Dinosaurs: “Scorpio” (1973)

Standard

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.

Scorpio - Scofield

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.

scorpio-1973-spy-cold-war-chase-scene-burt-lancaster-2

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.

Scorpio - Lancaster, Winner, Delon

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

Somebody to do it for you: A Robert Ryan trilogy

Standard

By Scott Ross

91spW6aNaRL._SL1500_

A very interesting three-film Western omnibus DVD fell into my hands this past weekend. Outlaws and Lawmen caught my eye first because it contains the interesting, Edward Anhalt-written, John Sturges-directed Hour of the Gun, which I’d enjoyed on TCM several years ago. But, perusing the cover at my favorite second-hand bookstore, something beyond that (and, to be frank, the three-dollar asking price… at a dollar a movie, who could kick?) announced itself: All three of the movies starred, or at least featured, that quintessential post-war American, the great Robert Ryan.

RYAN_Robert_phD

Robert Ryan at the cast recording sessions for Mr. President, the musical in which he starred with Nanette Fabray. He’s likely wondering either how to get out of this mess, or wishing Irving Berlin had written him one good song…

Any movie with Ryan in a leading role is almost automatically worth a look. Like Michael Caine and Gene Hackman, Ryan was seldom capable of a bad performance, and his best work leaves the flailings of more ingratiating, and infinitely less gifted, actors gasping in the proverbial dust. As J.R. Jones noted of the perennially underrated Ryan in The Chicago Reader, “the persona that lingers is that of a strong, intelligent man guarding some storm of emotion — fear, guilt, helpless rage. Even in broad daylight he seemed cloaked in shadow.” Ryan, whose intelligence shines, cleanly, through every performance — one could no more imagine him as a mindless thug than one could accept Steve McQueen playing an intellectual — was all too often typed in dangerous, mercurial villain roles and he was never nearly as well-known, or as celebrated, as he deserved. (Even the splendid multi-volume Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series omitted him from its 58-title roster… although Jeanette McDonald got one.) A life-long leftist, he somehow managed to dodge persecution during the HUAC years, even though he was one of the members of the much-hounded Committee for the First Amendment; one presumes his punishment for that, and for his role in the witch hunter-reviled Tender Comrade, was having to appear as a vicious Commie (was there ever any other kind?) in The Woman on Pier 13, aka, I Married a Communist.

house-of-bamboo-cameron-mitchell-robert-ryan1

Robert Ryan about to dispatch Cameron Mitchell in Sam Fuller’s House of Bamboo. In its intimacy and homoeroticism the scene echoes a similar one in Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James, but goes much further. 

Yet even when reflexively cast in the negative, Ryan crafted complex, unnerving, surprising villains. Think, for example, of his homicidal, irrationally anti-Semitic bigot in the 1947 Crossfire, one of the first of the mainstream post-war American movies to examine the dark underbelly of the victors. Think, too, what Ryan could have done with the role had it been permitted to more accurately reflect the Richard Brooks novel on which it was based, in which the victim was not Jewish but homosexual; Ryan read the book (The Brick Foxhole) and told Brooks he was determined to play the killer. Consider also The Naked Spur, one of those uneasy, Anthony Mann-directed James Stewart Westerns of the period in which the seemingly noble Stewart’s motivations are easily as venal as (and perhaps more self-serving than) those of the ironic, smiling, rather likable killer Ryan portrays. The screenwriters, Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom, received an Academy nomination for their work on that, recognition few Western screenplays ever achieve, which may tell you something about just how original the movie was. In the taut, bracing neo-Western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) the focus of the terrifyingly normal Ryan character’s xenophobia was a Japanese-American homesteader. And in Sam Fuller’s striking Cinerama crime drama House of Bamboo (1955) Ryan’s gangster ichiban is suave, genial and low-keyed. Yet he executes his second-in-command (and possible lover) Cameron Mitchell, when he comes to believe the man to be a traitor, with a dispassion matched only by its suddenness and shocking brutality. In Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) Ryan is once again the bigot, loathing his association with Harry Belafonte, yet willing to stomach it for the spoils of their planned bank heist. In the ironic ending, both men are incinerated, black and white bodies becoming indistinguishable.

billy-budd-1962-001-terence-stamp-robert-ryan-onboard-00o-eoc

Good against evil, or repressed homo vs. perennial cock-tease? Terence Stamp and Ryan in Billy Budd.

Taking a small role in support of Lee Marvin, his co-star from the previous year’s The Professionals, Ryan was the very model of the petty martinet hoist with his own petard in The Dirty Dozen (1967). And while eschewing a British accent, Ryan’s master-at-arms in the Peter Ustinov adaptation of Billy Budd (1962) is more than merely the embodiment of sadistic, repressed, self-hating (again, possible) homosexuality; his Claggart is chillingly paranoid, longing for Billy’s purity of heart more than his beauty, and hating the impulse to decency in himself.*

wildbunchrobertryan1ii6

Ryan as Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch.

When allowed to play a role that called on other, less troubling, aspects of his humanity — which was not nearly often enough — Ryan’s coiled, sinewy tension was still seldom far below the surface: His has-been boxer in The Set-Up (1949), for instance, refusing to take a fall while knowing full well the penalty for going against the wishes of the Mob. Or take his fatally compromised Deke Thornton in Sam Peckinpaw and Walon Green’s The Wild Bunch (1969), forced by circumstance to track down his old comrades for the very legal system both hold in contempt. (William Holden: “What would you do in his place? He gave his word.” Ernest Borgnine: “Gave his word to a railroad.” Holden: “It’s his word!” Borgnine: “That ain’t what counts. It’s who you give it to!”) Deke’s self-disgust is perched atop his steely professionalism and contempt for greedy incompetence, and Ryan’s essential ambivalence is as deeply moving as the sagging majesty of Holden’s lined, craggy face. In his final role, as Larry Slade in the American Film Theatre The Iceman Cometh, Ryan is both the downbeat, antagonist flip side of Marvin’s Hickey and the living proof of Hickey’s failed thesis. Clinging to a belief, and a compassion, both of which he keeps trying to convince himself he no longer feels, Ryan’s Larry is a valedictory, a testament to the quiet strength with which he played, its aching intensity, and the immediacy of his passionate, troubled accessibility as an actor.


 

ryan

Ryan as Ike Clanton

The trio of movies on Outlaws and Lawmen places Ryan in some interesting, contradictory, territory.

In Hour of the Gun (1967), he’s Ike Clanton, ruthless and cynically manipulative. For all of its obvious virtues, Anhalt’s screenplay does not give Clanton much depth or complexity; he’s as fixed on vengeance as James Garner’s Wyatt Earp, but without Earp’s ambivalent self-awareness. Earp claims to value law above personal desire, and half-convinces himself it’s true. Yet he has Jason Robards, Jr.’s Doc Holliday around to call him on it; and while the truth may sting badly, Garner’s Earp eventually accepts the reality of the observation. Clanton, by contrast, has no one he respects, as Earp does Doc, in his inner circle. Monied, and secure in his ability to buy whatever justice he seeks (“If this was the east,” he notes, “I could make law the way they do. But the best I can do out here is buy it.”) Clanton is undone as much by misreading Earp as anything else. Leonard Matlin, in his movie guide, says Hour of the Gun “begins well, but becomes increasingly tedious.” Well, obsession is tedious; it’s how you go about depicting it, and the toll it takes on the obsessed, and his or her victims, that make or break a study of it. The movie starts where all other Earp films end: at the O.K. Corral. Everything that happens flows from that event, instead of towards it; thus the obsession of each man for the obliteration of the other.


burt-lancaster-lawman

A study in contrast: Ryan and Lancaster in Lawman.

Lawman (1971) is, of the three, both the most interesting and the most problematic.

Gerry Wilson’s screenplay ranks among the most literate and thoughtful of any Western scenario (and yes, I’m aware that, to some, that’s damning with faint praise) and it’s primarily the dialogue which makes Lawman so fascinating. It’s certainly not helped by the self-conscious direction of Michael Winner, the man who brought you such masterworks of subtlety as The Games, Death Wish (and the first two of its four sequels) and the wholly unnecessary remake of The Big Sleep. Winner’s direction here consists largely of inapt, when not inept, framing and a nauseating over-reliance on zooms. In contrast to Hour of the Gun, whose assets include Lucien Ballard’s luminous cinematography and a superb score by Jerry Goldsmith, Lawman boasts merely workman-like photography (by the seemingly mis-named Robert Paynter); worse, the music, by the usually splendid Jerry Fielding, is shockingly over-emphatic. Well, one presumes both men gave the director what he wanted.†

joseph wiseman lawman (2)

Joseph Wiseman in Lawman.

