When I grow up, I want to be Claudia Cardinale.
There are plenty of beautiful women in movies, but few goddesses. Cardinale is a goddess. Even when she’s sunburned and running around in a rag, as she is in The Professionals, she has more charisma, beauty, and sex appeal than most actresses working today. I hesitate to call her “sexy” because that word seems so Maxim Magazine these days — but Cardinale is sexy in such a powerful and womanly way that it’s not threatening, but inspiring.
She also had great hair. What demon do I have to bargain with to end up with a perfect bouffant every day? Hers looks good even in the desert. It’s unfair.
Watching old movies can be a bittersweet experience. They don’t make them like Cardinale anymore, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Lee Marvin or a Burt Lancaster on the big screen these days. I cherish retro crushes on both (especially Lancaster — what a grin he had!) and The Professionals is so chock full of old time machismo that turning it off may actually cause you to experience symptoms of withdrawal.
Which is, oddly, what The Professionals is kind of about. It’s the kind of movie I love in any genre — the adventure story that’s sandwiched in between the heroes’ misspent youth and their retirement. These are men with pasts. They’ve had near misses, they’ve experienced terrible tragedies, and they’ve woken up in their union suits with nothing but a pounding headache to remind them of the night before. They’re men who die with their boots on out of a sense of nobility and because they have nothing else to do.
The Professionals is about a small gang of these men, hired to track down a rich man’s kidnapped wife, who take the job without needing to search their soul and decide it’s the right thing to do. They go into it knowing something isn’t right (just why was a rich man’s life playing around the Mexican border?) but they don’t trouble themselves.
This is what they do, and they’re being paid to do it. The only one whose conscience is troubled is the gentle Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), and that’s only because he loves horses, and he’s faced with shooting enemy animals. That’s not to say these are hard bitten or criminal men. They just don’t really worry about the finer points.
There’s not a lot of surprise going on in this film, and there’s not a lot of John Fordian excitement or Italian style shootouts. But it’s an unusual Western because the characters are so methodical in their use of dynamite and distraction. They live up to their title name. It’s the kind of careful plotting you usually see in spy or assassin films, which makes its dusty setting feel both fresh and misplaced.
It’s also curiously restrained in the realm of romance. There’s an incredible bodice-ripper running in the background that’s just shoved aside in favor of bleached sand and sunburns. You could make a movie just about Maria and Raza, and have a really sexy story. There are moments when you’re just begging for their point of view, but you just get more dust, sweat, and dehydration.
I’m sounding more negative than I intended, because The Professionals is a solid film in need of rediscovery, though I’m convinced it wouldn’t be half as good without the cast. It’s really a very melancholy adventure. It departs from the majority of Westerns by being set in the 1920s, and so there’s a vague sense of the Old West passing away. These are men who are becoming obsolete, and who were burnt by the causes they believed in.
Old friendships and alliances don’t matter anymore. The film doesn’t touch on this as much as it could, but the weary face-off between Dolworth (Lancaster), Raza (Jack Palance) and Chiquita (Marie Gomez) might be worth a thousand lines saying the same thing. It convinces me feels like this was meant to be a darker and more bitter film, almost verging on a No Country For Old Men level of cynicism, but someone couldn’t quite pull the trigger.
I’m almost glad they didn’t, though. This is a great bunch of characters and as they rode off into the sunset, I half wished the 1960s made them like they do now, and we’d get a sequel. But there’s something about a film that lets you fill in the blanks, and walk away knowing these guys just kept on doing what they were good at until they just faded away.
(The Professionals is available on Netflix Instant Watch, as have all the Western Wednesdays before them, with a few exceptions.)