Sunday, February 3, 2008

Movie Review: Scorpio, starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, directed by Michael Winner (1973)

Poster for Scorpio, starring Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon, 1973.

Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon on the set of Scorpio, 1973. Director Michael Winner is standing in the middle.
Michael Winner's 1973 movie Scorpio, is not quite a classic 1970's anti-establishment thriller, but it's close. It was actually released before many similar films, like The Parallax View, The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, and All the President's Men. Scorpio paints a less-than flattering view of the CIA, and given that, it's very surprising that the crew was actually allowed to shoot some scenes at CIA headquarters. (As a side note, the cast and crew were staying at the Watergate Hotel the night that the infamous burglary took place.)

Scorpio stars the great Burt Lancaster as an aging CIA operative whom the CIA has decided to eliminate. The task of eliminating him falls to the title character, a younger operative who has just returned from Paris on a mission with Lancaster. Scorpio is played by the amazingly handsome French actor Alain Delon, and it's a role that recalls his performance as a killer in 1967's Le Samouri. (Brilliant film, go see it.) The film really makes the CIA the villain, and in a way it's similar to the Bourne movies, with one man on the run from the organization he used to belong to.

The highlight of the movie is a chase scene through a construction site, with Lancaster performing almost all of his own stunts. Even at 58 years old, he's still fit and full of vigor. (If you want to see Burt in his physical prime, watch The Swimmer, and keep in mind the fact that he was in his early 50's when it was filmed.) Lancaster was always a great performer to watch, he was from the old school of actors that never gave a bad performance, and he keeps things humming along here. Paul Scofield is also very good as a sympathetic Russian who helps Burt out in Vienna. (The Vienna setting gives Winner an excuse to make a couple of visual references to The Third Man.)

Given Lancaster's liberal tendencies, it's surprising that he wasn't more enthusiastic about Scorpio. In an interview he said, "It's a CIA story, nothing incisive, just a lot of action. It's one of those things you do as part of your living, but you try to avoid doing them as much as you can. There's an awfully good cast, but it's pure entertainment, of no real lasting significance." Ouch. Scorpio actually reunited Lancaster with all the main participants, as he had previously worked with Winner on 1971's Lawman, Delon in 1963's The Leopard, and Scofield in 1964's The Train.

Winner isn't a truly great director, (his most famous movie is Death Wish, with Charles Bronson), and Scorpio isn't a great movie, but it's an enjoyable enough action picture with some interesting points to make. As Winner says in Gary Fishgall's book, "Against Type: the Biography of Burt Lancaster," "It showed the CIA doing things that nobody at the time believed they did. And that now everybody believes they do." Which is quite true, and Scorpio was actually a little ahead of the game, as I noted at the beginning of this post.

The most annoying thing about the movie is the blaringly loud soundtrack by Jerry Fielding. It's so bad! I almost expected it to have a title song, so big was the music building up to the titles. And there are some plot points I totally missed, because it's pretty complicated. And then there's the part where Burt Lancaster gets on a plane disguised as an African-American priest. I'm not even kidding you. Somehow, I don't think that would have worked in real life.

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