Wednesday, April 07, 2004

The Professionals (1966)

Wild Bunch I
by Nicholas Stix

Ever since Sam Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch in 1969, he has been credited with creating a unique, poetic, western masterpiece about the passing of a certain time (the late 19th century), place (the “West,” specifically the American Southwest and Mexico), and type of man (a criminal or gunslinger with a code of honor). And The Wild Bunch IS a masterpiece – but it is not unique.

Its ballet of slow-motion blood came from Arthur Penn’s 1967 instant classic, Bonnie and Clyde. And much, much more, in terms of story, place, and atmosphere – hard men hired to go on a violent mission to Mexico – came from this 1966 movie, which Richard Brooks directed and wrote, based on Frank O’Rourke’s novel, A Mule for the Marquesa. An honest assessment of either movie requires that one discuss the other. Of The Wild Bunch, because it owes so much to The Professionals; of The Professionals, because it has largely, and unfairly, been relegated to obscurity, due to the legendary status of The Wild Bunch.

The Professionals has a dream cast – the four men of the title are played by Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode. But there’s so much more – in those politically incorrect days, Italian star Claudia Cardinale could play a Mexican spitfire (“Maria Grant”), while Jack Palance could portray a Mexican revolutionary (”Raza”). Ralph Bellamy plays railroad tycoon “J.W. Grant,” whose Mexican wife, Maria, has been kidnapped, and Marie Gomez plays yet another spitfire (“Chiquita”). (Note that the spitfires are both handy with six-shooters.) The story unfolds ca. 1921, under the shadow of Pancho Villa (1878-1923) and the recently concluded Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

The four men of the title – experts in explosives (Lancaster, as “Bill Dolworth”), weapons (Marvin, as leader “Rico Fardan”), horses (Ryan, as “Hans Ehrengard”), and tracking and using a bow and arrow (Strode, as “Jacob Sharpe”) – are hired to rescue the tycoon’s wife, whose captor demands $100,000 ransom. The tycoon will pay the men $10,000 each, should they successfully complete their mission. But they must brave the searing heat of the Mexican desert going in and returning, and best a gang that outnumbers them over 30-1. Note that Dolworth and Fardan were expressly chosen for the mission, because they had long fought alongside Raza, for Pancho Villa.

Brooks (1912-1992), a onetime newspaperman and novelist who had a remarkably eclectic, successful career writing, helming, and sometimes producing social dramas (Blackboard Jungle, Something of Value, Elmer Gantry), westerns (The Last Hunt, Bite the Bullet), psychological stories (Lord Jim, In Cold Blood) and female-centered pictures, particularly based on Tennessee Williams plays (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth, Looking for Mr. Goodbar), packs enough movie into The Professionals for two and a half hours, rather than the hour-fifty it runs. (I expect that he was under strict instructions regarding length.) The story opens by deftly sketching each character in about thirty seconds, has several excellent action set-pieces -- Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts -- and yet, leaves time for irony, for wistfulness, for gallows humor.

At one point, Burt Lancaster’s Bill Dolworth muses, “Maybe there's only been one revolution since the beginning - the good guys versus the bad guys. The question is - who are the good guys?”

The Professionals contrasts the pretensions of what Harry Truman called the “high hats,” the rich hypocrites of “respectable” society, with the “bastards” of the gutter, and says that a prince may be a bastard, a bastard a prince … and a whore a goddess. What counts, above all, is honor.

The Professionals has several surprises, some humorous and some poignant, and a simpatico, South-of-the-Border-style score by Maurice Jarre. And some great lines.

Grant: You bastard!
Fardan: Yes, sir. In my case, an accident of birth. But you, you're a self-made man.

The acting by the four “professionals” is wonderfully natural (especially Marvin’s line readings), the work by Palance and Gomez wonderfully over the top.

Like most great movies, particularly westerns, this movie could not be made today. Hispanic ethnic hustlers would demand that mediocre Hispanic actors play the Cardinale and Palance roles. And no black actor today would play the Woody Strode role as written, and no white director would have the cojones to make him do it. Too realistic. At the height of Jim Crow, the railroad tycoon asks Fardan, “Do you have any problem working with a Negro?” And while whites usually address Jacob Sharpe by his first name, he always addresses white men as “Mister,” as in “Mr. D” (Dolworth) and “Mr. Sheriff.” You can hate it all you want, but that’s the way it was.

Raza : How do you come to this dirty business?
Dolworth: The usual -- money.
Raza: Everything is as usual. I need guns and bullets -- as usual. The war goes badly -- as usual. Only you -- you are not as usual.

The Wild Bunch cannot be properly measured, without taking into consideration the standing-on-the-shoulders-of-giants factor. And even if one should still conclude that The Wild Bunch is more powerful than The Professionals, in the way that Peckinpah is poetry to Brooks’ prose, one still must give Richard Brooks his due.

(The DVD offers both full-screen and widescreen versions, cast information, the theatrical trailer, and scene selections. The sound and color resolution are excellent. Considering the lack of extras, the DVD is pricey … yet it is worth every penny.)

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