The Professionals Review
A voice as rough as rock-salt yet as smooth as a pint of Guinness sliding down the back of a parched throat. A profile carved out of granite. A body, muscular but elegant. A walk, determined but measured. Even if he hadn’t been one of the finest screen actors of his generation, Lee Marvin would have been assured of his place as the definition of celluloid cool. It’s debatable when Marvin became a star rather than a promising supporting player but I would choose the moment in Don Siegel’s The Killers when, in response to Angie Dickinson’s offer of her body, he says, “Lady, I just haven’t got the time.” Made two years later, The Professionals features a number of star performers but there’s no question that the ‘star’ of the film is Lee Marvin. That’s not to say that he doesn’t play well with the rest of the once-in-a-lifetime cast or that the film doesn’t have other things which make it stand out amidst the glut of Westerns which were still being churned out in the mid-1960s. Indeed, the actors have stiff competition for pride of place with Richard Brooks’ eloquent script and Conrad Hall’s gorgeous cinematography. But I make no apologies for stating that, above all, The Professionals belongs to Lee Marvin.
The story is set-up with sleek efficiency. A rich, corrupt landowner, Joe Grant (Bellamy), hires a group of ‘professionals’ – experts in their chosen fields – to find and rescue his wife Maria (Cardinale) who has, so he claims, been kidnapped by a ruthless Mexican bandit called Jesus Raza (Palance). The men chosen are Rico (Marvin), a weapons expert and former mercenary who fought with Pancho Villa; Bill Dolworth (Lancaster), a dynamiter with a penchant for other men’s wives; Hans Ehrengard (Ryan), a top-notch horse trainer; and Jake Sharp (Strode), an ace tracker. The men brave various trials – not least the Mexican desert itself – and find Raza’s camp but they soon discover that things are not quite as they appeared to Grant.
Basically, what we have here is – to borrow Quentin Tarantino’s term – an archetypal ‘guys on a mission’ movie. If we consider it as a genre in itself, it goes back to firm favourites such as Gunga Din and was soundly established as a popular concept during the war in movies like Raoul Walsh’s brilliant Objective Burma and Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima. What The Professionals does is refine the genre down to its basics. A group of hand-picked men, ideally suited to the mission, battle through despite many setbacks, fighting and bonding along the way in roughly equal measure. There’s virtually no time-wasting; the plot begins during the opening credits as the men are assembled. Richard Brooks is an underrated writer-director and the quality of his work here is hugely impressive. Along with The Dirty Dozen - made the same year and featuring Lee Marvin in a very similar role – it’s one of the best of the ‘guys on a mission’ genre because it simultaneously satisfies all the requirements of an entertaining action movie while refusing to talk down to it audience.
Indeed, The Professionals does quite the opposite. Richard Brooks’ dialogue has been quoted to death but I’m not going to apologise for exhuming it one more time. To a genre which, at the time, was descending into a mixture of camp and nostalgia, Brooks brings some of the best writing of the 1960s. Take this little jewel, delivered by Lancaster – “If we're lucky enough to get back to this rat trap, it might be touch and go. All you gotta do is light this fuse. You got ten seconds to run like hell. Then dynamite, not fate, will move that mountain into this pass. Peace, brother.” Now you could say that this kind of dialogue is a little florid, maybe over-written. But it works because it establishes that Dolworth is a tough guy, a realist and possesses a sense of irony. Similarly, his retort to Maria telling him to go to hell – “Yes Ma’am, I’m on my way.” Give an actor like Lancaster this kind of writing and he savours every syllable. Marvin also rises to the level of the script – he can bring layers of sadness and regret to a simple exchange such as “Your hair was darker then”, “My heart was lighter then” – and his closing line is perhaps the best he ever uttered. I won’t spoil it for first time viewers but I assure you that you’ll be quoting it every chance you get.
Richard Brooks also does well with his direction. I don’t think his work as a director ever quite matched his work as a writer – before he got behind a camera he produced scripts such as Brute Force and Key Largo - but he remains a thoroughly undervalued talent. Brooks brought dedication and craftsmanship to every film he made, sometimes – as in the case of Looking For Mr Goodbar - risking his career for a project he believed in. Not all of his films are good and some of them are downright dreadful – you’d be hard-pressed to find many fans of Fever Pitch or The Happy Ending - but they all have something of Brooks’ personality in them and that’s no small achievement for a director who weathered the change in Hollywood from the studio era to the 1970s. His work on The Professionals is highly efficient, getting the story going during the opening credits and barely slowing down even for a brief romantic interlude. He didn’t make many Westerns but he has a feel for landscape and space and he stages the action sequences with considerable flair. In this, of course, he is immeasurably aided by Conrad Hall’s cinematography. It goes without saying that the film looks stunning but I think it’s worth pointing out that Hall shows as much of a feel for the wide-open spaces as he did for the urban nightmares of Midnight Cowboy and Marathon Man. The colours are particularly worth savouring – the blue of the sky perfectly matching the blue of Lancaster’s eyes.
