The Professionals (1966) / Western-Action
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some language and brief nudity
Running time: 117 min.
Cast: Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Jack Palance, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Ralph Bellamy, Joe De Santis, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Rafael Bertrand, Marie Gomez
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Richard Brooks (based on the novel, "A Mule for the Marquesa", by Frank O'Rourke)
Review published June 18, 2008
Set in the early 20th Century, Joe 'J.W.' Grant (Bellamy, Trading Places) is a filthy rich American who employs four guns-for-hire to get back his wife, Maria (Cardinale, Once Upon a Time in the West), who has been taken by the ruthless Mexican revolutionary, and also murderer and thief, Jesus Raza (Palance, Young Guns). The mercenaries take the money, a tidy $10,000 each for her safe return, split among leader and former freedom fighter Henry 'Rico' Fardan (Marvin, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), munitions man Bill Dolworth (Lancaster, Field of Dreams), horse expert Hans Ehrengard (Ryan, The Longest Day), and longbow specialist and tracker Jake Sharp (Strode, Spartacus). Vastly outnumbered in the Mexican desert, they must rely on cunning, skill, and a great deal of luck to see their mission through. However, what they find once they get there isn't exactly what they bargained for, leaving the men wrangling over just who are the good guys and the bad guys in the whole sordid affair.
The film would be nominated for three Academy Awards, including two for Richard Brooks (Key Largo, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) for his direction and adaptation and one for the gorgeous Valley of Fire and Death Valley cinematography by Conrad L. Hall (Cool Hand Luke, Fat City). Both men would get nominated for the same awards the following year for their next collaboration, In Cold Blood. The Professionals proved to be a worthy successor to such ensemble-driven classics as The Magnificent Seven and a precursor to more violent treatments like The Wild Bunch. Lee Marvin would also prove to be red hot at this point in his career, following The Professionals up with two of his fan favorites, The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank.
As fine as he is, scenes are nevertheless stolen by the very charismatic Burt Lancaster, who gives his philosophical and faux-amoral dynamite expert character a real edge and charisma that makes him the character by which the entire movie feeds energy off of. He also single-handedly makes this one of the more amusing Westerns this side of Blazing Saddles, though not just through his performance, but through Brooks' witty, refreshing treatment of a rather straightforward plot.
One could rightfully nitpick about such things as Jack Palance's unconvincing fluency when trying to speak in Spanish, or Italian actress Cardinale's modest acting skills (her best asset is looking gorgeous), but given the enjoyment in watching their performances, I don't think I'd trade them for more authentic character actors. The casting truly is superb, and credit Brooks for infusing some genuine character to all of the roles, from the leads to the smaller supporting players, and especially to the character of Maria Grant, who actually does come away as the kind of woman men would pay dearly for, whether in money or their lives.
A hit at the time of its release, The Professionals, while undoubtedly a classic among Western lovers and Marvin fans, rarely gets the recognition it deserves. My guess is that this is due to being overshadowed shortly after by the aforementioned films like Marvin's larger ensemble hit, The Dirty Dozen, and the more violent and notorious Western, The Wild Bunch. While those films are far more popular, if you've seen and enjoyed them, you are highly recommended to catch The Professionals at your next available opportunity, as it delivers much of the same appeal. With loads of action, intrigue, adventure, humor, tragedy, thrills, and even a little romance, The Professionals, like the dynamite carried around by Dolworth, packs a sizable amount of bang in its sub-2 hour package.
©2008 Vince Leo