And, too, there is not much anyone could do with Burt Lancaster. A likable, athletic and even charismatic actor in the right role, when called upon to be taciturn and righteous he was just as often turgid and action-hero stalwart. He’s not bad in Lawman, mind you; he’s just not nearly as interesting as the actors who surround him. And what is best about the movie, aside from its script — at least until it goes wildly off-kilter; about which, more anon — is its rich casting of secondary roles: Lee J. Cobb as the Clanton-like boss of the ironically-named town of Sabbath, a hard man yearning for an end to the violence that made him; Robert Duvall and J.D. Cannon as farmers who get themselves in far deeper than either intends; Sheree North as Lancaster’s aging one-time lover, caught between her reluctant yen for the past and the hard but respectable realities of the present; Richard Jordan, bringing layered complexity to the de rigueur role of the trigger-happy kid; the often weird but utterly compelling Joseph Wiseman as a former Marshal with ruined legs and a wind-up clock fashioned from a human skull; the marvelous John McGiver as the pompous mayor, complete unto elaborate ear-trumpet; and, best of all, Ryan as Cotton Ryan, Sabbath’s beaten, timorous sheriff whose reputation is his abiding curse. “I remember you at Fort Bliss,” Lancaster remarks. “That’s my trouble,” Ryan answers ruefully. “Everybody remembers me at Fort Bliss.” Cotton no longer wishes to be challenged by every cheap, self-important young gunslinger in the territory. And, as he also says to Lancaster’s Maddox, “… if you’re a lawman, you’re a disease. They need you, but they hate you.”

Lawman 8503361976_d1d1fc0bc9_z

Frank McCarthy’s poster art is an only slightly exaggerated rendering of the movie’s violent, confusing climax.

 

Maddox speaks of, and seems to cherish, his ethical code — what he continually refers to as “the rules” (You don’t draw first “if you want to stay clean.”) And it is here that Lawman ultimately falls completely apart. Toward the sardonic climax, Maddox has decided to chuck it all, to release from jail the farmers he’s brought in, to ignore the postings on the others he hasn’t killed, and, perhaps, to go off with North. This we accept, given his 20 years and more of legal killing. (She informs him that, behind his back, he’s known as “The Widow-Maker.”) But in a sudden reversal of this, and of his own precious rules, Maddox gratuitously guns Cannon down, shooting him in the back as he flees (Cannon makes extraordinary little sounds as he runs, half-whine, half-sob.) It isn’t that Maddox’s attitudes gravitate first 180 degrees, then another 180; they go half an arc in two separate directions. Why? Neither Wilson’s script nor Winner’s direction gives a clue. It’s as though Maddox suddenly decides he wants to be that despised Widow-Maker. It’s a depressingly bifurcated ending to an otherwise sharp-witted, fascinating movie.


 

Day_of_the_Outlaw_poster

The obvious assets of co-star Tina Louise (and the implicit sexual theat to them) decorate the original poster.

Aside from Robert Ryan, what all three pictures on the Outlaws and Lawmen disc also have in common is the inevitable mutability of the West itself.

The days of lawlessness and wide open spaces for the (often violent) taking are in each title giving way to the constricting arrival of so-called “civilizing” influences: Respectable women, law that is more than legalized slaughter, and the accumulating power of the almighty dollar, usually represented either by cattle barons or farmers. Churches, refreshingly, are not in much sanctimonious evidence among these movies; indeed, the only pastor in the three films is the bought-and-paid-for minister in Lawman played with more than slight smarminess by Charles Tyner. And in all three, the role of the men — and it is always men — who do the violent jobs no one else wishes to, is central. This is made explicit in Day of the Outlaw (1959) through the following exchange, between Ryan’s cattleman Blaise Starrett and Vic (Donald Elson), the owner of the tiny town’s general store:

Vic: I don’t hold for killin’.
Blaise: You don’t have to… as long as you got somebody to do it for you.

In Lawman, Joseph Wiseman’s Lucas notes to Lancaster’s Maddox. “You and I sit at the same table, Jared. The virtuous need us, but they can’t stand the smell.” In Hour of the Gun Wyatt Earp finally admits, “I don’t care about the rules anymore. I’m not that much of a hypocrite.” To which Doc Holliday rejoinders: “The whole thing is hypocrisy. The rules they tack on today that unless you’re wearing that badge or a soldier’s uniform, you can’t kill. But they’re the only rules there are. They are more important to you than you think. Play it that way, Wyatt, or you’ll destroy yourself.”