What you can usually rely on in a Richard Brooks film is the quality of the acting. As I stated above, Lee Marvin dominates the film but he’s supported by strong performances from Burt Lancaster, typically doing his own stunts, and the legendary Woody Strode – already carving a niche in genre history. The unpatronising treatment of Strode’s character is a typically liberal Brooks touch, by the way. Jack Palance overplays less than usual at this point in his career and Claudia Cardinale smoulders like few other actresses.
The only disappointment is Robert Ryan. There’s nothing wrong with his acting, I hasten to add, but his character is made humiliatingly weak and you feel a certain embarrassment for Ryan, an actor who was humiliated in a similar way in his one-note character in The Dirty Dozen. What’s interesting is how seldom, after his great Noir roles of the 1950s, Ryan was well-used in the cinema and it’s only after watching his remarkable performances in Billy Budd and The Iceman Cometh that you realise just how magnificent he could be, given the right part. Another slight misstep is Maurice Jarre’s music score. It’s too antic, too intrusive and it seems to violate the careful framing and the suspenseful pacing. It is, however, only fair to point out that Jarre’s music often has this effect on me and my opinion is very much a minority one.
In terms of the Western genre, The Professionals is set very late in historical terms. Although the period isn’t explicitly defined, it appears to be around 1915-16, a couple of years later than The Wild Bunch and right in the middle of the Mexican Revolution which lasted from 1910 to 1920. The chaos of the period and the power of bandit chieftains is well represented and there’s a nicely sardonic take on the romantic myths of revolution – “When the shooting stops and the dead are buried, and the politicians take over, it all adds up to one thing – a lost cause.” In some respects, it resembles the more realistic wave of westerns which were ushered in during the 1950s with The Left-Handed Gun and, in a very different way, The Searchers, but it doesn’t go too far along the myth-destroying road of a Peckinpah. The skill of ‘the Professionals’ is unambiguously celebrated and the possibilities of heroism and moral certainty are not questioned too deeply. Death is presented with a fair degree of realism, however, and the excitement and glamour of violence is not excessively celebrated. You can see, in this film, the stepping stones to the genre-exploding The Wild Bunch, just as you can in Sergio Leone’s films, Howard Hawks’ contemporaneous El Dorado and Peckinpah’s own Major Dundee. Brooks is confined to genre clichés here – particularly in the final appearance of a character who Peckinpah would have had the guts to kill – but he makes a lot out of what he has, especially in the daring and unconventional final scenes, and it’s unfair to criticise a well made, entertaining film for what it doesn’t quite manage to do.
This new ‘Special Edition’ of The Professionals is fairly light on the extra features but it does a good job of presenting the film to its best advantage.
The film is transferred in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. I found this to be a generally pleasing visual transfer. There is some print damage evident throughout and a level of grain which some might consider to be beyond what is strictly necessary to give a film-like appearance. But the colours are vibrant, there’s a reasonable amount of detail and no serious problems with artifacting or edge enhancement.
There are two soundtracks. The first is in Dolby Digital 3.0 and the second is in Dolby Digital 5.1. I am informed that this latter option is not a remix but was taken ‘from the original theatrical elements”, presumably those used for Roadshow presentations. Both options sound absolutely fine with Maurice Jarre’s music filling in the surrounds and occasional shotgun and explosion effects to liven things up.
The extras have been produced by the plodding but reliable Laurent Bouzereau. “Burt Lancaster: A Portrait”, which runs 12 minutes, is an interview with Lancaster’s daughter illustrated with clips from The Professionals. This is engaging, if a little bland, and Joanna Lancaster’s comments aren’t especially enlightening for anyone who knows a bit about the actor. “Memories From The Professionals”, coming in at 23 minutes, contains comments from a very smug but still gorgeous Claudia Cardinale, actress Marie Gomez, DP Conrad Hall and Lancaster’s biographer Kate Buford. “The Professionals: A Classic”, running 6 minutes, features affectionate from director and fan Martin Campbell and most of the aforementioned participants. We also get the original theatrical trailer for The Professionals and a combo-trailer for various Columbia Western titles.
There are 28 chapter stops and while the film is subtitled, the extra features are not.
The Professionals is both enormous fun to watch and endlessly quotable. This DVD offers good picture and sound quality and the extra features do at least show that Sony are prepared to make an effort with these things, even if the whole package doesn’t quite live up to the ‘Special Edition’ tag.