BR: Scorpio (1973)

December 18, 2015 | By

 

Scorpio1971_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  November 10, 2015

Genre:  Espionage

Synopsis: An aging CIA operative is hunted by a protege, galloping from Paris to the U.S. and Austria.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick redman / Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 

 


 

Review:

Michael Winner’s espionage thriller is really a thinly veiled variation of his prior film, the hitman classic The Mechanic (1970), in which an aged & experienced ace ultimately becomes the target of his younger partner, a cocksure snot eager to raise his own profile and become the top in his profession.

To be fair, however, Scorpio isn’t about bullheaded hitmen dancing in a cross-continental waltz of death – that’s Assassins (1995) – but it’s a member of a genuinely seventies subgenre in which the PG rated world of James Bond is junked in favour of strak cynicism. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) is the closest to a dark Bond after the franchise’s first three films – Bond seeks out girl, gets girl after hard work, and becomes (spoiler alert) a widow in the last reel, never to make such a firm connection again – but in terms of spies being miserable, perhaps the seminal influence on the genre is 1966’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a grim British espionage thriller where the life of a spy is solitary and suicide-inducing; and love is pointless because booze makes a better lover.

Original screenwriter David Rintels had an extensive career in TV as a writer-producer, scripting episodes of The F.B.I. (1965-1970) and Washington: Behind Closed Doors (1977), so he had a feel for corruption and subterfuge, but Winner’s regular scribe Gerald Wilson did a rewrite, and the final story is really about young assassin Scorpio (Alain Delon) who was charged with executing a burn notice on CIA veteran Cross (Burt Lancaster) after the pair had coordinated a hit on an Eritrean head of state.

Their target  was quickly expedited to the grave for the greater benefit of U.S. foreign policy (the film’s first cynical jab at hypocritical politics) but instead of killing his partner, Scorpio separates from Cross after the pair land in America, setting off a series of irritating discussions between the young assassin and a CIA division head, McLeod (John Colicos, always excellent at portraying human slime, but more effective here in underplaying his character’s dissatisfaction with the Cross fiasco).

Scorpio wants into the CIA, and killing his mentor is key, hence the film’s next stage – a cat and mouse game which takes the rivals to Austria where Cross calls on several colleagues for favours, including a Soviet operative named Zharkov (Paul Scofield). The rest of the film is a series of near-misses, and a return to the U.S. where it seems no one can be trusted: Scorpio’s sister, his lover Susan (Gayle Hunnicutt), McLeod, and lower-rung CIA agents seemingly moving around like chess pieces in the hope they too can find a sweet role within the agency: up-and-coming manager Filchock (the inimitable J.D. Cannon), and fellow agent Harris (James Sikking).

While Scorpio finds greater comfort living in virtually empty apartments plus stray cats, Cross, amazingly, is married to Sarah (Star Trek’s Joanne Linville), presumably his longtime love. He remains faithful to a woman close to his age – unheard of in the perpetual bachelor world of James Bond – and she’s rehearsed alternative defensive maneuvers if certain kinds of danger threaten their lives. In spy films, if women aren’t love objects, tragic victims, or masculine rivals, they’re often doomed in this nihilistic genre, and when Sarah is killed, Cross really has no reason have any focus beyond taking down each of his enemies, turning the film’s third stage into a revenge film (which is something Winner would exploit in grimy detail in his commercial breakthrough, Death Wish, a year later).

Amid the doses of dry wit, cold savvy political quips, suppressed angst, and bits of tragedy, there’s also the preposterous conceit that car chases, shootouts in public places, and suspicious spy-like behaviour are okay with local authorities. At the end of one elaborate chase inside of a skeletal construction site, Cross hangs around the crime scene, as does Scorpio, but none of the late-coming police bother to halt the bloodied and panting men who clearly had some connection to the loud gunfire and big explosion.

