From the very first shot—a focus shift from the Arc de Triomphe to a close-up of Burt Lancaster—Scorpio (1973) is clearly a Michael Winner film. That the film then proceeds to play out its credits while Lancaster’s character walks through the streets of Paris and stops at a newsstand to pick up a paper and a mysterious package, and while a lush musical score (by Jerry Fielding) plays, only underlines who the author is. This could be the opening of I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname (1967) or of The Sentinel (1977). They’re almost identical. That’s either the greatness or the great tragedy of the much-maligned Michael Winner, who seems to be having a bit of a renaissance on a local level. First, World Cinema ran What’s’isname last week, and now the Hendersonville Film Society kicks off a solid month of Winner pictures with the spy flick Scorpio. And frankly, I think it’s about damn time. While no one’s ever going to make a case that Winner is a great filmmaker, he’s nearly always an interesting one with a discernible style, and his work deserves more than a casual dismissal.
Scorpio is neither the best, nor the worst of Winner. In and of itself, it’s merely a pretty darn good Cold War spy yarn with Burt Lancaster as a C.I.A. agent who wants to get out and Alain Delon as the hit man hired by the C.I.A. to take Lancaster out. The trick to this is that the characters played by Delon and Lancaster have a history: Lancaster had much to do with Delon’s training, making them an interesting match. While Lancaster knows pretty much any move Delon might make, Delon knows most of Lancaster’s tricks, too. The setup is frankly similar to the one in Winner’s The Mechanic (1972), but then it’s also pretty much like one in the brand new thriller, Wanted, suggesting it’s nothing more than a trope of the action genre.
The real interest of Scorpio lies in its stylistic flourishes—those things that make a Winner film a Winner film. The precise use of zoom shots and focus shifts are as fully in evidence here as they are in his best work. The obvious fascination with the details of place are here. (Winner would have been a great photographer for travelogues and tourist brochures, so adept is he at making locales—all locales—look glossy.) The joy is in seeing a master stylist (even if one with a limited bag of stylistic tricks) apply his touch to a genre work. Winner may not have a strong thematic core (if he has one apart from his tendency toward quirky characters), but his sheer style is its own justification.