Whether any of this can be considered “deep,” even in opposition to the level on which most seven-day Westerns of the period operate, is of less importance than the fact such dialogues exist at all; the writers of these movies aren’t just cynical hacks, planting white hats on the heroes and darker models on the villains. They’re concerned, as all good writers are, with the gray that colors most issues, and most of the people who face them.

day_of_the_outlaw_1959_685x385

In Day of the Outlaw the central conflict initially appears to be the deadly tension between cattle-herder and land-grabbing farmer spoofed so memorably by Oscar Hammerstein in Oklahoma! Here Ryan is the harsh cattleman Blaise Starrett, inflamed as much by lust for the wife of the farmer who is cutting up the plain with barbed wire fences as hatred for the man himself. The first quarter of Day of the Outlaw constitutes a set-up to the inevitable show-down between the two; but with the suddenness of a hail-storm, the script (by the ubiquitous Philip Yordan, perhaps the most notable of all fronts during the days of HUAC, for whom it is nearly impossible to separate work he did himself from that for which he claimed credit, even after the blacklist was broken) takes a strikingly different turn, with the arrival of a gang of wanted thieves led by the wounded Burl Ives.‡

Shot, fairly obviously, on a sub-B budget by Andre De Toth, Day of the Outlaw is strikingly different, in tone, visual palette and action, from the general run of bread-and-butter Westerns. Like Lawman and Hour of the Gun, the movie has something on its mind, and says it with surprising eloquence and panache. (The often-radiant black-and-white cinematography is the work of Russell Harlan.) The picture has an uncertain beginning, perhaps prompted by their being no money for alternate set-ups: Ryan and Nehemiah Persoff discuss, in long shot and via disconcerting voice-over, what Blaise has in mind for the wire-fencing farmer. This is a decided deterrent to comprehension. The dialogue is also occasionally, and deliberately, cryptic, which might not matter in a tight two-shot; the benefit of seeing faces speaking lines is that, if we are not sure what they’re talking about or where it’s going, the actors’ looks automatically help us over the hurdle, even as seeing their lips move makes comprehension of lengthy dialogue easier to follow. (Yordan is on record saying De Toth simply ran out of money on location and brought the production back to Hollywood, although surely some of that interior sequence could have been re-shot on a set.)

Once this opening sequence ends, however, De Toth seldom makes a misstep. Like a less-gifted Samuel Fuller, he seems to understand instinctively where best to place his camera and his actors, not for artistic but for dramatic effect. Moreover, he and Harlan move us into geographic areas few, if any, contemporary Western filmmakers cared to go. The final quarter of Day of the Outlaw places us on an increasingly impassable mountainside, as Ryan’s Blaise leads the cut-throats to a deliberate dead-end; Blaise wants to allow the dying Bruhn (Ives) an honorable death, and he knows he’ll eventually be murdered by the outlaws when they discover his perfidy, but he’s beyond caring. There are moments, earlier in the movie, as the camera pans across the starkly lovely Wyoming vistas, when you may find yourself wishing the picture had been filmed in color. But as Ryan, Ives and the bandits set off into the wilds amid gale-force wind, the white of the snow around, and beneath, them, marks a visual poetry comparable to that of Ansel Adams which color could only dissipate, and you’re suddenly very grateful indeed for black and white film.

chevaucheebannis4

That snow, so intensely beautiful in itself, becomes a magnificent trap for the outlaws: A horse missteps and must be put down — rather horribly, but as the beast is carrying one of the more unsavory of Ives’ gang, that in itself is hideously in character. One of the remaining marauders dies, in his sleep, of exposure. Another, giving chase to Ryan, simply gives up, and gives out, coming to rest in the drifts almost picturesquely, as though his life is ebbing away in slow motion. (Could Robert Altman have seen this one? Day of the Outlaw is assuredly no McCain and Mrs. Miller, but the use of snow in both has striking similarities.) These men may live by the sword — or the gun — but they are, finally, helpless in the face of elements against which no firearm makes the slightest difference: You can’t shoot a blizzard.

Day of the Outlaw, despite that rather commonplace, utilitarian title, ultimately becomes a low-rent transcendental cautionary tale. And the angry, covetous Blaise seems cleansed by the ordeal; when he returns, to no fanfare (not even the remarkable chamber score in this movie, by Alexander Courage, overstates) he quietly announces to Persoff that there’ll be no more killing. Fade-out. The moment is no more pointed than it needs to be.

That too is a hallmark of Robert Ryan, who never shouted unless he had to. Could we ever use him today!


* While it is true that there is much to recommend the notion, posited by many Melville scholars, that Claggart is both attracted to and repelled by Billy’s goodness Stamp, in the 1962 Peter Ustinov adaptation, is so jaw-droppingly beautiful, and such a seemingly guileless seducer of men, the movie revived the “Is Claggart homosexual?” argument argument to justify their antagonism. One could as well ask, “Is Billy?” With Melville, who can tell?

† Interestingly, and as is sometimes the case, Fielding’s score — heard in isolation and divorced from the movie’s action — makes for a fine listening experience. No matter how good the score seems on CD, however, that it doesn’t work as effectively in context surely marks it as a failure.

‡ Yordan — and this time, apparently, he actually did write the script — based the movie on a novel by Lee Edwin Wells.


Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross