[Originally published in Movietone News 23, May-June 1973]
Michael Winner was once identified with middle-aged impersonations of youth pictures (The System aka The Girl Getters, You Must Be Joking, The Jokers). What was so striking about most of those pictures was that nobody, least of all the swinging youths, had much fun. In the past couple of years Winner and a supporting company including writer Gerald Wilson, cameraman Robert Paynter, and Peckinpah’s favorite scorer Jerry Fielding have dubiously gifted us with a series of films so grim-lipped, so relentlessly machined, so barren of hope for the dramatis personae or the audience that simply to name them is to experience the chill of premature extinction: Lawman, The Nightcomers, Chato’s Land, and—latest till now—The Mechanic. What has kept moments of these films alive—as distinct from twitching galvanically in helpless response to Winner’s gratuitous zooming, craning, and this’ll-getcha cutting—is the incidental pathos of aging stars floundering in delicately superannuated genres being mercilessly perpetuated by an unsympathetic and sometimes downright ugly sensibility; I recall especially Burt Lancaster and Sheree North in Lawman (though the highly contemporary Robert Duvall also distinguished himself therein by taking to chaps and saddle with the same unimpeachable naturalness with which he became a coldblooded consigliere) and Marlon Brando as an old/young Quint in The Nightcomers, that ill-advised supposition of what happened before The Turn of the Screw. In all of these films (middle-)age has been threatened by sterile youth already on the verge of anachronism, and the course of events has more often than not been an irreversible and deadly predictable process of mutual annihilation.
Scorpio features Lancaster again as an aging killer for the CIA and Alain Delon as the protégé who has, bien sûr, been commissioned by the selfsame organization to do the old gun in. Winner looks on the while with a style characteristically and simultaneously hectic and dispassionate, obscene in its amoral detachment. There is no one with whom to sympathize in the film save a couple minor characters who are, purely and undeservingly, victims, though Winner works hard to wring a tear for Lancaster and his Russian counterpart, Paul Scofield (Paul Scofield!?), as they sit and rock and get very selfconsciously drunk in a secret room in Vienna. Winner has always worked hard at comparable scenes in the other films and, aside from whatever (as often as not, vagrant) beauties the actors may bring to them, no other scenes in the films so thoroughly fail to convince. What is convincing is Winner’s obscenely amoral approach to providing sadistic kicks to an audience he’s helping to enervate: those frighteningly passionless young men pushing out the Lancasters and Bronsons and offering no future stylistic alternative seem an expressively futile reflection of Michael Winner himself who, for all his prolific busywork, may be the foremost spiritual loser of the contemporary cinema.
Direction: Michael Winner. Screenplay: David W. Rintels and Gerald Wilson, after a story by Rintels. Cinematography: Robert Paynter. Music: Jerry Fielding.
The players: Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon. John Colicos, J.D. Cannon, Paul Scofield, Joanne Linville, Gayle Hunnicutt, Melvin Stewart, Vladek Sheybal.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson