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Film

'The Scorpio Letters' Is an Anesthetizing Two Hours

Emerging at the tail end of the '60s spy genre is The Scorpio Letters, a modestly attractive and forgettable vehicle.


The Scorpio Letters

Director: Richard Thorpe
Cast: Alex Cord, Shirley Eaton
Distributor: Warner Archive
Year: 1967
US DVD release date: 2015-04-28

The Scorpio Letters' two-fisted hero is Joe Christopher (Alex Cord), an American ex-cop who freelances for a British spy division. He spends the movie smoking cigarettes, uttering weary remarks more petulant than witty, and glowering from under his eyebrows, as though constantly ducking his head to avoid further dialogue. Shirley Eaton, best known from Goldfinger, is the statuesque yet blasé female agent who's around to provide sex appeal and finally require a timely rescue.

The plot involves a blackmail ring organized by someone called Scorpio. Neither his identity nor activities are interesting, but we're distracted easily enough by various murders and attempted murders that pop up like expectable signposts along the winding way to the wrap-up. Almost as pleasing to the eye as Eaton are the attractive locations (and backlots), shot in pretty color by Ellsworth Fredericks. Dave Grusin's romantic score lilts along constantly, occasionally bothered by a pesky flute.

Laurence Naismith, Oscar Beregi, Arthur Malet, Lester Matthews, Antoinette Bower, Eric Pohlmann, and Ilka Windish (in pop-bottle spectacles) are among the supporting players along for the whirligig. The screenplay by Adrian Spies is based on Victor Canning's novel, although not closely. If it were, this would be a more unpredictable and madcap adventure, although it does throw in some cheeky slapstick involving a soup tureen.

What's most noteworthy about the production is what became of it. Although made by prolific veteran Richard Thorpe with every apparent intention of being released theatrically (as it was in England and elsewhere), MGM premiered it on TV in the US -- on 19 February 1967, to be exact.

Arguing that it might have been intended for TV is that all of Spies' many writing credits are for the small screen, except for one other film at this time, Dark of the Sun. However, Thorpe never worked in TV. The year 1967 was the end of his long career, and saw his only two credits as producer-director, this film and The Last Challenge, and the latter is not for TV either. Further, the film isn't constructed with any sense of commercial breaks, nor is it shot in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, and the budget feels higher than a TV project. Finally, 1967 (really 1966) was a bit too early for the production of bona fide TV movies.

So it seems this wasn't strictly or originally a TV movie, but nothing in it was too strong for that medium, and this might have been a toe dipped in the water of what would, in the next couple of years, become a flourishing of that genre. This also shows a justifiable lack of faith in its box office potential. Perhaps they thought it might serve as a pilot for a series starring Cord, who was more of a TV star anyway, but it's not listed as a pilot in reference books on that topic. Despite its confusing provenance, it's now available on demand from Warner Archive, along with a ragged trailer.

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