Writer of the graphic novel Kill All Monsters. Podcaster.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019
Hellbent for Letterbox | The Professionals (1966)
Pax and I are joined by Shawn Robare (Cult Film Club) to ruminate on Richard Brooks' end-of-the-West saga starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Woody Strode, Robert Ryan, Claudia Cardinale, and Jack Palance.
Good morning, guys. Heck of a show! "Riding on his own coattails..." I love that, and intend to add it to my own vernacular. My history with The Professionals comes from an entirely different perspective than you youngsters. This movie was about a year old when I first saw it, which would make me 19 or just barely 20. Like all American kids of my generation, I had grown up on TV and big, sprawling movie westerns. The chief boy-toy in our neighborhood was the gun, and everybody had their favorite; I had a plastic "mare's leg" and open holster from Wanted Dead or Alive. Westerns were all the same back then. There were either a gang of bad guys who "owned" a town, or a gang of bad guys came to town, and the shiny white-hatted hero and his loyal sidekick had to clean it up. Period.
So, when I saw The Professionals, I was steeped in this lore as well as being young and unsophisticated, and I bought into the plot hook, line, and sinker. The end twist came as a complete surprise, and I walked away stunned. This turned the heretofore formulaic western on its head, and opened the door to everything that came after. Many westerns that followed kept the formula in place, and were every bit as enjoyable as those that came after, but this proved that the off-beat plot would work in a western, and we were treated to a good number of them in the years to come.
I had first encountered Woody Strode opposite Jock Mahoney in 1963's Tarzan's Three Challenges, and was thrilled to see him again, especially as a good guy. He played offensive end (what we would call a wide receiver) for the LA Rams in the 1940s. As you guys say, he had that quiet strength on camera, and was a credit to pretty much everything he was in.
I saw The Professionals only one other time, about three years after the first, and it is a testament to the groundbreaking nature of the film that it still resonates with me because of that twist that subverted the whole concept. My assessment is that this was a watershed event in the history of the western, and without it we may have never gotten, or at least had to wait a lot longer, for movies like Young Guns and other "the bad guys are the good guys" offerings.
A suggestion: You may have done this already, I'm not going to scour 1000+ entries to check, but if you haven't, look up 1968's Blue, one of the unconventional westerns engendered by The Professionals. Starring Terrance Stamp and Joanna Pettit, with Karl Malden and Ricardo Montalban in supporting roles, Blue is an ultraviolent (for the time) tale of an American boy taken by Mexican bandits and raised as the leader's adopted son under the name Azul, for the color of his eyes, and his unexpected interactions with some Texas settlers who should be his mortal enemies, but somehow aren't.
And I'll wrap it up right there. This was a hell of an episode, and brought back some great memories. I'll have to drop in again sometime and see what you guys are up to. All the best in all things always!
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