A quartet of macho mercenaries – Lee Marvin , Burt Lancaster , Robert Ryan , and Woody Strode – cross the dangerous Mexican desert and attempt to rescue a rich man’s wife kidnapped by a violent revolutionary in writer/director Richard Brooks’ THE PROFESSIONALS, an action-packed Western set in 1917. The film’s tone is closer to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns than the usual Hollywood oater, though Leone’s trilogy wouldn’t hit American shores until a year later.
Rich rancher J.W.Grant (screen vet Ralph Bellamy ) hires the quartet to retrieve wife Maria (Claudia Cardinale) from Jesus Raza (Jack Palance ), formerly a captain in Pancho Villa’s army, now a wanted bandito. Marvin is the stoic leader, a weapons expert who once rode with Raza for Villa, as did Lancaster’s explosives whiz. Ryan plays a sympathetic part (for a change) as the horse wrangling expert, while Strode is a former scout and bounty hunter adept with the bow and arrow. The four men face huge odds but successfully pull off the job and rescue Maria, only to discover she hadn’t been kidnapped at all – she’s Raza’s long-time love, and it’s Grant who stole her from Raza! But Marvin, ever the professional, gave his word to Grant the job would be completed, and they trek back to Texas with Maria in tow, pursued by Raza and his minions. There’s a twist ending and a classic final line delivered by Marvin with style.
Richard Brooks doesn’t get a lot of attention these days, but he’s a seminal figure in classic films. He wrote the screenplays for the noir gems BRUTE FORCE and KEY LARGO before becoming writer/director on films like the juvenile delinquent drama THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, the psychological Western THE LAST HUNT, the film adaptations of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH, the Oscar-winning ELMER GANTRY, the groundbreaking true-crime IN COLD BLOOD, and the dark 70’s masterpiece LOOKING FOR MR. GOODBAR, among many others. Brooks is one of the few filmmakers who bridged the gap from studio contractee to independent auteur, and has earned his place in the conversation on great directors.
This was Brooks’ first film with cinematographer Conrad Hall, who perfectly captures the action in Nevada’s oppressively hot Death Valley and Valley of Fire State Park. They would team again for the black and white IN COLD BLOOD, and Hall quickly became one of the era’s top DP’s, with films like COOL HAND LUKE , BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, John Huston’s FAT CITY, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and MARATHON MAN to his credit. Hall took a decade-plus break to work with Haskell Wexler in a television commercial production company, but returned to Hollywood in the 80’s with TEQUILA SUNRISE, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, AMERICAN BEAUTY, and ROAD TO PERDITION. In all, Hall was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning three.
THE PROFESSIONALS is a fun adventure with plenty of action, humor, and star power, made by professionals who knew their stuff when it came to putting together an entertaining film that audiences would enjoy. If you’re not familiar with Richard Brooks’ or Conrad Hall’s work, go seek out some of the films I’ve cited. You won’t be disappointed.