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Scorpio (1973)

Following The Mechanic in 1972, a film that pitted an aging hitman playing a game of cat and mouse with his young protege, director Michael Winner returned to a similar theme with this espionage thriller. The plot deals with an aging C.I.A. agent played by Burt Lancaster who is looking to get out of the spy game and settle down to a quiet life with his wife. Instead he’s having to deal with a cold blooded killer as played by Alain Delon’s title character, Scorpio. A killer that Burt himself has trained to take his place in the spy world.

“The more a man tells you the more dangerous you become to him. And the more dangerous you become the shorter the options on your future.” 

Following a political assassination that has Delon pulling the trigger, he and Burt return to the states and what is supposed to be a safe haven for the aging icon of cinema. Burt reunites with his wife, Joanne Linville. While Burt is rekindling his love life, handler J.D. Cannon approaches Delon wanting to know why he failed to eliminate Lancaster before returning from overseas. Without a reason Delon isn’t interested in killing his mentor.

Burt is quick to realize his life is in peril and that the C.I.A. chief, John Colicos, wants him eliminated. Burt quickly says his goodbyes to Joanna and with help from an old pal heads overseas in an ingenious make up job as a African American priest!!! While he’s fleeing the country, Delon also has a lover waiting for him played by Gayle Hunnicutt. But when the reasons are given to him and his price met, he’s off to track Burt in Europe and finish the job that Colicos has set in motion. Burt has been presented to Delon as a double agent.

Enter Paul Scofield delivering a fine performance as a Russian agent and counterspy to Burt currently stationed in Vienna. The two are old friends despite being on opposite sides of the cold war. For the time being he can offer Burt a safe haven from Delon and his team of C.I.A. assassins who have tracked him to Vienna. But Scofield makes it clear to Burt that there will come a point when his own people will give him little choice but to hand over Burt to the Russians if he doesn’t agree to come in on his own. So is he a double agent after all?

Proving he was still a man of physical force on camera, Burt, finds himself on the run in the streets from Delon and his shooters that ends in a construction site. It’s here that Burt will be giving us a little bit of the old acrobatic moves he used to great triumph in the early 50’s on films like The Crimson Pirate. This older version of Burt has him climbing staircases and scaffolding as he dodges bullets and attempts to turn the tables on those looking to shoot him down. This whole sequence recalls the powerfully physical performance Burt gave us to cherish in 1964’s The Train. A film that comes with my highest recommendation and one that also had Scofield playing opposite Burt though in that instance they were clearly on opposite sides and dead set on killing the other. Though much younger than Burt, full marks go to Delon during this sequence as well for doing some of his stunt work. Like Scofield, Delon had worked previously with Burt on 1963’s Palme d’Or winner, The Leopard.

Not wanting to play spoiler I will say that the trail will turn cold for Colicos and company but when a major plot point takes place back on U.S. soil, Burt is going to be coming home with his guns blazing and Delon’s Scorpio is going to discover some plot twists of his own as the film comes to a close at a running time of 114 minutes.

Michael Winner was on a roll in the early 1970’s following his succession of Oliver Reed films in the late 60’s. He was directing gritty, violent films with a succession of well known leading men. Marlon Brando and most notably Charles Bronson who had of course just starred in the lead role of The Mechanic with Jan-Michael Vincent as the apprentice to murder. Scorpio was the second time that Winner worked with Lancaster. The first being the exceptional western Lawman released in 1971. Also rejoining Winner and Lancaster from Lawman here this second time around was writer Gerald Wilson and composer, Jerry Fielding.

Should you have the opportunity to read Michael Winner’s autobiography you’ll find he had a great time working with both Burt and Alain. There are some amusing stories from the set including Delon being ignored by autograph hounds who swarmed Lancaster. Then there is sadness and tears as Winner relates visiting Burt following the stroke that had left him paralyzed, a man he had a great love and respect for.

If I could turn the clock back I do wish that Alain Delon had become better known and more of a box office champ here in North America. I for one enjoy his onscreen presence and gravitate to his icy cold killer roles in mob movies. As it is I continue to seek out his French films that I’ve yet to see and enjoy rewatching his forays into English cinema in films like Scorpio, Red Sun and Once a Thief.

Looking to see this spy thriller? It can be found on DVD or on a blu ray release from the soon to be defunct Twilight Time.

19 Comments »

  1. Delon and Lancaster made one heck of a team, first with the epic Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) for Visconti and of course this one. It’s a shame Delon didn’t get the break he should’ve in Hollywood.

  2. In this clip, Burt Lancaster successfully pulls off the ‘ol ‘handgun concealed in the brown paper bag’ trick.
    As to the car/pedestrian collision that opens the scene, pretty sure the stunt guy jumped up onto the bonnet of the Cadillac at least a full metre before the car actually ‘hits’ him.

    • I guess if I were to defend that jump let’s not forget that in the movie itself that was a staged “accident” to allow Burt that chance to show us what was in that brown paper bag. And no it wasn’t a sandwich.

  3. Actually, yes, you are completely right. The ‘staged accident’ plot device makes the clumsiness of the ‘collision’ completely plausible. And here I was attempting to make fun of seemingly primitive 1970’s stunt work. Mental note to self – ‘context is king’.

  4. And can I just add that while reading your review I kept waiting for mention of Al Pacino, then realized at the end I’d been thinking of his 1973 movie SERPICO – not SCORPIO released the same year.

  5. Alain Delon sure has a strong presence on the screen. Do not overlook him in a very underrated early movie with Jane Fonda in The Love Cage. You will be charmed. Best regards.

  6. Mike, I am also a fan of Alain Delon and you just encouraged me to watch Once A Thief. A very dark and grim movie of an ex-con played by Delon pressured by circumstances and persistent brother played by Palance to perform one final heist and subsequent double cross leading to the finale with a twist. Quite satisfying. Have to settle for this as I do not have The Love Cage in my library. Best regards.

  7. I remember constantly seeing the VHS for this film on video store shelves, but I never bothered renting it…and I don’t know why. A cool title, I liked Burt Lancaster, and I also enjoyed espionage films. Your review has got me interested now…this sounds pretty cool. (And Glen, your video gave me a nudge as well). Hopefully I can track this one down at my used video store or the library.

  8. Looked up for Love Cage aka Joy House at Youtube without any success. Only available clips of certain parts of said movie. It is a very exciting and fast moving thriller and the title is kind of ambigous and I feel it hurts its publicity resulting in not many know of its appeal. Best regards.

  9. I really enjoyed Scorpio when I got to see it a few years back. I am a sucker for a Cold War drama.

    Alain Delon was brilliant with his slight quirk, the stone cold killer with a fondness for street cats, not ladies of the night? but the fluffy feline variety.
    And Burt Lancaster is always a delight to watch on screen. I like the way he comes across as the aging agent who’s still got his skills and a real thorn in the side of the CIA as they try and bring him down. His veteran skills and knowledge make for an excellent yin and yang with the younger Frenchmen.
    All in all a very enjoyable film that I hope to revisit one day soon.

    • Glad to hear we’re in agreement on this one. A great one to revisit every few years and yeah Delon who I’m sure with the snap of his fingers had women at his beck and call prefers the little kitties here instead of the big ones. Go figure. Burt always a force on camera and no doubt he knew it as Winner points out in his enjoyable bio of you ever get the chance.

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