RICHARD BROOKS FOR THE PROFESSIONALS (1966)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Fred Zinnemann for A Man for All Seasons
Michelangelo Antonioni for Blowup
Claude Lelouch for A Man and a Woman
Mike Nichols for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
A locomotive chugs backwards across a desert bridge, chased by horseback riders on the bridge below. The image says a lot about both the core message of The Professionals, a painstaking reversal of the classical Western adventure tale, and form it takes, a combination of spectacular visuals and unsubtle metaphors. Richard Brooks’ 1966 adaptation of Frank O’Rourke’s pulp novel is a rare chance for the writer-director to shine outside of the shadow of the source material’s author (Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Sinclair Lewis). How much liberty Brooks takes with “A Mule for the Marquesa” is unclear to me, but somewhere Brooks finds both incredibly memorable imagery of the Old West and a methodical rethinking of American mythology that almost keeps pace with the brasher volleys of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
The vigorous pacing of The Professionals is its principal narrative virtue. The opening credits deserve an award in their own right for being perhaps the most economical ragtag team assembly in film history. After five minutes of exposition on board Mr. Grant’s chartered train, the first half of the film advances like a classic rescue caper, with Mexican revolutionaries assuming the traditional role of the Indian tribe. The group of mercenaries set out across the bandit-ridden Mexican borderland to reclaim the wealthy rancher’s abducted wife, surviving on a combination of luck and the shrewd teamwork that earns the film its title. Brooks’ pace doesn’t drop a beat—each match cut is exact to the frame, and overlapping pans and zooms add urgency even to the dissolves. The first hour whistles past, right up to the tense infiltration of Maria’s prison—naturally, the revolutionary leader’s bedroom. The hired hands crouch, ready to conclude the escapade in rip-roaring 80-minute B Western fashion, but at this moment the twist kicks in. The hour-long journey back to civilization, with their quarry in tow and her former captor hot on their heels, will both mirror and interrogate their heroic charge into hostile territory.
Overall, The Professionals is a great story, with production values worthy of the highest grade Spaghetti Western. The craft of this film should have been up for more Oscars, particularly Edward S. Haworth’s sparse geometric production design and Peter Zinner’s aforementioned tight editing (though the latter at least got an ACE nomination). At least the Cinematographers Branch caught on to Conrad Hall’s sensational work, handing him a second consecutive nomination out of ten for a renowned career. Hall’s painterly vision of the Old West, equally indebted to the palpable atmospheres of Thomas Moran and the crisp forms of Frederic Remington, makes a liquor bottle glisten with opportunity, a steam engine cut a jet-black streak across the ruddy desert, and a sandstorm sheath the entire frame in ghostly shades of white, to list a few of the images that didn’t make my final selection.
All told, however, the arresting visuals and appealing narrative symmetry get bogged down in the overt significance of Brooks’ nominated screenplay. If there’s one thing that keeps The Professionals a peg below the likes of The Wild Bunch and A Fistful of Dollars, it’s the dialogue’s heavy-handed catechism regarding American values. The recently Oscar-winning Lee Marvin, alongside fellow recipient Burt Lancaster, trade platitudes like, “Maybe there’s only one revolution since the beginning—the good guys against the bad guys,” with laconic ease. But you can get away with one of those per film if you’re lucky, and Brooks slides at least one into every reel. Even if it isn’t Leone, though, this is still a fresh and finely crafted Western, and a fascinating mainstream parallel with the brash outsiders reforging the genre at the same time.
Like 1962 and 1963, 1966 was a year that showed the fractious nature of a transforming film culture. Two heavyweight theatrical adaptations dueled out their Best Picture battle in the Best Director category, the remaining three slots fileld by Brooks and a pair of foreign one-shots. In regards to the latter pair, the reigning cerebral auteur Michelangelo Antonioni picked up his nomination for the hollow quasi-thriller Blowup, while Claude Lelouch joined him for the reproachably pretentious romance A Man and a Woman. Serious contention for the win came down to Fred Zinnemann’s austere costume drama A Man for All Seasons over Mike Nichols’ cunning debut film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’m slightly tempted to give the award to Brooks for his bracing adventure filmmaking, but the award really belongs to Nichols for an endless inventiveness to match George and Martha.