Dinosaurs: “Scorpio” (1973)

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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 ColdScorpio 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.

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The great Paul Scofield as Zharkov pulls a satisfying double-cross.

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.

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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.

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Winner with his stars.


*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

The Outlaw—Josey Wales (1976)

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By Scott Ross

The original director, Philip Kaufman, was fired and its star, Clint Eastwood, took over, but it may be argued that the final product (for which Kaufman shared screenwriter credit with Sonia Chernus) has Kaufman’s witty sensibility all over it. Based on one of two novels by the very strange Forrest Carter — who was either, as he claimed, part Native American or, as others maintain, a vicious racist who excepted Indians from his hatred — the movie is a luminous fable about creating a community.

Josey, whose wife and son are murdered by marauding Yankees, exacts his revenge and ends up with a price on his head. In his travels, he gathers up a motley makeshift family, and the movie takes on an elegiac (and decidedly pro-Indian) tone. Bruce Surtees was responsible for the sumptuous cinematography, Jerry Fielding wrote the stirring, idiosyncratic score (still, as of this writing, unavailable on CD, at least in America) and the supporting cast includes Sondra Locke, Geraldine Keams, Royal Dano, Will Sampson and the incomparable Chief Dan George, whose game of one-upsmanship with Eastwood is the movie’s agreeable running-gag.

Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross

The Wild Bunch (1969)

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By Scott Ross

When I first saw Sam Peckinpaw’s brutal, elegiac western a few years back — mercifully in the reconstructed edition — it took me about a week to get over it. Only one other American movie (Close Encounters of the Third Kind) has affected me in a similar way, and for completely different reasons. Was it the opening sequence, in which a gun battle between the outlaws and an over-excited, inexperienced posse takes out more by-standers than criminals? The slow motion fall of the horses when the bridge is blown up? The almost epochal final walk of the Bunch down a Mexican street? The excruciating battle between the survivors and the Mexican Army that perfectly reflects the opening image of a quartet of scorpions beset by a colony of ants? The agonizing regret on Robert Ryan’s face, or William Holden’s heartbreakingly life-eaten countenance?

The answer, of course, is that it was all of these. Taken together, these elements — and so many more — were mixed by a master filmmaker who was obstinately misunderstood by his critics and who seldom had the success he deserved.

The cast includes Edmund O’Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez (as the doomed Ángel), Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, and a surprisingly fine Ernest Borgnine.

The trim, incisive screenplay was written by Peckinpaw and Walon Green, the stunning cinematography is by Lucien Ballard, and the superb score is by Jerry Fielding.


Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross