The Professionals (1966)

220px-Movie_poster_for_-The_Professionals-Who wouldn’t be enticed by a film entitled The Professionals? It feels a little like an amalgamation of The Magnificent Seven, The Dirty Dozen, with a  little sprinkling of Mission Impossible, and dare I say The Wild Bunch? We have a band of four big-time pros who are brought together to rescue the wife of a man named Grant (Ralph Bellamy). She is being held at ransom in the heart of Mexico. That’s no small task in the wake of Pancho Villa and the Mexican-American conflict, but these men are the best of the best.

The leader is none other than Lee Marvin (of The Dirty Dozen) with his prematurely white hair, leading the band as Rico Fardan, a skilled tactician, and former U.S. Army Officer. He is joined by Jake Sharp (Woody Strode), who is the best tracker around and also a crack shot with a bow and arrow. Next, comes skilled horseman and pack master Hans Ehrengard (Robert Ryan), who keeps mainly to himself. The most dynamic part is that of Bill Dolworth (Burt Lancaster), an unscrupulous scrounger who nevertheless is a good shot and an artist when it comes to using explosives. He’s not what you call a trustworthy type, but Rico would trust this man with his life and that says a lot.

Richard Brooks story is straightforward enough. This dream team goes in with their mission clear: The man who stands in there way is revolutionary turned outlaw Jesus Raza (Jack Palance), who is the one keeping Maria (Claudia Cardinale) captive.

As they push forward, they witness the brutality of Raza and his men as they raid a passing train and execute many of the occupants. Soon Fardan and his crew move in on Raza’s compound and wreak havoc one night so they can pull Maria out and take her to safety. But she seems like a very reluctant damsel in distress. She also seems very intimate with Raza. That’s the first sign that something’s up, but still, they follow the parameters of the assignment and pull her out.

Retribution follows and after a gunfight The Professionals flee through the mountains with Raza in hot pursuit. They use explosives to try and impede the progress of the rebels, and then Dolworth resolves to stay back to bide his partners time so they can get across the border. It’s at this point that he fights like one of the magnificent seven, in an impressive rearguard action that has his foes befuddled.

It’s when he actually comes face to face with his enemy that things become interesting. They know him and he knows them. Once upon a time, he fought with Raza and he was also acquainted with the lively female marksman Chiquita. When they finally get back to good ol’ Mr. Grant they find he’s not as straight-laced as they once thought, so they make a costly decision. They lose out on their big payoff but do the honorable thing by setting Maria free.

The Professionals gives us want we want. Honestly, we want cool characters and fun action sequences and that’s essentially what we get. There’s quite a bit of fairly graphic violence too for a ’60s western signaling a slow change in the genre. Lee Marvin is impeccable as the self-assured, tough as nails commanding type. Lancaster is, of course, the most interesting, and I can only imagine he had the most fun because playing a scoundrel would undoubtedly be a treat. Strode, Palance, and Cardinale were enjoyable to watch in their own rights as well since we did not necessarily need a whole lot of depth from them. It was only Robert Ryan’s role that felt rather like a throwaway part that did not have much to it. No matter, the Professionals was still an enjoyable all-star western.

J.W. Grant: You bastard.

Rico: Yes, sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you, sir, you’re a self-made man.

4/5 Stars

Review: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Once_upon_a_Time_in_the_West 2I’m not well versed in Spaghetti Westerns, but I certainly do not need someone to tell me that Sergio Leone’s film is a sprawling epic. That’s an understatement if there ever was one. The cast, the score, the visuals. Everything about it fits together so marvelously. All the moving parts succeed in developing a majestic piece of cinema that really is awesome. I try not to use that word lightly.

Recently I saw Tarantino’s Django Unchained which of course pays homage to the Spaghetti Western, and it undoubtedly exhibits the Tarantino style. However, Leone’s film lingers as well, but with Once Upon a Time in the West, I didn’t mind. The film, after all, has a cold open that lasts 13 minutes and most of it is spent staring at Jack Elam and Woody Strode. Except the way Leone captures it all, I don’t really mind. In fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. Whereas Tarantino’s film felt like it was dawdling, Leone’s film didn’t seem to dawdle. It was just stylish in its makeup.  The pacing at times feels like a lazy Sunday afternoon underlined by dread for something to come. Then for a brief blip, the trouble comes violently and then just like that it’s gone. Everything’s back to the status quo except this structure makes every killing and gunfight seem all the more dynamic.

The main players are Claudia Cardinale, James Bronson, Jason Robards, and Henry Fonda. Cardinale, of course, is one of the icons of cinema, and here she feels like a wonderful embodiment of this woman who helps bring civility to this land. Whether it’s simply her immense beauty or some emotion behind her eyes, it’s hard not to watch her every movement. First, as she learns she is a widow, next when she is introduced to the other main players, and finally when she sees her dead’s husband’s dreams forming all around her.

James Bronson as the aloof, but deadly “Harmonica” has to be at his coolest. He hardly has to say anything because that ominous harmonica music is his calling card. Every time we hear it we know he’s around and also his eyes are so expressive. Sergio Leone is never squeamish about lingering on his star’s faces. In fact, that paired with landscapes is one of his signatures that helps define his iconic style. The contrasts stand out and the interludes often lacking dialogue somehow help make his characters even cooler. They take on an air of mystery and in the case of “Harmonica”, we only understand his vendetta near the very end. It all starts to make sense.

