ropes or mats; running across the roof of a speeding train and swinging into a carriage without pausing for breath - the ex-circus acrobat brings so much charm and sheer star charisma to the role that you simply can't help grinning away with him whenever that big face opens up. Never taken seriously as an actor until Elmer Gantry earned him an Oscar, Lancaster imbues each and every character with a sense of indomitable fun and towering personality. The proto-action hero - The Crimson Pirate, Lawman, The Train - Lancaster was also hugely underestimated in terms of sensitivity. A moment of soothing tenderness in The Professionals reveals how effortlessly he could switch from wise-cracking cavalier to powerfully intuitive and caring confidante, the bravado dropping smoothly and hauntingly. He would do similar work in Aldrich's brutal western Ulzana's Raid and later again in Zulu Dawn. But the clever move that Lancaster made after The Professionals - and also a move that surprised audiences and delighted critics - was to make the hypnotic sixties soul-searching The Swimmer. With this swing-shift in mind, you can plainly see that The Professionals was probably the last time that the star allowed himself to relax and just have good old fashioned fun with a part. As such, it marks a turning point in his career from happy-go-lucky to earnest and reflective, and altogether more sombre.

    It must be said that while Lancaster makes curly hair look cool, neither he nor Marvin can convincingly carry off a sombrero!

    I've waxed lyrical about the awesome Claudia Cardinale many times before. Her exquisite performance in Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West (which Woody Strode also briefly appeared in) remains one of the most indelible that I have seen, but I could personally sit through anything if she was in it. Groomed like a European Raquel Welch - both extraordinarily beautiful brunettes - Cardinale was unquestionably picked for her looks. But the girl could act too, which was, of course, just an added bonus for a lot of directors. Richard Brooks gives her room to breathe in The Professionals, which is more than can be said for her Tex-Mex costume, and she delivers what is, at first, a typically fiery senorita full of lust, anger and inflammatory words. But, even given the economical screenplay, Cardinale does some sinuously nifty character moves that ultimately lay her sultry Maria bare, broken and vulnerable. The part could have gone to anyone and it would have been a simple case of getting pulled or pushed to and fro between the various parties - just cleavage and a pout in a tug of war - but Cardinale gives as good as she gets and it is much more than just her radiance that dominates the screen whenever she is on. A couple of close scenes with Lancaster prove the playfulness of both, but it is wonderful how Cardinale's Maria manages to get beneath the skin of all the men who encounter her, though not in the usual clichéd manner. Interestingly, Raquel Welch would go on to appear in her own Mexican Revolution caper alongside another big Burt (this time Burt Reynolds) out to change his cinematic fortunes, and another iconic black muscle-man in Jim Brown with the otherwise forgettable 100 Rifles from 1969.

    And with the estimable Jack Palance bringing up the rear - literally considering that he is doing most of the chasing - The Professionals is also strongly bolstered on the other side. Raza is painted, at least initially, as a simple cutthroat revolutionary. A mass execution by the side of a captured train certainly seems to point towards a dark and vengeful heart, but once again Richard Brooks, who also wrote the screenplay, is playing tricks and literally encouraging us to look beyond the obvious. Nothing in this bandit-strewn landscape is acting by the conventions we normally associate with the trend. Whether strutting around his gypsy-like encampment, with Maria Gomez's voluptuous Chiquita dancing by firelight, or riding hell-for-leather in pursuit of those who have retaken his prize, hair and Zapata moustache flaring in the wind, Palance imbues his patriot with a desperation that is keenly felt. Indeed, as the chase goes on it is difficult to know just who to root for, the motivations and the ideals that started it all having been so blown apart. Brooks stages an eerie gunfight amidst the rocks and suddenly all bets are off. But even when death and sacrifice become the order of the day, there is always time for a treatise on the meaning of it all between two bleeding men who find that they aren't so different after all, and that corruption is rife whichever side of the border you're from and that the love of a good woman can calm even the most volatile of hearts.

    “So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, 'n' ninety-proof whiskey, 'n' fourteen-carat gold?” “Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!”

