By Scott Ross
Richard Brooks was a problematic figure. As writer and director, he was, in the Hollywood of his early period, part of a unique caste. There had never been many double-threat filmmakers; of the five major scenarist/directors around when Brooks moved to the director’s chair (Charles Chaplin, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, John Huston) Sturges had burned out, Chaplin was not so much a writer — The Great Dictator is proof enough of that — as he was an ad lib imaginer, Welles was living and working in Europe, and Wilder always worked with a collaborator. (And no one at that time considered Samuel Fuller a major anything.)
When Brooks tackled hard-hitting, usually urban, subjects he was very good indeed: Crisis, Deadline — USA, The Blackboard Jungle. When he ventured into adapting great literature, whether novels or plays, he often floundered. Orson Welles once said Brooks should have been shot for the way he mangled Lord Jim, and his Tennessee Williams adaptations (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth) are wonderfully acted, often beautifully observed, but impossibly hobbled by the prevailing censorship. Elmer Gantry is effective but overlong and occasionally inert, and Brooks’ daring in taking on American religious huckstering was blunted by nervous United Artists interference. (They made him cut his ending, in which Gantry answered a pilgrim with, “I’ll see you on Hell, brother.”) He fared better with In Cold Blood, although even he shied away from some of its implications, notably the (homo)sexual. And Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while memorable (especially in its shockingly terrifying finale) is a nightmare that appears to equate sexual liberty with seediness and violent death.
Brooks had two terrific Westerns in him, however; the rousing, and deeply moving, Bite the Bullet (1975) and this one, a rip-roaring adventure out of a very likable Frank O’Rourke novel (A Mule for the Marquesa) that is expansive in the best sense, and carries with it the same humanist impulse that made Bite the Bullet so intensely memorable. The change in title indicates Brooks’ attitude toward, not merely the work his paid mercenaries do in the picture, but toward craft itself. You’re a professional. You take your job seriously. If you undertake it, you do it, and you do it right.
Conrad Hall’s sumptuous Western cinematography must have looked incredible on a big screen. And of course, the cast is first-rate: The always interesting Lee Marvin, a very genial Burt Lancaster, the vastly underrated Robert Ryan, and the stalwart Woody Strode as the eponymous adventurers; Jack Palance as a surprisingly sympathetic kidnapper; the luminous Claudia Cardinale as the ambiguous object of the quest; and Ralph Bellamy as the unsavory source of it all.
The Professionals shares with Bite the Bullet the rigorously unsentimental compassion Brooks finds for all his characters. He doesn’t play the black hat/white hat game. Or, even when you think he does, he pulls a switch on you and allows even the most seemingly malign of characters his or her individual humanity. (Well, everyone but Bellamy, and he’s so avariciously cynical he’s beyond redemption.) That was rare in American movies when Richard Brooks was active. It’s far rarer now.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross