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 as a screenwriter, Wilder always operated with a collaborator.
When Brooks tackled hard-hitting, usually urban, subjects he was very good indeed: Crisis, Deadline—USA, The Blackboard Jungle. When he ventured into adapting 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 while his Tennessee Williams adaptations (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth) are wonderfully acted, and even beautifully observed, they’re also impossibly hobbled by the prevailing censorship. Elmer Gantry is effective but overlong, and Brooks’ daring in taking on American religious huckstering was somewhat blunted by nervous studio interference.* He fared better with In Cold Blood, although even he shied away from some of its implications, notably the homoerotic, and Looking for Mr. Goodbar, while memorable — particularly in its genuinely shocking 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 pleasurable.
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 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, and is far rarer now.
*Brooks’ initial cut ended with this exchange, between Gantry and a newspaperman:
Newsman: See you around, brother.
Gantry: (Over his shoulder, with a wave and a smile) See you in hell, brother.
†And yes, I am aware that Judith Rossner based her bestselling novel on the murder of an actual schoolteacher with a double life. It’s the accumulation of sordid, and to some degree degrading, detail that gives the picture its curious impression of moralism.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross