Burt Lancaster is one of the greatest actors to ever appear in films, but he didn’t hold all his work in high esteem. He is said to have looked down upon some of his earthier genre entertainments as mere money-making exercises, and that includes 1973’s Scorpio, in which the famous lefty plays a good liberal CIA spook who decides he’s had enough killing and wants out of the spy game. Whatever he might have thought of the film, Scorpio is a lost gem from a wave of paranoid spy thrillers from the 1970s, and recommended viewing for anyone with an interest in that genre.
Scorpio gets its title from (what else?) a CIA code name for a freelance assassin they use for handling wet work abroad. He’s played by the great Alain Delon, here in a relatively rare English language role and essentially second banana to Lancaster’s Cross. The film opens on the pair on the job, committing a political assassination complete with a radical leftist patsy in full view of multiple TV news cameras. This opening sequence, constructed in the form of a TV news broadcast, is clearly supposed to call to mind the Zapruder film and all the conspiratorial overtones that suggests. It shows Delon murdering a head of state from a completely different direction than his supposed killer was firing from, a point that is noted by the news reporter in the film. The implication is crystal clear, particularly in a film starring Burt Lancaster, who also made the first explicit JFK assassination conspiracy film, Executive Action, the same year as this one: even if everyone can see that the official story isn’t what actually happened, it doesn’t matter as long as the official story remains official.
After completing their latest job, Cross and Scorpio walk through the Orly airport and get on a plane back to Washington together, and in a rare bit of subtle comedy they seem to have no compunction whatsoever about loudly discussing their work as CIA killers within full view and earshot of anyone who might happen to be around. They clearly like each other and Cross has taken to educating his protege with various tips of the trade, including this juicy tidbit about the motivation behind their most recent assassination: “it’s not his death that’s important, it’s who that appeared to have killed him that counts.” Again, we have the suggestion that the CIA has an interest in blaming far-left operators for their own crimes, even going so far as to facilitate those operators with the aim of making them into politically convenient scapegoats. And that’s just in the first five minutes!
Here’s the really disturbing part: like most American spy films, Scorpio was produced with extensive cooperation and script approval from the Central Intelligence Agency itself. Scorpio was the first movie ever to shoot at the real CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, despite outward signs that this isn’t portraying the agency in the best imaginable light. They are, unambiguously, the antagonists in this film, marking Cross for death for little-to-no reason and then lying about it in order to convince Scorpio to kill him. This is also a deeply cynical film, ideologically speaking, as Lancaster’s Cross is characterized as someone who’s been in the spy game long enough to see the game behind the game, and the same thirst for power that’s lurking behind the principles of both the United States and the Soviet Union, capitalism and communism. Then there’s the matter of Paul Scofield’s Zarkhov, Cross’s Soviet contact and a loyal communist despite his disillusionment with the powers that be, presented as, much like Lancaster’s character, a good man in a very bad business. It should also be noted that the film’s screenwriter, frequent WInner collaborator Gerald Wilson, was at one time a “suspected communist” and is known for the political elements of his screenplays, which explains the general tenor of Scorpio as well as specific references in the dialogue, such as Lancaster’s weary delivery of a line about “premature antifascists,” a real-life political designation used by the US to describe and disparage Americans who fought against fascists in Spain before World War II.
What might the CIA’s eagerness to participate in such a production tell us about their actual public relations goals, and how they actually want the public to think of them, moderates and leftists alike? That’s probably a better subject for another essay by a smarter and more informed writer, but it’s fascinating to think about particularly as the CIA has only increased its influence on mainstream Hollywood entertainment in the ensuing decades since Scorpio’s release.
Politics aside (pretending for a moment that it might be possible to put politics aside with a movie like this), Scorpio satisfies with a generous proportion of violent and often dangerous-looking action. After the televised murder that opens the film (and which calls to mind such TV-obsessed political thrillers as The Manchurian Candidate), we have a variety of action scenarios in which the CIA tries to hunt Cross down in the field and eliminate him. Most memorably, the chase proceeds to a construction site where both Lancaster and Delon appear to do many of their own stunts climbing up, down, and around the location, an especially impressive feat for the nearly 60-year-old Lancaster. Of course, anyone who is familiar with is history as a circus acrobat and his other action films like The Train or The Flame and the Arrow won’t be too surprised by the stunts he pulls off during this sequence -- although whether or not they’re believable for a lifelong CIA agent is another matter entirely.
As a director, WInner is probably best known for his films with Charles Bronson, including three of the Death Wish movies. His tough, action-oriented approach gives Scorpio a somewhat different energy compared to the quieter, more realistic spy movies of the period, like Three Days of the Condor or The Quiller Memorandum, like a macho riff on “Spy vs Spy.” And, in its later narrative turns, it begins to take on some commonalities with the classic Death Wish formula, as Cross embarks on a surprisingly ruthless campaign of revenge.
If Lancaster is the protagonist of Scorpio, Delon is the star. If, like me, you’re mostly used to him in French gangster films, you may find his somewhat softer, even romantic image here an interesting change of pace. But his hired killer is still just that, and the film concludes with an absolutely ice-cold bit of brutality that’s striking not for any sort of graphic violence but for the way Delon’s face barely seems to change as he carries out the act.
Like Delon’s character, Scorpio itself feels slippery and hard to know, not in terms of its narrative (which is relatively simple for a 70s spy story) but in terms of its true ideological motives, if in fact it had any. It’s possible that it was simply made, as Lancaster claimed, to make a little money from an increasingly bloodthirsty public, in which case it more than adequately delivers the goods.