Thursday, November 7, 2019

Richard Brooks' The Professionals

Lee Marvin as the group's leader.
It was a commercial and critical success. It earned three Academy Award nominations. It starred two of the biggest stars of the 1960s. And yet, The Professionals (1966) rarely gets the attention it deserves these days. When it was shown on TCM last June, it got a late afternoon time slot instead of a more desirable prime time appearance (sad face!).

Set in 1917, the film opens with wealthy land owner J.W. Grant (Ralph Bellamy) hiring four men to rescue his wife from a Mexican revolutionary holding her for ransom. The "professionals" are comprised of: Fardan (Lee Marvin), the group's leader and a former soldier; Jake (Woody Strode), an expert scout and archer; Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), a horse wrangler; and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), Fardan's close friend and a dynamite specialist. Grant agrees to pay each man $1,000 upfront with $9,000 upon return of his wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale).
Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, and Lee Marvin.
From the outset, Dolworth senses that something is not right. He and Fardan fought in the Mexican Revolution alongside Raza (Jack Palance), the alleged kidnapper. When Dolworth considers bailing on the job, Fardan reminds him that they agreed to a contract.

DOLWORTH: "My word to Grant ain't worth a plugged nickel."

FARDAN: "You gave your word to me."

After dealing with bandits and punishing desert temperatures, the four men reach Raza's settlement. However, in the midst of their carefully orchestrated rescue attempt, they make a not-so-surprising discovery. 

Burt Lancaster as Dolworth.
Based on the 1964 novel A Mule for the Marquesa, The Professionals marked a return to the Western genre for director-screenwriter Richard Brooks. Although Brooks was best known for adapting high-class dramas such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth, he had made an earlier Western called The Last Hunt in 1956. 

With The Professionals, he aims to explore the final days of the "Wild West," like other notable Westerns of the 1960s (e.g., Ride the High Country and the later Wild Bunch). It's no wonder that hard men like Fardan and Dolworth reminisce about the old days; they no longer have a place in a West "owned" by the likes of J.W. Grant. They admire Raza because--unlike them--he hasn't given up on the revolution. All that the four professionals have left is their word and their mutual respect for one another. It's no wonder that Fardan puts a premium on completing their contract.

Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale.
For a film with a number of explosive action scenes, The Professionals is surprisingly talky at times. That's not a bad thing as it allows Brooks and his excellent cast to flesh out the movie's characters and themes. The focus isn't just on the four principals either, as Brooks provides pithy dialogue for Cardinale as the passionate, feisty Maria. (It's worth noting that two of Cardinale's best performances were in 1960s Westerns: this one and  Once Upon a Time in the West). My only complaint with Brooks' screenplay is his occasional use of contemporary words like "terrific," which seem out of place.

Brooks and cinematographer Conrad Hall capture some breathtaking images of the desert landscapes during daylight and night. Hall's work earned him an Oscar-nomination.

Richard Brooks received two nominations as well, for his screenplay adaptation and for directing. Thus, it's downright odd that The Professionals was not nominated for Best Picture. However, Brooks no doubt relished its commercial success. A sequel was discussed for several years, although it proved impossible to reunite the four male leads (though Marvin and Ryan were both in The Dirty Dozen). Brooks returned to the Western genre one last time in Bite the Bullet (1975). It's a fine film starring Gene Hackman and James Coburn and featuring a closing scene almost as memorable as the one in The Professionals


  1. I love this movie. It definitely seems to be on the forgotten side and I don't know why, as it is first rate. Great write up on this one.

  2. "The Professionals" and "Bite The Bullet" are two of my favorite Westerns. Brooks was a good story-teller, but it was his characters that drove the narrative. "The Professionals" is a film academy course in screen presence with Marvin's and Lancaster's performances.

  3. I just watched this for the first time earlier this year. Amazon Prime Video is a literal treasure trove of great, oftentimes forgotten, films. I use the "customers also watched" feature, and this film came up when I was looking at some other Western like Ride the High Country or something. The only thing with Amazon is the quality can be spotty, Sometimes, like here, the print and transfer are very good, Other times, not so much. Reading the reviews can help, but not always.

    This is a very good film, as you say. What a cast. I think Cardinale is overlooked perhaps because she may have often been cast as female "eye candy." Not sure. I personally think Robert Ryan is one of the most under-rated actors of that era of Hollywood. He was downright diabolical in the wonderful Bad Day at Black Rock, starring Spencer Tracy.

    1. I really liked Ryan in THE PROFESSIONALS and he was even better a few years later in another famous Western, THE WILD BUNCH.

  4. Great review of one of my favorite Westerns. From what I've read there was no reunion because Lancaster and Marvin didn't get along. Burt was uber-professional on the set, and Lee was Drunk mostly - so the two had "issues". As you write, Cardinale is wonderful as the fiery "Mrs. Grant". I'm still not sure I buy Jack Palance as a Mexican, but that Mustache helped. And fun to see Lovable Good Guy Ralph Bellamy reveled as the hissable villain.

    1. In this day and age, it was jarring to see Jack Palance playing a Mexican revolutionary. No doubt, the producers wanted a big name actor and he's quite credible in the part.

  5. one of my ten desert island films. Bite the bullet is another on that list.