The Professionals is a well-made, fast-paced action-adventure western starring Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, Robert Ryan and Woody Strode. Alternate Oscar guru Erik Beck, whose site News From The Boston Becks I refer to more often than a preacher refers to the Bible, calls it a comedy, and while I doubt it's ever otherwise been characterized as such, I can see his point. It's a sharp, witty caper flick with a team of amusing specialists engaged in a job that should get everybody killed by the end of the first reel but you damn well know won't—a sort of Ocean's Eleven, if you will, set in the Mexican desert.
It's a very good western, and maybe the best of a list of those that, despite its cast and three Oscar nominations, no one seems to have ever heard of. And it is better than any of the overt comedies you can name from 1966, perhaps the worst year for American comedies since Americans started making comedies.
But ultimately underneath all the rousing action is a melancholy meditation on the end of things (in this specific case, the Mexican Revolution) that, to me at least, makes The Professionals both a sublime western and something other than a comedy.
"La Revolución," Jack Palance says in a great speech toward the end of the film, "is like a great love affair. In the beginning, she is a goddess. A holy cause. But every love affair has a terrible enemy—time. We see her as she is. La Revolución is not a goddess but a whore. She was never pure, never saintly, never perfect. And we run away, find another lover, another cause. Quick, sordid affairs. Lust, but no love. Passion, but no compassion. Without love, without a cause, we are nothing! We stay because we believe. We leave because we are disillusioned. We come back because we are lost. We die because we are committed."
Anyway, for me The Professionals falls on the drama side of the rather useless drama-comedy divide. Which leaves me without a real choice for best picture (comedy/musical) for 1966.
I could have gone with Alfie, which features Michael Caine's absolutely superb performance as a swinging Cockney nitwit who never grasps the human cost of his free-love lifestyle, but overall Alfie, like a sandwich that's been in the refrigerator too long, hasn't aged well and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
As for the other possibilities, Harper is a minor, though entertaining, Paul Newman take on Ross Macdonald's great Lew Archer detective series; and The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, Lord Love A Duck and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum try too hard to be "wacky" and "zany," a problem shared by many of the comedies of that era.
In the end, I went for the last film standing, Cul-de-sac, Roman Polanski's twisted retelling of the basic Desperate Hours/Key Largo set-up: an inept crook (Lionel Stander) who's clearly seen too many gangster movies holds a disfunctional couple (Donald Pleasance, Françoise Dorléac) hostage during a home invasion while he waits for his own personal Godot to arrive and whisk him away to safety. Instead of murder and mayhem, though, we get cross-dressing, couples therapy and late-night confessionals, and even a bit of Godfrey-style butling courtesy of the gangster when unexpected guests arrive.
Cul-de-sac has more of a weird vibe than a screwball one, and it's not riotously funny to be sure, but it is sickly fascinating nonetheless.
Speaking of Polanski, I've mentioned him once before in a post I called "Cognitive Dissonance," the gist of which is that I think Polanski is (or was, anyway) a great filmmaker who is also a despicable human being. That he made great movies (particularly Chinatown) doesn't in any way excuse what he has done as a man, and I'd only ever shake hands with him in order to slap cuffs on his wrists in preparation for leading him off to the prison in California he will evidently never see.
At the same time, though, unless a movie is in and of itself despicable—Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will comes to mind—I won't condemn it just because I don't like the person who made it. Because lets face it, some of those people in Hollywood are absolute rats.
So judging Cul-de-sac on its own merits, rather than on Polanski's, I've reluctantly chosen it as the best English-language comedy of 1966.
Really, though, you should watch The Professionals instead.
winner: Blow-Up (prod. Carlo Ponti)
nominees: A Man For All Seasons (prod. Fred Zinnemann); The Professionals (prod. Richard Brooks); Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (prod. Ernest Lehman)
winner: Cul-de-sac (prod. Gene Gutowski, Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser)
nominees: Alfie (prod. Lewis Gilbert); Harper (prod. Jerry Gershwin and Elliott Kastner)
PICTURE (Foreign Language)
winner: Persona (prod. Ingmar Bergman)
nominees: Andrei Rublev (prod. Tamara Ogorodnikova); Au Hasard Balthazar (prod. Mag Bodard); La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) (prod. Antonio Musu and Yacef Saadi); Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) (prod. Alberto Grimaldi); Masculin-Feminin (prod. Anatole Dauman)
winner: Richard Burton (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
nominees: Rock Hudson (Seconds); Steve McQueen (The Sand Pebbles); Paul Scofield (A Man For All Seasons)
winner: Michael Caine (Alfie)
nominees: Alan Arkin (The Russian Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming); Paul Newman (Harper); Don Knotts (The Ghost and Mr. Chicken); Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum); Donald Pleasence (Cul-de-sac); Lionel Stander (Cul-de-sac)
winner: Elizabeth Taylor (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
nominees: Anouk Aimée (Un homme et une femme a.k.a. A Man and a Woman); Bibi Andersson (Persona); Liv Ullmann (Persona)
winner: Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl)
nominees: Vanessa Redgrave (Morgan!); Tuesday Weld (Lord Love a Duck); Joanne Woodward (A Big Hand for the Little Lady)
winner: Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up)
nominees: Ingmar Bergman (Persona); Robert Bresson (Au Hasard Balthazar); Richard Brooks (The Professionals); Jean-Luc Godard (Masculin-Feminin); Sergio Leone (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo a.k.a. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly); Mike Nichols (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?); Gillo Pontecorvo (La battaglia di Algeri a.k.a. The Battle of Algiers); Andrei Tarkovsky (Andrei Rublev)
winner: Jirí Menzel (Ostre sledované vlaky a.k.a. Closely Watched Trains)
nominees: Lewis Gilbert (Alfie); Roman Polanski (Cul-de-sac)
winner: Walter Matthau (The Fortune Cookie)
nominees: Jack Gilford (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To the Forum); George Segal (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?); Josef Somr (Ostre sledované vlaky a.k.a. Closely Watched Trains); Eli Wallach (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo a.k.a. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly)
winner: Sandy Dennis (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
nominees: Wendy Hiller (A Man For All Seasons); Vivien Merchant (Alfie); Shelley Winters (Harper and Alfie)
winner: Robert Bolt, from his play (A Man For All Seasons)
nominees: Richard Brooks, from the novel A Mule for the Marquesa by Frank O’Rourke (The Professionals); Ernest Lehman, from the play by Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)
Ennio Morricone (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo a.k.a. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) (Score); Conrad Hall (The Professionals) (Cinematography); The Endless Summer (Documentary)