Scorpio, while being far from brilliant is an interesting examination of a spy who has outlived his usefulness. Burt Lancaster is Cross, a C.I.A. operative who used to be their number one assassin. But now he is old and ‘thinks’ too much. More so, a life time’s accumulation of knowledge means he knows too much! And as we all know, dear reader, there is no retirement plan for secret agents.
The film opens in Paris where a Middle Eastern colonel (from the fictional country of Ritria), Selon Zim, disembarks from a plane amidst tight security. This is to no avail, because as soon as he hits the tarmac he is killed by Jean Laurier, AKA: ‘Scorpio’ (Alain Delon). Lurking in the shadows is Cross, who is Scorpio’s mentor. Cross has trained him in the art of espionage and, most importantly, killing!
In some confusing political mumbo jumbo Zim was pro-American, but killed because his allies would blame his enemies and become more powerful and useful to the United States. All this introduction does is show us that spying is a very dirty business and the men who operate within it’s realm are just pawns in the game. Good and bad do not exist.
Both Cross and Scorpio head back to Washington. Cross’ wife, Sarah (Joanne Linville) lives in Washington, so it’s a happy homecoming for him. Scorpio chooses to take an extravagant suite at a hotel. The room he chooses already houses a cat which Scorpio takes a shine to. Before Scorpio has had a chance to unpack, C.I.A. Controller, McLeod (John Colicos) contacts Scorpio. At this point it is revealed that in Paris, once the mission was complete, Scorpio was meant to kill Cross. Why? Because Cross wants to retire. He wants out of the game. Being an assassin is a game for young men and Cross realises his time is running out. Scorpio doesn’t want to kill Cross. He wants to be left alone and refuses to go into headquarters.
Meanwhile Cross realises something unusual is going on. He notices his home is being watched. The next day he drives to headquarters but is being tailed as he does so. He disables his pursuers, by leading them into an alley and then deliberately crashes his car into theirs. Then Cross allows one of the men to follow him on foot to the bus station. Hiding in the men’s room, Cross gets the jump on his pursuer after he blindly follows Cross into the gents. Cross then asks some hard questions, but doesn’t like the answers he gets. Apparently the agency wants him dead.
Cross goes on the run. He buys multiple plane tickets to blur his trail, and then takes multiple planes and trains passing through Pittsburgh, Toronto and finally landing in Vienna. In Vienna, Cross seeks out another old-timer, Serge Zharkov (Paul Scofield). Zharkov is a Russian agent, who tries to convince Cross to defect. But Cross simply tells him, ‘I want out, not to change sides!’
Back in the states a drug raid on Scorpio’s hotel room lands him in hot water. Naturally enough, Scorpio had nothing to do with the drugs being there, but that doesn’t matter to McLeod, who promptly blackmails Scorpio into performing the sanction on Cross. And now the cat and mouse game begins.
Scorpio was directed by Michael Winner, who at this time was at the peak of his powers (and not the hack B-grade director that he would later become). He had just come off the success of his incredibly dated but subversive thriller Death Wish, with Charles Bronson, and needed another thriller to cement his reputation. So it had to be violent and provocative, and for the time, Scorpio was. But today’s audiences may find it hard to stifle a yawn.
What may come as somewhat of a surprise is the lack of empathy created by either Burt Lancaster who appears to be sleepwalking, and Alain Delon who plays an icy character in a cold aloof manner. Then again, maybe that is the point. These are not nice men. Both men are professional assassins, and I’d guess it takes a certain amount of emotional detachment to be a contract killer.
Look, it isn’t a bad film but time has overtaken it and the themes it encompasses. I must sound like a parrot, comparing old films to the Matt Damon version of The Bourne Identity. But The Bourne Identity clearly shows what happens when an agent is no longer wanted, and in a far more impressive and entertaining style than Scorpio. This may sound like I am saying, ‘ignore the old’ and only concentrate ‘on the new!’ Far from it. Many of the old films still have a powerful story to tell. But Scorpio is more of a seventies time capsule, and while it’s story of an aging secret agent, is played out quite truthfully, more so than Innocent Bystanders (1973) or even Never Say Never Again (1984), it never fully connects with the audience.
If you are a spy completist who loves to look at the evolution of the spy film over the decades, Scorpio is a must have addition to your collection. But if you are a viewer who likes to watch spy films for pure escapism, I’d suggest this film isn’t for you.