Monday, March 24, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Professionals" (1966)

Regular readers of this column will know that I am endless fascinated by the life cycle of movies -- how some films see their reputations wax with the passage of time, while other worthier pictures end up largely forgotten. Ensconced firmly in the latter category is 1966's "The Professionals."

The movie, written and directed by Richard Brooks, was a big commercial hit at the time, revived Burt Lancaster's career and helped propel Lee Marvin into mainstream stardom. It was also a critical success, and earned three Oscar nominations, including two nods for Brooks' screenplay and direction.

And yet, it's not a film that your average movie-lover would know by name. Thematically, it's very similar to the iconic Western "The Magnificent Seven," about a bunch of disparate group of experts rounded up for a near-impossible mission -- a trick Marvin would repeat next year, this time in a World War II setting in "The Dirty Dozen." So it's possible it got lost in a crowd of similar flicks.

There's that title, which is rather generic and unmemorable. And Brooks is one of those filmmakers who doesn't get the respect he deserves, leaving behind an oeuvre -- "Blackboard Jungle," "In Cold Blood," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Elmer Gantry" -- as impressive as any other mid-century writer/director.

Still, why has this Western "oater" fallen so low that even I had never heard of it until recently?

It's certainly a strong picture, with a mildly to moderately revisionist take on the genre. Four over-the-hill mercenaries take a cold-blooded job, going after one of their old compadres, no less. They include an African-American among their number, which causes no discernible ruckus. And they see the job through to the end, only to double-cross the employer who had misled them about the true nature of the mission.

It's not quite "The Wild Bunch" in terms of turning the Western on its head, but Brooks certainly took a little-known novel by Frank O'Rourke and made it into something grim and ironic.

There's also an unsettling subtext of sexual barter at play. Sometime in the 19-teens, the boys are hired by a rich oilman named Gates (Ralph Bellamy) to rescue his young Mexican wife, who was kidnapped by a revolutionary/bandid named Jesus Raza (Jack Palance, equipped with makeup and accent to make for a sufficient representation of a Latino). One of his henchmen (-women?) is Chiquita (Maria Gomez), who reputedly never turns down an offer for sex, and is seen topless from a three-quarter vantage point.

The crew used to fight with Raza in the Mexican Revolution, and are dismayed that he would have turned to kidnapping (and, presumably, raping) innocent women as a means of earning a living. As Dolworth (Lancaster), the explosives expert and most amoral of the adventurers puts it, I'll happily steal, lie and kill for money, but not that.

They eventually realize Maria Grant (Claudia Cardinale) is not a hostage, but an active participant in blackmailing her husband to support the revolutionary zeal of Raza, whom she has loved since childhood. Nevertheless, Fardan (Marvin), the taciturn leader and weapons master, insists they honor the contract and bring her back across the border. The busty, haphazardly clothed Maria even offers herself to Dolworth in exchange for her freedom, though both are too cagey to consummate the exchange.

The other, lesser members of the gang are Woody Strode as Sharp, the tracker/scout, and Robert Ryan as horse wrangler Ehrengard, who in a modern setting would be the wheel man.

I don't think Strode utters more than a few sentences throughout the entire picture, and is mostly around as a reliable presence, buttressed by Strode's famous physique. He was a decathlon competitor in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, player in the nascent NFL and still cut an imposing figure in 1966 when he was in his early 50s. Sheriff Woody from the "Toy Story" movies was named after him.

Ryan is the resident team member laden with distemper, who always seems to be at odds with the others, especially over the treatment of the horses. When they kill a group of Raza's scouts and bury the bodies, Dolworth advocates shooting the horses since, let free, they might run back home and give warning. Ehrengard convinces the group against that course of action, and in the end the horses do lead them right into trouble. After he is shot in the ensuing standoff, Ehrengard is more or less sidelined the rest of the movie.

Although, I should point out, the seriousness of wounds in "The Professionals" is somewhat tenuous, depending on the necessities of the plot. Ehrengard is shot through the shoulder, at one point appears to be dying, and Fardan talks of him slowing them up from Raza's pursuit. By the next day, though, he's lifting Maria into her saddle with little ill effect.

In perhaps the film's most memorable sequence, Dolworth lags behind to hold off Raza's group in a mountain pass to give the others time to make good their escape. Single-handedly, he out-guns Raza and six others, getting shot himself in the process -- "in the ass," he brassily informs an also-shot-up Raza, as the men exchange pleasantries from behind cover. Dolworth also survives a shoot-out with Chicquita, with whom he has exchanged amorous attentions in the past, granting her a dying kiss. Hours later, though, Dolworth and his punctured hindquarters will jump on and off horses with no problems.

I quite enjoyed "The Professionals," though I don't think it's quite the masterpiece it's made out to be. It's an action-heavy picture, with the planning and assault of Raza's fortress taking up most of the first hour, and actually being rather on the dull side.

Still, it's superior to "The Dirty Dozen" and probably "The Magnificent Seven," too, which enjoy far richer reputations. Cinematic posterity, earned or otherwise, is a twitchy little sumbitch.

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