    Despite some crafty little kills along the way - hats-off to Strode's garrotting of a sentry with the string of his longbow - the film is not heavily violent, although there is a slight edge to the action that sets The Professionals apart from some of the other westerns that had appeared in the earlier sixties. Sitting beside the character-based humour that runs thickly through the narrative is a touch of mean-spiritedness that I find quite agreeable. Dolworth, in particular, imbues this dichotomy of standards to a tee. He will happily kill anyone and anything - even Ehregard's beloved horses if need be - as the first option, let alone after any judicious thought, yet has all the charm, the wit and the gift of the gab as well. In many ways, he could be considered the most dangerous man in the entire story. His gallant stand-off against Raza displays both of his renowned traits in one awesome set-piece - tauntingly engaging the enemy in conversation whilst wasting no time in plugging an old flame. Only Lancaster could pull off this sort of diversity without us losing our handle on the character. Only Lancaster seems able to embody the old mob adage of killers coming with smiles on their faces, and if I would have loved to have seen Woody Strode take top billing in an action opus, then I would definitely have loved to have seen Burt Lancaster play an out and out assassin in another.

    Conrad Hall received an Oscar nod for his sublime and majestic cinematography and the film does, indeed, contain some momentous vistas and beguiling compositions - not just of the vast deserts and Raza's impressive hacienda-encampment, but terrifically awe-inspiring views and angles shot within the canyons and from inside the train looking out onto pursuing riders and the like. When Dolworth has to be rescued from the bandits who have strung him up - one of whom looks just like Adrian Brody in a joke-shop moustache - Rico makes the strategic observation that the burnished gold passage they are in is an “Interesting pass.” To which, Dolworth replies with a grin and a piratical wink, “It's a beaut. You should see it from upside down!” Brooks even finds a bizarre rock-strewn plateau that looks almost Martian in which to have a pensive interlude, and the day-for-night shooting that he and Hall adopt lends the film an often spectral quality that transforms the unusual settings still further. With the sun playing the moon, the visual tableau beneath looks almost painted-on, sort of alien. The parched little locations of crumbled churches and rocky clefts feel more akin to the opening of Planet Of The Apes than south of the border, Brooks' keen eye for the environment somehow making the once-familiar American deserts look more like those that were relocated by Sergio Leone. But the effect is dazzling. And the editing is razor-sharp, too. Just look at that big explosion cut to the awesome scream of Maria during the big raid.

    “Rico, buddy, this will come as a shock to both of us. I'm a born sucker for love.”

    “That bullet must've knocked some of your brains out.”

    “Or let some in.”

    Folding all around the drama like the desert wind is the overly-elegant score from Maurice Jarre. Jarre had already made his name with his epic music for Lawrence Of Arabia, itself an expansive evolution of his score for The Big Gamble, and his trademark of slithering instrumentation and ethnic percussion is prevalent here, too. The main theme, which is superbly carried aloft throughout much of the film - so much so, in fact, that it is impossible to come away from the picture without it still running through your head - is like a vaguely European slant on the typical rough 'n' tumble Western motif, and gloriously infectious. Jarre must have been the man to go to when a film demanded a big sweeping sound for roiling, mirage-filled wastelands. He even did it again for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. His memorably individual style helps The Professionals gain that unique sense of a genre movie that likes to veer off the beaten track.

    Whip-cracking dialogue, genuinely-affecting camaraderie, a witty screenplay and an in-yer-face, bird-flipping finale ensure that this often overlooked classic hits all the right notes and still leaves you thirsting for more. The Professionals may not be as hard as the westerns that would follow - those from Peckinpah, Aldrich and even Eastwood - but the template for a mature edge, a more cynical bite and a greater acceptance of moral ambiguity was certainly fostered in the heart of the American-made horse-opera with Brooks' roguish adventure. Its Boys Own vibe is neatly dissected by the most noble emotion of all and, even if it can seem more sedate nowadays than you might have expected, it would be a hard heart indeed that didn't swell with the poetry of it all come the semi-iconic denouement.

    Well recommended - and a very strong 8 out of 10.

    The Rundown

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