Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick finds action, intrigue, and suspense in Michael Winner’s Scorpio.
“Sublime /səˈblīm/: of such excellence, grandeur, or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe”
Michael Winner is one of those directors whose filmography just keeps on giving. He made thirty-five features before his death in 2013, so while heavy-hitters like The Mechanic (1972), Death Wish (1974), and The Sentinel (1977) are well known he has plenty of lesser-seen films waiting and ready to be discovered. So I did just that with this week’s entry in the Prime Sublime and “discovered” his 1973 spy thriller, Scorpio.
What’s it about?
Cross (Burt Lancaster) is a veteran agent of the CIA currently on a mission in Paris. There, along with his freelance protege, Jean Laurier aka Scorpio (Alain Delon), he completes an assignment involving the assassination of a Middle Eastern head of state. The killing pleases both the CIA and the man’s home government, but the real trouble starts when Cross returns home to Washington, DC. It turns out Scorpio had been tasked with killing Cross but chose not to — other agents are choosing differently, and soon Cross is fighting for his life against his own people.
Both Cross and Scorpio have people in DC — lovers, sisters, it’s hard to tell which is which sometimes — and soon pressure from the agency in the form of a frame-up helps convince the younger assassin to take out his teacher. The blood is spilled, Cross heads back to Europe in an effort to avoid the CIA’s long reach, and Scorpio waffles back and forth in his commitment to killing the man. While he dawdles, though, Cross is moving towards the offense.
What makes it sublime?
The bare basics of the plot sound similar to Winner’s own The Mechanic from the year before, and that’s probably a big reason why this film has been left in the shadows. Two killers, one older and in charge of training while the younger one is more ruthlessly ambitious — but the similarities mostly end there. Scorpio is a more sedate take on the tale. It’s more thoughtful in its characters and their jobs as well, and while that doesn’t make it better or worse of a film it definitely makes it a different watch.
There’s less action here, but what we get is good stuff including some gun fights and car antics. The highlight, though, is a fantastic foot chase with Scorpio and others in pursuit of Cross. Winner captures a thrilling set-piece as a car fracas turns into a longer sequence on foot through the streets and alleys of Vienna. It’s terrifically choreographed and thrilling to see, and both men appear to be doing all (or nearly all) of the action themselves. Lancaster proves himself to be the OG Tom Cruise as he runs, jumps, rolls, climbs, and gets generally mussed up in the process. Seriously, the dude was sixty in 1973 but does more in this sequence than most of today’s “action” heroes. Credit his early career as a circus acrobat.
The action, minimal as it is, is still enough to recommend a watch, but the script by David W. Rintels and Gerald Wilson is equally memorable. Yes, the setup is familiar enough — the CIA double-crosses its own agents! — but the film’s shift between supporting characters helps keep things lively as their loyalty is always questionable. Cross touches base with old friends, each with their own agendas, and those previously mentioned girlfriends and sisters have roles to play too.
The dialogue is legit great as well with a methodical, intricate approach to the action and drama. We sit in on intelligence meetings that walk agents and viewers alike through various missions, and the quotables are numerous. Cross describes Scorpio as having “the bad breath of a priest” — I don’t know what this means, but it’s a keeper — while an older agent lamenting the next generation describes the younger men as having “bright, stupid faces.” A dozen cops surround Scorpio at one point, guns drawn, and as the agent contemplates reaching for a weapon the lead cop says “We can’t all miss, mister.”
And you better believe the immature teen within laughed aloud when one character described her depressed sister as having “the dumps.”
Lancaster and Delon are both terrific here and convincing as agents conflicted by what they see ahead. The supporting cast catches the eye too with the likes of Paul Scofield, John Colicos, Gayle Hunnicutt, Joanne Linville, James Sikking, and more. They all work to help build a convincing and engaging world of intrigue, mistrust, and a sense of just how fragile relationships can be in the spy game.
And in conclusion…
Scorpio is far from action-packed, but we get enough to excite where necessary. The character interactions are nearly as exciting, though, thanks to a compelling cast and a story about characters whose very existence makes them suspect. And of course, this being a 70s thriller no one should be surprised by a downer ending perfectly fitting of the time and the subgenre. Scorpio is a good one despite being mostly overlooked for decades. It’s not Winner at his most flashiest, but it’s a confident and satisfying watch all the same.