“This 1966 western… has the expertise of a cold old whore with practiced hands and no thoughts of love. There’s something to be said for this kind of professionalism; the moviemakers know their business and they work us over. We’re not always in the mood for love or for art, and this movie makes no demands, raises no questions, doesn’t confuse the emotions. Even the absence of visual beauty or of beauty of language or concept can be something of a relief. The buyer gets exactly what he expects and wants and pays for: manipulation for excitement. We use the movie and the movie uses us.”
– Pauline Kael on The Professionals, from her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
I’m not speaking from direct experience here, you understand, but I would imagine that old whores, cold or otherwise, could be pretty entertaining, not only in their professional mode but also with some of the stories they could tell, should they somehow be coerced to kick back with a smoke or a drink and start talking. And speaking of storytelling, there have certainly been plenty of opportunities since 1966 to be entertained by movies that had nothing more on their minds than to give the audience what it seemed to want, often begged for, with ruthless proficiency and little concern for nuance or subtlety. To run with Kael’s metaphor for just a sentence or two longer, there’s little doubt in this age of movies as pure sensation that technique is just as crucial to the roughed-up customer in a movie theater as to the one in a well-run brothel. I daresay perhaps even more so. After all, really good foreplay, the sustaining of the pleasure of action, is part and parcel of any memorable exchange between a ticket-buyer and a filmmaker; down at Madame Fifi’s or in an alley off of Santa Monica Boulevard, maybe not so much.
As a young reader who hadn’t seen The Professionals anywhere but on Sunday afternoon TV when I was growing up, Kael’s comments always seemed somewhat harsh. The movie I remembered was a good, solid example of the sort of picture that could sustain a viewer like me during a boring day cooped up inside because of bad weather, or when I didn’t feel like doing much more than cooling off after a morning’s worth of running around outside, enacting my own outdoor adventures with pals. I certainly wouldn’t have even known what Kael was talking about if I’d been aware of her comments when I first saw the movie, probably around age 10 or 11. And even when I read Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in college I recall being struck by her use of what seemed to me a strange sort of backhanded praise for the movie, which by then I hadn’t seen for several years, and never without the showing being perforated by commercials for used car dealerships and Doan’s Pills.
Encountering The Professionals as a card-carrying (AARP) adult, and having now experienced about 45 years at the hands of cinematic professionals the likes of which she was referring, it’s a little easier to see what Pauline Kael meant. I still think the movie is plenty lively and entertaining— how could a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale and Jack Palance be dull? But as directed by Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Elmer Gantry, Bite the Bullet, Looking for Mr. Goodbar), not the first filmmaker I think of when it comes to style or a light touch, the movie is as matter-of-fact and no-frills as an iron skillet to the back of the head. The movie gets under way in such a clipped fashion that I felt like I might have already missed something. Brooks stages silent vignettes beneath the opening credits to abruptly introduce the principal professionals in their lives before being recruited to this latest cause-for-hire– rescuing the wife of a railroad magnate kidnapped and held for ransom by a ruthless Mexican general. This method seems crude and blunt even for a movie dealing with mercenaries on the outskirts of the Mexican revolution, but it’s a good indicator of Brooks’ approach, which goes beyond no-frills and no-nonsense almost to the primitive.
The Professionals gives its audience what it wants, all right—plenty of shooting and betrayal and hollering, men toughing it up for a test of strength, endurance and wiles, and women toughing it up too. Marvin and Lancaster both have a history fighting with Palance’s loco General Raza before he went really loco, and they don’t show near the reservations Ryan’s horse expert does when it comes to dispensing violence or measuring the morality of who they’re fighting, either for or against. Strode is along for the ride ostensibly for his talent with a bow, which comes in real handy when a stick of dynamite is attached to the accompanying arrow, but also because he looks so damn cool stretching the string. Cardinale, thankfully, is her customary spitfire self as the kidnapped wife who may not exactly be the unwilling victim her saviors have been led to believe she is. (She is, however, costumed in one of the most unattractive outfits of her career.) But she is not the only dust storm in a skirt on the movie’s cast list. As Chiquita, Marie Gomez (Barquero) wears bullet belts crisscrossing her breasts as the ultimate lethal accessory, and she doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the fray for Raza, which makes her the perfect match for Lancaster’s slightly tilted dynamite expert. Their final confrontation, punctuated by a deadly shot and a revolver held to the throat, is the movie’s best approximation of a love scene.
Unfortunately, measured up against movies like The Dirty Dozen, The Train, The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West, all much more fiery and passionate showcases for these actors, The Professionals seems to suffer from Brooks’ comparative lack of style and disinterest in genre. Where Aldrich brings psychosis and delirium, Frankenheimer patience and a slow burn, Peckinpah elegiac poetry, and Leone all those qualities together in a magnificent, synthesized landscape all his own, Brooks takes the Panavision frame and makes it look boxy and overdeliberate. The movie is workmanlike, in its dialogue as well as its visual style, but it’s devoid of lyricism, and those wide-screen frames never sing the way they can in the great westerns.
To that end, Kael’s comment about the absence of beauty in The Professionals, which seems somewhat perverse on its surface, is entirely apropos. How can a movie starring two of the cinema’s great beauties, Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, themselves only three years removed from the lush environs of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and shot by one of the movie’s great cinematographers, Conrad Hall, be itself so bereft of the impulse to capitalize and expand on the natural loveliness of its actors, their environs and its meaning? Brooks seems content to skate across the surface, get the shot, piece it together, indulge his actors’ natural chemistry, give them a few good lines sprinkled among the vastness of the more perfunctory ones, and call it a good two hours. That might be the modus operandi of the average whore, all right, and just like the oldest professional The Professionals lives up to its title and undiscerningly delivers the goods. But after a while a stick of dynamite and an explosion is just a stick of dynamite and an explosion. The Professionals makes you long for the shiver of real movie love, the sort that a cold old whore doesn’t have the time for or interest in, the sort that a real beauty like The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West generates with every frame.