Scorpio – Michael Winner – 1972

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Spy movies are basically the most elaborate and tricky films to master, because you have to keep audiences guessing about the allegiances of characters from start to finish, and in the world of espionage morality is about as murky as in any genre of storytelling. Michael Winner’s Scorpio begins in Paris, following Burt Lancaster’s Cross, who is setting up an assassination using French gun for hire, Scorpio. Alain Delon is the handsomest man that ever lived and also great in this movie.

Cross works for the CIA and needs a man to pop an Arab getting off a plane. As Cross enters Delon’s Parisian flat, the dialogue begins. “Why don’t you let these cats out sometime?”

Delon replies: “They couldn’t survive outside. They’re bred for degeneracy.”

This is the entire theme of the film stated up front. A spy cannot survive outside of the war. His nature is degenerative and leaves only emptiness and death in his wake.

Winner cross cuts between a black and white TV dramatization of the assassination of an Arab emissary on airport tarmac and a color image of Delon shooting the man. In the next scene our two spies are on a plane together. From the audio of the TV broadcast, we know that a leftist Arab man has been blamed for the murder. Cross tells Jean, “It’s who appeared to have killed him that counts.”

The entire film is draped in this kind of black cynicism. The notion of secrecy and counter-programming the public knowledge of events propels the CIA characterization in the film. No one is to be trusted.

Before long we see Burt Lancaster and his wife under surveillance in their home in DC. He assembles a gun at breakfast and the visual counter-point of a suburban breakfast and a disassembled firearm is both bleak and effective. At home you are disarmed, with your pants down as it were.

Cross is right, the agency wants him and he runs. Meanwhile Scorpio is making time with his sister’s roommate a beautiful brunette.

Delon plays Jean as both cold and calculating at times and as warm and principled at others. Spy’s can’t show too much emotion, so it makes for great viewing to see a performance that lets us in at times in this type of film. He’s so warm and loveable that his lady is just about to give him some much-deserved nookie, when the agency busts in the room with some blue shirts and arrest him for what may or may not be his heroin. After a pistol-whip and brief detention, McCloud the department head offers Scorpio Cross’s job if he can bring the man in. After brief negotiation, Scorpio accepts.

Cut to Vienna. Jean still isn’t sure Cross is a face but he’s a pro and is on assignment. At one point he lets Cross live because he isn’t sure of his allegiance. Meanwhile, Cross is hiding out in a flat owned by a known member of the opposition. He also receives help from a Jewish cellist who receives and sends packages for him. Cross rescued this man from a prison camp in WWII long ago. This is the first of 2 large empathy builders placed for Cross. All this grey area is so much fun and the true job of constructing a classic spy thriller. No matter where the characters go, we are always guessing the true ideology of the individuals.

In Cross’ unmarked flat he and his communist counterpart reminisce over drinks. “We are being replaced with young men with bright stupid faces. They care for nothing but efficiency. No difference in the American model and the Soviet model.” Life is nothing but numbers to future generations say the storytellers. There is no place for right and wrong with these bright stupid faces, only obedience and better numbers every time.

The film has several such philosophical asides, and they are a bit provocative and a bit tedious, but the location action scenes more than make up for the time killing ruminations. The score bye Jerry Fielding is at its best during a daring foot chase through Vienna, that ends with an astonishing scaffold collapse and explosion.

Delon is typically cool in the film and delivers lines like, “I’m the dybbuk of Cross’s labyrinth mind. I live inside him. He’ll move.”, with icy precision and condescension. The fact is, he’s a free agent operating for the CIA and the film frequently uses his expertise as a means to make the US operatives look like jokers by comparison. Hey, when you are banking on Delon being in your film, I guess you can kind of give US audiences the bird. Delon guaranteed the film would be a hit in Europe so it completely plays that way.

The second act ends with Cross’s wife needlessly killed in her own home, the 2nd of the empathy builders I discussed earlier. At this point Cross comes across as truly put upon, making it doubly shocking when he is revealed to be another turncoat capitalist, selling information and saving money all over the world.

The final details of this revelation are a little bit soap opera and eye rolling, but the final confrontation is a silver knife in the night. A quiet slice that cuts deep and true. As the final credits roll on this dark little tragedy, one doesn’t feel safe at all.

 

RIP Michael Winner

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