Between 1972-1974, English director Michael Winner churned out four standard-issue Charles Bronson flicks: Chato's Land, The Mechanic, The Stone Killer and Death Wish. Winner and Bronson made an ideal combination; the former's simple, no-nonsense professionalism proving a good fit for the latter's simple, no-nonsense toughness. However, smack in the middle of that run is a curious anomaly: Scorpio, a globe-trotting spy thriller starring Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), Alain Delon (Le Samourai) and Paul Scofield (A Man for All Seasons). Is that cast entirely too distinguished for a Michael Winner movie? Yes. Do they turn what might have been a typically forgettable Winner movie into something pretty cool? Yes.
Cross (Lancaster) is a seasoned CIA agent who's just about ready to get out of the game. He's an assassin of sorts, but because the CIA isn't technically allowed to assassinate people, he has to conduct his hits with the aid of freelance hitman Jean Laurier (Delon). The CIA wants to hire Laurier to serve as Cross' replacement, so these missions also double as training sessions. The two men have developed something of a polite friendship, but all of that gets tossed aside when the the CIA bosses become convinced that Cross is a double agent. Suddenly, Cross is forced to go on the run, and Laurier is tasked with taking him out.
Winner's action scenes aren't anything special (and he seems out of his depth during a handful of Vienna-set scenes that deliberately attempt to pay homage to The Third Man), but the film quickly develops a nice rhythm, allowing moments of soul-searching introspection and Le Carre-esque ruminations on the soul-crushing nature of spy work to break up all of the chase scenes and shootouts. Two story threads play out simultaneously: Laurier pursues Cross, and Cross attempts to find a way to prove his innocence to Laurier. It's simple but effective set-up, and Winner draws some tension out of making us wonder which story thread will ultimately anchor the film's climax. There's a great dialogue scene midway through that foreshadows Michael Mann's Heat, as the two men call a brief truce and state their feelings plainly before resuming the game of cat and mouse.
Eventually, Cross ends up finding unexpected refuge in a safehouse overseen by a Russian operative named Zharkov (Scofield), who's partially hoping to convince Cross to defect to the Russians and partially just offering a long-term friend and rival a professional courtesy. There's such a relaxed warmth in these scenes, as Lancaster and Scofield are given the breathing room they need to create a relationship that feels lived-in and uniquely complicated. The film seems to recognize what a treat it is to have these two fine actors working together again (they had previously done superb work in The Train), and uses their relationship to form an emotional core. There's perhaps a richer film to be made that does even more with this material, but the scenes are still worth treasuring.
The other thing that makes the material feel a little richer than it might have is Jerry Fielding's superb score, which opens with lush Parisian melodies and eventually starts serving up jagged, brutal action material that effectively highlights the film's violent streak. Fielding has long been one of the most underappreciated composers of his era; largely due to the fact that much of his best work was applied to movies that didn't really deserve it (thank goodness for his long-running relationship with Sam Peckinpah).
The film shifts firmly into action/thriller mode towards the end, and things get too convoluted by the time we're deep into the third act. The saving grace of this later material is that the film was made in the 1970s, when filmmakers didn't feel nearly as much pressure to deliver predictable, crowd-pleasing endings. There's a huge streak of cynicism running beneath this film, which is obvious from the start (with the immediate assumption that the CIA eagerly violates all of its own standards) but becomes particularly aggressive towards the end. I'm not sure the film is substantial enough to sustain the weighty ending it serves up (an ending that is at least partially deflated by a poor sound design choice leading into the closing credits), but it goes down swinging. I dig it.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 114 minutes
Release Year: 1973