Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sony reaches once again into its 'deep library' to bring out a sparkling Blu-ray of this slickly produced, beautifully photographed big league western adventure from 1966. Writer-director Richard Brooks' career had highs and lows but he was never more on the mark than when he put together The Professionals, an action show that fulfills the spirit of its title in all departments. A wonderful cast of he-man heroes handles both the constant physical exertion and Brooks' polished script with style and grace. And the cinematography of Conrad Hall gives the film a gloriously colorful desert setting for 1001 wild gags with guns, horses, trains and arrows laced with sticks
Maria (Claudia Cardinale), the wife of Texas millionaire Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) has been kidnapped by the powerful Mexican revolutionary Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). Grant hires three supreme talents to bring her back: Weapons expert Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin), horse master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) and bounty hunter/archer Jake Sharp (Woody Strode). Rico enlists a fourth comrade, dynamiter Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster). They accept Grant's generous terms and prepare to pull off an almost impossible job: Cross into Mexico, defeat an army and escape with the lady in question.
The Professionals comes from a long line of matinee thrillers with athletic stars like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn, the kind of movies that just make one's blood circulate better. Fresh from the failure of Lord Jim, writer-director Richard Brooks immediately doubled back into straight adventure territory. His tale is The Magnificent Seven de-mythologized: This band of mercenaries are definitely not noble warriors riding to the rescue of grateful peasants. Simplistic themes are displaced by the cynical outlook of men who have seen too much of real war and revolution. Initially, at least, their only aim is to fulfill a contract and earn a whopping paycheck.
Brooks casts his adventure with hardened veterans at the top or just over the peak of their acting careers. Lee Marvin has his keen-eyed stare and monotone purr down cold, and walks with the kind of swagger that says he means business without showing off. Burt Lancaster seems aware that he has only a few years left in which he'll be able to perform his signature screen acrobatics; his essential vitality is doubly impressive in athletic feats like sprinting and rope climbing. Lancaster's toothy grin was once a parody of male arrogance and vanity; now it's the friendly how-do-you-do of a man proud to be a survivor and still fit to tangle with the young guns.
Woody Strode's wiry commando was considered a big step in the breaking of the color barrier. His magnificent presence on the screen is a race statement better than any Richard Brooks could have written. 1
Robert Ryan has the least exciting role but his authority and integrity anchor the film; if he's riding with these guys, they must be okay. The fact that each member subordinates his personal feelings to the mission makes us identify with the team all the more.
The fun part is watching these men in action. They size up the opposition like big-league talent scouts and leap into fights like linebackers eager to get off the bench. Brooks' terse dialogue affects a certain degree of macho cool but takes care not to become too cutesy, as would quickly become tiresome in 'hip' westerns. 2 Some of the best material uses no dialogue at all. The Professionals takes place in rocky desert country and these guys become part of the landscape, clinging to slabs of stone like lizards and leaping about in ways almost guaranteed to produce broken limbs. When the jeopardy looks real, we're seeing true Hollywood professionalism.
The Professionals is also an All-American production. Instead of going to Mexico, Brooks elected to shoot in the deserts and mountains of California and Nevada. I'll bet the Unions were eager to show that U.S. location shooting doesn't have to cost millions. Key Mexican cast members were imported to insure ethnic credibility. 3
The ravishing Claudia Cardinale is a sexy Mexican firebrand with an Italian accent and a penchant for plunging, sweaty necklines. When Marvin's guerrillas finally free Maria from her captors the story takes a jarring narrative twist: The mercenaries realize that they have been betrayed by their own employer. The mission is a fraud from the get-go, with honest soldier-adventurers once again abused by lies from above. The essentials of Richard Brooks' story haven't changed since Vera Cruz: American cowboys cross the border for money or an abstract principle, and kill a lot of Mexicans. When Lancaster and Marvin talk about lost causes in Cuba and the soured hopes of earlier revolutions, we are perhaps meant to think of the Vietnam conflict. Brooks has made a vaguely subversive statement, but one that dedicated soldiers can get behind.
Jack Palance's bandit chief will be a joke to Spanish speakers but he's a good fit as the wily revolutionary who can't quite catch Marvin and company. He's abetted by a good performance from Marie Gomez as a lusty camp follower, and who also has an early MPAA-approved semi-nude scene. Ralph Bellamy is acceptably emphatic as the panicked tycoon who turns out to be less sympathetic than we first thought. Bellamy and Lee Marvin exchange terse remarks about what makes men what they are, giving Brooks' film its most quotable quote. 4
Sony Pictures' Blu-ray disc of The Professionals is the same package as a Special Edition from 2005, adding the immeasurable dimension of Hi-Def. The movie is almost 99% glorious desert exteriors, and the added resolution brings out more texture in the sunburned faces and more color in the red rocks of the Mexican canyons. Carried over from the special edition are three reasonable featurettes by Laurent Bouzereau. Burt Lancaster's daughter and others contribute to a pleasant memoir of the major star. The other two pieces include interviews with the great cameraman Conrad Hall, who passed away in 2003. The audio tracks are said to be from original theatrical elements as opposed to a fake-stereo job. Maurice Jarre's percussive, Mexican-flavored score creates so much excitement, there's no need to hype the action with fast cuts to keep the film at full pitch. It's a lesson that most modern action pictures have forgotten.
The original trailer is included, with its signature "X" motif formed by crossed bandolier belts: "E X citement!"
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Professionals Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: three featurettes, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 14, 2008
1. Yet studio politics haven't quite caught up; Strode's billing doesn't reflect the fact that he is one of the four key players. Still, it's perhaps Strode's best role this side of an unforgettable bit in Spartacus.
2. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid played like gangbusters when new, but now seems to have a fatal case of the cutes. Every other line strains for show-off effect and robs the film of any kind of period feel. And the western Waterhole #3 is just one smart remark after another falling flat on its face. The Professionals keeps its head on straight; these guys seem like salty old warriors in the 'ought-teens.
3. I'm afraid that the previous year's Major Dundee is the major example of foreign locations poorly used. Millions of dollars were spent moving an unwieldy crew hundreds of miles across the Mexican frontier, and most of the locations aren't all that distinguishable one from another. A number of dialogue scenes on horseback take place against clear sky backgrounds, and could have been shot in a parking lot back in Hollywood!
4. The Professionals is discussed as part of a longer Savant essay from 1999, Foreign Intervention and the American Western.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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