By Scott Ross
A spy thriller, written by David W. Rintels and Gerald Wilson* and directed by the highly variable Michael Winner which, while not absolutely first-rate, is nevertheless consistently challenging and intelligent. A sort of high-powered American edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Scorpio involves a pair of government assassins (Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon), old friends, the elder a sort of tutor in the dark arts to the younger, finding themselves on opposite sides when the veteran decides to leave CIA. Naturally, his venal bosses assume without evidence he’s “going over” to the Russians, and order him killed, and determine that the younger man must do it. (He is, all-too-believably, blackmailed into it.) That basic fact alone separates Scorpio’s era in movies from our own, in which the biggest stars, producers and directors (Tom Hanks, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Frank Marshall, Steven Spielberg — and, for all I know and when he isn’t being directed by the Church of Scientology, Tom Cruise) — are, apparently, CIA assets, repeatedly delivering reliable, fact-muddling Establishment projects, preferably those promoting permanent government foreign policy, celebrating Middle Eastern wars and elevating “intelligence experts” who, in reality, are demonstrably fourth-rate minds who get everything wrong and, to use a favorite phrase among these types during the Vietnam atrocity, kill anything that moves.
The fun — what fun there is in this grim telling — lies in Delon’s trying to think like his former mentor whose methods are, naturally, entirely underestimated by the American directorate, in the oily personae of John Colicos and J.D. Cannon. Aside from its labyrinthine plot the movie’s two finest assets are the score by Winner’s frequent collaborator Jerry Fielding and the performance, as a Soviet agent and Lancaster’s old friendly enemy, by the great Paul Scofield. Fielding was clearly inspired by the picture’s action sequences, decorating his showier compositions with apposite electronica and delicious, arpeggiated pianistic trills, his approach on the whole eschewing more traditional James Bonding. Scofield, who made fewer movies than I wish he had, is the picture’s annealing presence. His warmth predicated on both his winning smile and a pair of eyes in which dwell a sadness we can only guess at, Scofield’s Zharkov, like Lancaster’s aptly-named Cross, knows he is a living anachronism.
And the screenwriters honor him. Imagine this speech being written in today’s “The Russians Are Coming,” Cold-War Redux neoliberal epoch, much less approved for inclusion in an American thriller:
Trials, purges, they are words you have read somewhere, Cross. My trial was so grotesque, my hours of interrogation so terrible that I was numb. It was a kind of frontal lobotomy without anesthetic. And the labor camps, where men, good communists, old fighters, men who believed in the dignity of man above all else, were used as drought animals to pull logs on frozen feet.
That this could be the result of all I had committed my life to… At that moment I tried to understand what had happened to me. Most of us there were communists, not Stalinists. That is why we were there. Nothing had happened to make me renounce myself. I was still a communist. Stalin couldn’t take it away from me. And now the dull, gray stupidity that sends the tanks into Prague because it has no imagination, it can’t take it from me either. I am still a communist.
Considering Winner’s deep conservatism, that’s a remarkable inclusion, and if you ever heard such words in an American movie today (and you wouldn’t) their creators would instantly be hounded as traitors…. by liberals.
Beautifully shot (aside from one bad bit of rear-screen projection) by its cinematographer Robert Paynter and directed (and, although he is uncredited, edited) with assurance by Winner, Scorpio is exceptionally well cast, at once exciting, sharply satirical and bracingly critical of American spycraft, and splendidly presented in the Twilight Time limited edition Blu-ray. Among other things, the picture contains a genuinely thrilling chase sequence that evolves into an excruciating, vertiginous endurance test for Lancaster, and a pair of agonizingly stupid murders of two important and sympathetic characters, one by a CIA hire and one by East German secret police, that illustrate both the incompetent brutality of Scorpio’s adversaries and their appalling bloodlust. Lancaster’s Cross is one of his best late roles, Delon is a silkily debonair and frighteningly mercurial Scorpio (he decorates his every dwelling with feral cats), and there is excellent support by Colicos, Cannon, Gayle Hunnicutt, James Sikking, Melvin Stewart and, especially, Shmuel Rodensky as an endearing old Shoah survivor. And if Scorpio’s mentor/mentee plot is too near an echo of Winner’s previous thriller The Mechanic (1972) and the ending, while logical, a depressing let-down, at least the picture gives you something to think about instead of — as is the case with the bulk of today’s escapist fare — merely, and passively, reacting.
To quote Cross’ drunken toast, to himself and Zharkov, here’s to dinosaurs.
*Rintels, whose work includes the television Gideon’s Trumpet, is best remembered for his one-man play Clarence Darrow (both for Henry Fonda) and Wilson wrote the literate script for Winner’s equally intriguing Lawman in 1971.
Text copyright 2019 by Scott Ross