Friday, March 27

Good 60s Films: The Professionals

1966 Western
From Columbia Pictures
Directed by Richard Brooks

Burt Lancaster
Lee Marvin
Robert Ryan
Claudia Cardinale
Jack Palance
Woody Strode
Ralph Bellamy
Marie Gomez

Male actors have always gotten behind making westerns because they love playing dress-up, strapping on guns, climbing on a horse and imagining they are a part of that colorful bygone era.  It reminds them of when they played cowboys and Indians in their childhood.  Now they get to be all macho, look scruffy, unbathed, curse, make ugly bodily sounds and meet others of a like mind out in the dusty street at sundown... and be paid a hefty salary for doing so.

I have done postings on six of these stars and the director and each time I smiled when it came time to mention The Professionals.  I have always held it as a film of pure joy from start to finish.  Never was there a dull, unworkable or inconsistent moment.  Its perfect screenplay, direction, writing, music, locations and acting make it one of the best westerns ever.  While it may not be held in the same esteem as Shane or The Searchers or Unforgiven, it is full of excitement and immense pleasure.  Who can ask for more than that as you munch on your popcorn?

A guarantee of a good time for me all my life was Burt Lancaster in a western.  He never made one I didn't like.  Likewise, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Jack Palance were old hands at the genre.  Richard Brooks was one of my favorite directors and when I first heard he was directing this movie with this cast, I got my spurs all mangled from getting stirred up.  In 1966, the U.S. needed a film like this, something we could allow to melt our troubles away.  All these years later, I still want to saddle up.

Based on Frank O'Rourke's novel, A Mule for the Marquesa, with Brooks writing the screenplay, it concerned four mercenaries who are employed by a rich rancher to go deep into Mexico and retrieve his kidnapped wife from bandidos.  He gives each $1,000 and promises $9,000 more when the task is completed.  The husband (Ralph Bellamy) gets men who are skilled at certain tasks.  Marvin will be the group leader and is also an arms specialist.  Lancaster is a dynamiter.  Strode is an expert tracker and also superb with rope and a bow and arrow and Ryan is needed for his expertise at handling horses.

The rancher has a ransom note from a revolutionary bandit, Jesus Raza (Palance), who is demanding $100,000 for the return of Maria Grant (Cardinale), the young, Mexico-born wife of the older rancher.  The Marvin and Lancaster characters had known Raza from earlier times and knew where his hacienda was located.

On the way they come across the obligatory bandits out to rob and murder them.  It happens in two scenes, both tense but also tinged with humor.  Frankly, the humor, often missing in westerns, is part of what makes this film so enjoyable.  Most of it comes from the crackling dialogue of Lancaster's character.  Seeing him flash that mega-watt smile while speaking down to the bad guys makes one think of the many times we have seen it and loved that we feel welcomed into his fold, his scene, his journey.

They come across a train at a goatherd's property where they spend time sharpening their tools for raiding the hacienda.  Here, for us, the audience, we get to know them a bit better.  This, they decide, will also be the location where they will all meet up to begin their return trip.

Of course, getting Cardinale out of the large compound with a hundred or so men afoot is the centerpiece of the drama.  Each man's skill is put to best use.  Areas are rigged with dynamite, sticks of it are attached to arrows and machine guns are set in place. Only the horse wrangler stays behind, readying the group for its final phase.  There have been times I have grabbed my dvd and gone immediately to this scene... one of comedy, snappy dialogue, derring-do, explosions and the film's great surprise which changes how the second half of it plays out.

Cardinale has not been kidnapped at all.  She has gone willingly to Palance who is her lover.  Together they concocted the kidnapping with the ransom to go toward their revolutionary causes.  Lancaster and Marvin have sneaked into her room where they see her and Palance being affectionate and they are astounded.  What to do?   Should they simply leave her and make a hasty exit?  Should they honor their commitment, keep their word and steal her away?  They want to do the right thing.  They want the rest of their money.

Lancaster wants to kill Palance but Marvin coldcocks him with his pistol and off the friends go with a screaming Cardinale over a shoulder.  An exciting exit from the compound and into a hand car finds the group back at the goatherd's.  It an equally exciting sequence as Palance's men are hiding in the train cars.  The good guys sense the danger, put a gun to Cardinale's head while holding her by the hair.  Get your men off the train, Lancaster commands the head bandit, or I'll kill her.

The bad guys oblige and off go our heroes on the train with the bandits, now larger in number, with Palance leading them on horseback.  Cardinale does all she can to persuade the men to let her go, to no avail.  As the party gets closer to returning her, they realize Palance and his crowd are too close now.  They devise a plan where Lancaster will remain behind and attempt an ambush.  Everyone dies except the two enemies.  (Actually, the death toll in this film has caused folks watching it over the years to maintain a count.)

Bellamy and his men are waiting at the railway station when Cardinale and her captors arrive.  She resists returning to her husband and the truth comes out as Lancaster arrives with a wounded Palance.  The good guys realize they have become the kidnappers and they don't like it.  Sacrificing the rest of their money, they allow Maria and Raza to use a buckboard for a quick departure.

Both Brooks and Lancaster needed a hit.  The director had just made Lord Jim and Lancaster The Hallelujah Trail and both bombed.  They knew this would be a crowd-pleaser... mission-driven stories usually are.  Lancaster, who earlier won an Oscar for Elmer Gantry, under Brooks's direction, signed on without seeing a script and when he saw it, he thought the role of the leader would be the one he would have.  Brooks responded that he would play the role of the dynamiter (a character not in the novel) because it had great comic overtones and that Lancaster is boring when he's in charge.

It was an easy shoot for the most part and everyone got along.  In addition to Lancaster and Brooks working together before, the actor and Cardinale had made The Leopard (1963), Marvin and Ryan had been in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) and Marvin and Strode in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).  The only misstep involved Marvin, an infamous boozer on film sets.  He incurred Lancaster's wrath when they were the only ones filming on a mountaintop involving stunts and Marvin totally blitzed.  Brooks threatened to fire him and the actor got in line and stayed there.

While the acting all-around was certainly above reproach, it was a phone-in for Lancaster who could work a script like this in his sleep.  I enjoyed him for his humor and his athleticism.  And y'know, despite his knack for broad performances, Lancaster was one of the best listeners in the business.

Marvin, who filmed The Professionals in between his Oscar-winning performance in Cat Ballou and the blockbuster The Dirty Dozen, had come into his own as a leading man.  With his deep, throaty voice and humorless demeanor, he was the perfect leader.

After two decades of leading man status, mainly in film noir and gangster roles, Ryan had gravitated to nice-guy, co-starring roles and was always masterful.  His character could be regarded as the conscience of the film.

There was not a black mercenary in the novel and to Brooks' credit he hired a muscular warrior of a man, Strode, to work a bow and arrow.  The film was made during troubling racial times in the States and seeing Strode in this heroic role was a sweet balance.

This was not Cardinale's first American film but it was the first one she filmed in the States.  She has stated everything about making it was wonderful and it became her favorite American film.  She owned the part of the lusty Maria.  It just occurred to me that she is the only one mentioned here still alive.

Palance was about as Mexican as Cardinale was but in those days particularly, accuracy in ethnic casting was not of paramount importance.  He certainly could be made to look Mexican and no one could be as villainous as Palance.  Once said, his character, for the most part, was a sympathetic one.

The location work was dazzling.  For the cast and crew, it was also deathly hot.  The majority of the filming took place in Nevada's Valley of Fire with some extra work in California's Death Valley just to cool down. The train sequences were filmed at Indio, California, and Raza's hacienda was specially built in Mexico. Brooks wanted to film the entire movie in Mexico but the government wanted approval on how Mexico and its citizens were portrayed and Brooks said no thanks.

Conrad Hall's richly-detailed cinematography showed what beauty the desert can provide while he maneuvered his cameras through narrow canyons, across wide vistas, up mountainsides and created the magic of dust storms.  It was augmented by Maurice Jarre's hypnotic, castanet-laden musical score. 

Here, have a look at the trailer:

A suave Brit with a pencil-thin mustache.


1 comment:

  1. Saw it recently on TV and was blown away with the compositions on the screen. The landscapes of the mountains and the desert are characters in the drama with the camera looking up or down and the angles of the hills and sky highlighting the emotions. They don't make films like this any more. The professionalism goes down to the bone.