It’s the film’s prime weakness – no one seems to notice anything – but pales in comparison to Cross’ weird disguise: to flee the U.S. to Austria via Toronto (!), he dons an afro, a beard, and blackface (something the Blu-ray’s commentators suggest may have inspired the comedic blackface scene in Silver Streak, where Gene Wilder dons similar makeup to evade terrorists).

Kitsch and genre idiocies excepted, certainly within Winner’s filmography, Scorpio ranks as one of his most polished works, and the director is pretty much the main topic of discussion in Twilight Time’s excellent commentary track which assembles a more forgiving historian who grew up in England seeing Winner’s work in neighbourhood cinemas (Nick Redman), a more critical historian / screenwriter (Lem Dobbs) willing to acknowledge strengths of a director often regarded as a hack, and historian Julie Kirgo, who’s probably the least impressed by Winner as a filmmaker.

It’s a great discussion with pointed observations on an unfairly marginalized filmmaker known for handling top talent in large productions during his peak years, but for also having a truly odd approach to narrative structure which can be confounding. In Scorpio, the fragmented scenes arguably click into a solid, dreamy, portrait of a cynical world where cruelty reigns, whereas in The Nightcomers (1971), Winner’s structure is a mess, often slapping together scenes with a special clumsiness, allowing actors to take over a scene with run-on behaviour, and glaring continuity errors that smack of pure laziness.

The commentators are also right in citing Firepower (1979), which Winner edited under a pseudonym, as the signpost of his creative downfall: it’s a mess. The editing is atrocious, the synth music amateurish, and the story rubbish. Scorpio is clearly a classier act with better pedigree from top to bottom, and a unique cast that not only draws from film and TV, but reteams certain figures.

Winner had previously directed Lancaster in Lawman (1971), and the actor had also co-stared with Scofield in John Frankenheimer’s small masterpiece The Train (1967). As in that film, Lancaster performed most of his stunts which adds both a wow factor to the performance, and adds extra credibility to the action scenes when it’s clear Lancaster is the one ducking, climbing, jumping, and dodging.

He also gives another subdued grin-free performance of a man exhausted by both physical and emotional stressors (a finer example is The Swimmer), while Delon’s innately chilly screen persona works for Scorpio, the antithesis of Cross; for the elder, it’s a job with weird perks, pitfalls, but financial stability, but for the younger killer, it’s a niche job that doesn’t require emotional maturity or social skills – you just have to kill and keep calm under incredible pressure.

The film’s glue, as rightly pointed out by the commentators, is Jerry Fielding’s score (isolated in stereo on a separate track), which is part action, a bit of orchestral jazz in tiny bursts, and gusts of classical material, linking characters and peculiar psychologies, and smoothening some of Winner’s weird scene leaps.

Scorpio is also a well-assembled, shot, and packaged film, and works as an international espionage thriller with Cold War conflicts that deepen the film’s political jabs rather than its characters.

Winner’s career was unusually prolific, moving from troubled youth dramas like West 11 (1963) to star-studded international genre films with more than palpable levels of sadism and cruelty. Death Wish may be a kind of career high, but his later work – still a steady flow of 13 films between 1976-1998 – is really variable. Besides remakes, there was a set of Death Wish sequels for Cannon Films, and he remained a controversial figure for making violent films and flaunting his graphic ethos in the face of critics, especial special interest groups who favoured the draconian Video Nasties legislation.

There’s a sense he was aware of exactly who he was pissing off during the eighties, and did so perhaps because there was some amusement in being seated opposite of his prickly foes on talk shows, and exhibit delight in being unfazed by the hysteria. He may not have been an activist or proponent of free speech, but there’s something to admire in being a shit disturber who just doesn’t give a damn about prim tightwads and hypocrites.

Other memorable cynical spy entries include John Huston’s nihilistic The MacKintosh Man (1973) and Peter Collinson’s bleak thriller Innocent Bystanders (1972).

Twilight Time’s series of Michael Winner productions include Chato’s Land (1972), The Mechanic (1972), Scorpio (1973), and the upcoming Lawman (1971).

 

 

© 2015 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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