While I don’t believe in cinematic “guilty pleasures,” Michael Winner’s mid-’70s action thriller, Scorpio, comes close for me. The film’s occasional good qualities are not quite enough to overcome the fact that it is irresponsibly violent trash, with pretentiously “hard boiled” dialog that makes me wince every time I watch it. Written in a gaudily self-conscious style, the dialog sounds like a water boy’s idea of how he should speak to pass as one of the team. The tough guy talk doesn’t remotely resemble human speech. Worse, it often doesn’t even make much sense. For example, when CIA agent Cross (Burt Lancaster) expresses the intention to kill one of the other characters, his sidekick asks “How you gonna’ get at him? He ain’t gonna’ be no Lady Godiva.” Huh?
Fortunately, Winner has a pronounced flair for location and texture that makes it possible to ignore the screenwriters’ herniated efforts to prove they have a pair. Shot largely in Vienna and Washington, DC, Scorpio has a strong, distinctive sense of place and time. Winner has demonstrated a similar skill in other films, including his most infamous, Death Wish. If a viewer wants a sense of how the ’70s really felt, Scorpio’s run-down, cheap, mail-order sleaziness comes much closer to the reality than emblematic examples like Taxi Driver. That film burns an image of the decade into our collective imagination as a steaming, sulfurous nightmare. Winner’s much more casually cynical approach is far more insidious because the violent seediness in his films is simply shrugged off as part of everyday life.
The impossibly convoluted story of Scorpio centers on Cross and his hit man protegé Laurier (Alain Delon). For never entirely believable reasons, Laurier is hired by the CIA to kill Cross, resulting in machinations so baroquely implausible that only the breathless pace keeps them from being insulting. In this Watergate-era world, there are no ideals, no good guys, nothing but the forward movement of an action movie without scruples. When Cross eventually seeks refuge with his Soviet counterpart, Zharkov (Paul Scofield), the latter points out that they are being replaced by efficient technocrats with no difference between them other than language. Cross sagely agrees. So do the filmmakers, apparently, since the final message of the film is that everything we’ve seen has been part of a bloody, aimless game.
Except that to say Scorpio expresses such themes is almost giving it too much credit. The film’s nihilism extends even to itself, as if to believe in even the absence of belief is naive. Such sleekly commercial hopelessness transfers Hollywood’s jungle mentality on to the rest of us, but Scorpio’s jadedness still has a perverse appeal. Whatever else might be said against it, the film is refreshingly free of today’s hypocritical cant and mawkish sentimentality. It’s a sot’s idea of profundity, but it is also a reminder there was a time when filmmakers didn’t have to make Mickey Mouse Meets Mumblecore on Mars to reach an audience.