I have never been a huge fan of westerns. Occasionally, a film like "Unforgiven", for example, will earn a lot of respect and critical praise, prompting me to watch. But these rare occasions are also tempered by terrible wastes of time like "Wyatt Earp". Because I am a huge fan of Burt Lancaster's, I watched "The Professionals", the 1966 film by director Richard Brooks, many years ago and the impression has been indelible. Easily one of my favorite films, I think I enjoy it so much because it transcends the genre.
Recently, Ebert and Roeper did a piece on their show about a number of Lee Marvin films making their debut on DVD. Not a huge fan of Lee Marvin either, but I watched a few of these films and was struck by how good they were. Reviews will be forthcoming.
Both of these factors contributed to my recent revisit of "The Professionals". A local theater which frequently runs repertory films on Saturday and Sunday morning ran a series of Westerns including "The Professionals". I happily paid $10 to watch a bad print of the film at 11 am on a Sunday. And boy, it was fun. The audience was really into it as well, enjoying the great screenplay by Richard Brooks.
A new DVD transfer has been recently released and the print is simply beautiful.
Oil tycoon Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hires a rag tag group of mercenaries to rescue his kidnapped wife, Maria (Claudia Cardinale), from the hands of Raza (Jack Palance), a Mexican mercenary. Grant asks Henry `Rico' Fardan (Lee Marvin) to lead the crusade. Fardan used to be a mercenary working with Raza, but now demonstrates munitions for potential buyers. Grant has also assembled Ehrengard (Robert Ryan, "Odds Against Tomorrow"), a horse expert and Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), a bounty hunter who is also an expert tracker. Fardan is reluctant to lead the group into the desert, after a man he knows and who is adept at living in the harsh environment. Grant offers them each $10,000 to rescue his wife, instead of paying Raza the $100,000 ransom. Fardan reluctantly accepts on the condition that they include Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), his former co-hort and an explosives expert, currently in prison. After Grant pays his bail, they head off.
From the opening credits, in which each character is introduced doing what they do best, you know you are in for a slightly different take on the traditional Western. Marvin, Ryan and Strode are all introduced first, demonstrating their skills in their current work environment. Then Lancaster is introduced doing what Dolworth does best, romancing women. A man bursts into the room of Dolworth's latest "romance" and he rushes out wearing only his long johns. Even though there is a serious tone throughout the film, occasional bursts of humor help to lighten the mood and make it all the more enjoyable.
One of the major reasons the film transcends the genre is the screenplay. Brooks has crafted the story with care and given each character some of the best dialogue ever. At one point, Dolworth (Lancaster) says to Fardan (Marvin): My word to Grant isn't worth a thing. Fardan responds: Yes, but you didn't give your word to him, you gave it to me. At which point, Dolworth considers this, shrugs and gets back to the task at hand. This line of dialogue is well-written but it also helps to establish the relationship between the two characters. Another great line, which could serve as a bit of foreshadowing; "In this desert, nothing's harmless unless it's dead." At the end of the film, Grant calls Fardan a bastard. Fardan responds: "In my case, an accident of birth. In your case, you've worked at it."
In addition to the great dialogue, Brooks takes great pain to build the characters and their relationships. Ehrengard, the horse handler, is introduced beating up a wrangler who savagely tries to break a horse. During their ride into the desert, the hired mercenaries come across horses which may have been with Raza at one point. Dolworth insists that they should be put down or they will return to Raza and alert him of their whereabouts. Ehrengard makes the case that they will search for the nearest water. Fardan agrees to release them. Later, when the horses return with Raza's men, Ehrengard realizes he was wrong and that the horses should be put down, but he'll do it. Dolworth, as played by Lancaster, has a similar trait in that he loves women, all women. In a climatic scene, he has a standoff with one of Raza's mercenaries, a woman named Chiquita, whom he had an affair with when he worked with Raza. It is a strange, multifaceted scene that strengthens our feelings towards Dolworth's character. At one point, he says "I think I just realized what makes a woman worth $100,000." Great stuff.
Even Marvin, whom I am growing more appreciative of, does great work here. As Fardan, he is quite and intense, much like he is in most of his work, but Marvin brings intelligence to the role aiding the character a great deal. Granted, much of this can be contributed to the screenplay, but his portrayal effectively brings Fardan to life.
There are a couple of problems with the film, looking back at a project made in 1966 from the year 2005. First and foremost, the performance by Woody Strode is good and quite possibly accurate for the time in which the film was set, but it still makes you cringe when he refers to everyone as "Mr. Fardan" and "Mr. Dolworth", when they refer to him as simply, Jake. Brooks does quietly and effectively introduce the issue of race very early on. As Grant brings them together, he asks Fardan "You don't have a problem working with Negroes I trust?" Fardan simply ignores the question, because it is beneath him to even consider the race of a man who is qualified to do the job. If the film were remade today (God, what a thought! The horror!), the role would have to be more of an equal. The role would, in all likelihood, be cast for comic relief.
The other problem is that both of the Mexican lead characters are played by non-Mexicans. In the case of Jack Palance, the character still works. In the case of Claudia Cardinale, the role doesn't. Her accent is atrocious, laughable and dumb. She is very voluptuous, but you don't ever believe she is a Mexican. During the 60s, the studios seemed to realize that their films had to appeal to international audiences to make money. Television was robbing them of many ticket buyers and they were searching for revenue from every corner of the globe. One of their solutions was to cast people like Cardinale in roles in American films. Sometimes it worked ("The Pink Panther"), others it didn't. Lancaster even made a number of films oversees; perhaps the most famous are "The Leopard" and "1900". Watching "The Leopard" is a truly bizarre experience. If you watch it in Italian with English subtitles, Lancaster is actually speaking his lines. If you watch a dubbed version, you see Lancaster's mouth moving, and you hear him speaking English, but the two don't mesh.
One of the nicest touches about "The Professionals" is that it is set in the early twentieth century; I'm going to guess between 1915 and 1919. Cars are around, and make an appearance, but many parts of the country are still most easily accessible by train or horse. Because the story is set in this period, there is a feeling that these characters are taking the job for a "last hurrah" before modern times take over, before they have to settle down and take that job demonstrating new munitions full time. This adds to the devil may care attitude they exhibit throughout.
"The Professionals" is a great film buoyed by great writing, performances and directing. Even if you don't like "Westerns", you will probably enjoy this film. Give it a try. You won't be disappointed.