I’m glad to see that the Blu-ray catalogue has started to expand into new areas, specifically movies that aren’t recent or effects laden. There are lots of very fine movies, especially some from the 60s that had great performances, production values and presentation.
The Professionals (1966) is a perfect example, a western that takes many of the conventions of the genre and subverts them deliciously.
Four professional soldiers – Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode – take a job to extract Claudia Cardinale, from the clutches of Mexican bandit Jack Palance, and return her to her wealthy husband, Ralph Bellamy. This would be straightforward enough if they didn’t then subsequently discover that she’s not quite as kidnapped as they were once led to believe.
There’s an underpinning richness to the characters and dialogue in this film that we’ve somehow lost these days, and all the leading actors eat the celluloid up like its fresh linguine. At one point Lee Marvin’s character says to Burt Lancaster, ‘So what else is on your mind besides hundred-proof women, ‘n’ ninety-proof whiskey, ‘n’ fourteen-carat gold?’ and he replies ‘Amigo, you just wrote my epitaph!’ They don’t write scripts like that any more and The Professionals is thigh deep in clever language and witty retorts.
The director Richard Brooks also wrote the screenplay, and so the antagonism between those two roles doesn’t cloud his vision. Along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Blackboard Jungle, this is certainly his best work and rates up there with the better westerns of John Ford and Sam Peckinpah.
The Professionals also marks a transitional phase the genre entered when it moved from more fanciful view of the Wild West into the gritty realism and brutality of the Spaghetti era. It can be seen as a stepping stone to The Wild Bunch, which owes some ancestry to the imagery of The Professionals.
But amazingly, this movie isn’t just about great direction, writing and how many teeth Burt Lancaster can get in one shot. It’s also got some fantastic cinematography, for which it was rightly nominated for an Oscar, but somehow managed to lose with A Man for All Seasons taking the honour.
And thankfully, the Blu-ray does justice to that cinematography, capturing the magnificent desert scenery in all its terracotta tints. The colour in this movie is jaw-dropping, and leaps out of the screen like a comic-book exposition. But it’s more than that, each stop is exquisitely framed like a moving Constable landscape. If I’m being hyper-critical, I think the print could have done with one more wash before the transfer, or some digital hair removal on a few frames, but compared with other westerns of this era it’s exceptional in both saturation and clarity.
The sound is also generally good, although it does reveal the predilection in this era for construction gunfights from pre-recorded sound loops on occasion. As a result, some of the weapon discharges and ricochets aren’t as frequency rich as the Dolby TrueHD 5.1 presentation could render. Although, overall the standard of sounds is actually much higher than a typical Western would enjoy.
But, for film geeks there must be a yang to the ying, and on this disc it’s the virtually non-existent extras. There are three small featurettes, all in DVD quality with a combined running time of less than 45 minutes. Sadly most of the people in this movie, and those that made it, are long dead, so it’s not like some excuses don’t exist.
Myself, I wasn’t overly bothered by the lack of extras, because the main feature is presented beautifully, and shows exactly what older films can be like if brought to Blu-ray with the right attitude.
If like me, you love Westerns then The Professionals should be high on your list of desirable discs.