Robards is the outlaw Cheyenne, who is pinned with the murder of McBain’s wife and children. A posse is after him and his gang, but he was actually pinned for the rap. He is cast in the light of a scruffy anti-hero and Robards plays him rough around the edges, but most importantly with a heart. He’s one of the few characters who seems to get Jill. He knows enough that none of the men around her are worthy of her, because she is a special class of woman, in spite of what her past may say.

Perhaps the most striking of casting choices was Henry Fonda because by now he was well along in his career and most certainly best known for his plain-speaking heroes. That’s what makes Frank such a great character because dressed in all black and armed with a revolver, he guns someone down the first moment we see him. It’s a shock and it sets the tone for the rest of the film. He goes on to backstab his sickly employer and continues to put pressure on Mrs. McBain to give up her land. It goes so far as taking advantage of her at her home. He’s a monster, but the part is such the antithesis of the Henry Fonda we know, making it a pure stroke of genius.

At least for me, you soon forget about the dubbing of certain characters and just allow yourself to become fully engaged in the dynamic West as envisioned by Leone. After all, since there isn’t a whole lot a dialogue, in some scenes it loses its importance. It’s often about the desolately depicted visuals. The wry smile on a face. The buzz of a pestering fly or the squeaking of a windmill. That’s another thing. This film puts sound to use so wonderfully. Whether it’s the harmonica, Morricone’s engaging score, or diegetic sounds. In fact, the score evolves and reprises in concordance with the pacing of the film. It can be ominous. It can be playful. And sometimes it’s nonexistent.

When it all comes down to it, we get the final showdown between “Harmonica” and Frank, but the film is a lot larger than that. After all, we have been following multiple characters. Jill finally sees the world around here coming to life, and she has weathered the Wild West as an independent woman. As for Cheyenne, he ends as a tragic hero of sorts. There’s no question, Leone’s film, arguably his greatest alongside The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, helps define a version of the West, with iconic characterizations placed up against striking pictorials. It’s one of those film’s that despite the length, never feels like a labor. A smile is constantly forming on my face, to mirror the visage of James Bronson. I really wish I could play the harmonica now. It’s so ridiculously cool! That’s what I really took away from this film.

5/5 Stars

Review: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

a44af-themanwhoshotNothing’s too good for the Man Who Shot Liberty Valance!!! But who is he exactly? How did it happen? Where is he now?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is perhaps one of the moodiest and most atmospheric westerns of all time. In a sense, it is almost like a Noir Western with its often stark cinematography (especially during the climatic moments), and it is told through a long flashback that encapsulates nearly the entire narrative. Both qualities are typical film-noir.

John Ford had numerous classic westerns, but this one is possibly one of the darkest in tone. The film has a typically great John Ford cast (like My Darling Clementine or The Searchers). Of course, it would not be one of his westerns without John Wayne, then add James Stewart, Vera Miles, and of course Lee Marvin. Then the secondary cast is rounded out by such great character actors as Edmund O’Brien, Andy Devine, Woody Strode, Strother Martin, Lee Van Cleef, John Carradine, and Denver Pyle among others.

This film is also steeped in politics. It becomes more obvious the more you watch that there is this underlining conflict between democracy and a different system of representation. Could this be a critique of Communism also packed into a western? Probably.

One of the moments that really stood out this time around was the flashback within the flashback when Doniphan (Wayne)  reveals his point of view to Ransom Stoddard (Stewart). He was, in fact, the man who shot Liberty Valance. We knew it at heart but finally we have the proof and all of sudden his behavior seems justified and he becomes the tragic hero of the film.

It is an unjust ending and yet it plays out the way it was meant to — maybe not the way it should have. The lawyer got the girl, the fame, and the spot in Congress, because he is a hero for something he did not actually accomplish. Tom instead is the one who fades into the past. It struck me that this is one of the few films I can remember where Wayne actually dies, the other would be the Shootist. Except here he is dead before the story has even began. The legend of John Wayne himself lends nicely to this legendary man in the film who we only know through the recollections of others. As the newsman noted, when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.

4.5/5 Stars

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Starring both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, with Lee Marvin, Vera Miles, and direction by John Ford, this is certainly a moody western. Stewart, now a successful politician returns to a small town with his wife to pay his respects to an old friend. In the ensuing flashback he retells his story beginning as a young lawyer who had a run in with Liberty Valance (Marvin). After he got well he strove to bring justice and education to the land. Despite their differences, Stewart finds a friend in Wayne who has his eye on Miles. However, everything eventually goes awry when Stewart agrees to face Valance out in the street. He appears to be a goner because he is wounded, but miraculously a shot hits Valance and he falls dead. Stewart now a hero gets the girl and agrees to represent the town. Wayne fades into the background also a hero. The supporting cast includes Woody Strode, Edmond O’Brien, Andy Devine, and John Carradine. With two great icons and a great director, this western is certainly a classic. Although it did not end up making it into the film, Gene Pitney’s western ballad deserves to be acknowledged nonetheless.

4.5/5 Stars