Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fans complain that good science fiction books never reach the screen, and when they do, they're ruined by the requirement that everything Sci-fi must be re-formatted as an action-adventure thriller. What we get are monster chase and conspiracy chase pictures. Movies that dare stick close to an interesting abstract concept rarely break through commercially even when they earn glowing reviews. Think of the remarkably original, dramatically compelling Gattaca. It's the most prophetic Sci-fi picture of the 1990s. It wasn't a failure but not that many people saw it.
The weak elements in 1973's Who? will be obvious from the beginning, but viewers interested in something different will be intrigued just the same. It stays focused on its main theme, and we can tell that the actors know they're dealing with an unusual script. Who? may have been an influence on the much more commercial RoboCop, but science fiction author Algis Budrys' story about a cybernetic human has very different aims.
The show starts similarly to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, with American agents awaiting the release of a man across an East German checkpoint. Irreplaceable American scientist Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova) was involved in a car crash months ago. His life was saved by East German doctors under the supervision of Soviet spymaster Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard). We know that the reality is that the "accident" was staged to seize the scientist. American spy analyst Sean Rogers (Elliott Gould) is fearful that during his recuperation under the tutelage of Azarin, Martino may have given up his secrets or become a double agent. All are shocked when the man they get back is more or less a cyborg ... mostly metal, with human eyes and one human arm. Martino now talks with a different voice. His metal face shows no emotions. He can't be hooked up to a lie detector. Rogers' superiors want Martino back on the job as soon as possible, but Sean refuses to clear the metal man until he can find some way of confirming his identity. Sean knows Azarin's tricks, and is convinced that this mystery "thing" may be somebody else in disguise.
Who? benefits from some very good performances. Elliott Gould appears to believe in the story, and plays Sean Rogers as a subdued civil service employee locked in a Cold War chess game with his unseen opposite number, Azarin. The always professional Trevor Howard is simply too British to convince as the Russian spy master. Unable to prove or disprove his loyalty, Lucas Martino at first begs to be returned to work, where he can bury himself in the Pentagon's top-secret scientific project.
This particular story might have been better served as a television play. The dialogue and relationships are more important than the film's action, which has been augmented by the famed Rémy Julienne with a couple of car chase scenes. Although convincingly low-key, the chases serve mostly to point up the fact that the movie isn't about action. The production was filmed in Germany and in Miami, Florida, a better use of production funds.
Where the picture suffers is in the makeup department. Made in 1973 before the explosion of makeup effects illusions in low budget movies -- Star Wars made special effects a "star" commodity -- the metal man cobbled together for Who? will probably disappoint most audiences. The metal body looks like a costume, and the metal head has an odd design that Sci-fi fans won't appreciate either. "Robo-Martino" looks like an ancient Roman helmet mask, Jack Haley as the Tin Man or perhaps a metallic version of the Michelin Rubber Man. Once in the costume, actor Joseph Bova can walk about like any ordinary guy, but with a bald silvery head. He's on camera constantly, so it's pointless trying to make his appearance mysterious. He's not tall or imposing in any way, and we're told that the strength of his cybernetic arm is no greater than his other organic arm. Director Jack Gold uses scenes of Robo-Martino strolling down a business sidewalk in Miami. Real passers-by stare, but don't cause a scene. It's just a guy in a silver mask, so what?
Joseph Bova received high praise in contemporary reviews. The New York actor began in musical comedy and was in the original cast of Once Upon a Mattress with Carol Burnett. Bova projects concern and frustration through his metal mask. Excellent dialogue brings out Robo-Martino's plight when Sean attempts to determine his identity through cruel deceptions. The metal man must spell out his unique existential situation in words: on the inside he feels, worries and cries on the inside like any normal person. But Martino's metallic exterior expresses none of these emotions.
The drama, then, is psychological. John Gould's screenplay uses flashbacks to show the wily Azarin saving Martino's life and then pressuring his experimental cyborg surgeons to get him shape for interrogation. Azarin had no better luck penetrating Martino than Sean has. Conventional interrogation techniques don't work on a man who is a partial robot. Azarin considers replacing Martino with a "ringer", a scientist-defector who knows a little about Martino's Pentagon work.
In the present, Sean Rogers turns his detainee loose and watches as he tries to contact a previous lover, Edith (Kay Tornborg). This makes for an impressively mature dramatic situation. Rogers has bugged Edith's apartment and hopes to finally learn if Martino is really Martino. Instead, Martino realizes that he's still being monitored, and undergoes a change of attitude. Who? finally makes an odd statement about identity in a world where the authorities try to quantify and validate the concept of trust with technology. Martino (if he is Martino) is a patriot, but how dedicated should he be to a society that can't respect his loyalty and leave him be?
Who? gets a "B" for Sci-fi thrills and a solid "A" for fidelity to its philosophical concept, a much more difficult goal. If you think about it, a more expensive or technically adroit production would have added little; f plenty of new Sci-fi movies with terrific sets and convincing special effects die in the first scene for lack of anything resembling an interesting idea. The more one thinks about the state of moviemaking in 1973, the better Robo-Martino's metal mask looks. Robot men in the movies were never very convincing: think of the boxy bozo in the Ice Cave in Logan's Run. When CGI allowed the manufacture of zillions of fighter robots for Star Wars sequels, or a robot factory in the Will Smith I Robot, the "look" of big-time special effects simply erased the barrier between animation and live action. If Robo-Martino were computer-animated, he wouldn't have been half as sympathetic as Joseph Bova's simple performance, emoting behind some plastic and rubber. Who? gets high marks for originality.
John Gould is also the screenwriter of another tough nut of a Sci-fi assignment, the English eco-thriller Doomwatch. Director Jack Gold's worked mostly on classy TV plays. His biggest feature films were Man Friday with Peter O'Toole and The Medusa Touch with Richard Burton.
Scorpion Releasing's DVD of Who? is an acceptable presentation of this moody international production. A disclaimer comes up immediately to alert us to a couple of problems. Although almost all of the film looks fine, a scene with Trevor Howard has a bad color-shifting problem for a few seconds, drifting between greenish to bluish hues. Then another scene later on has a strange pulsing in the highlights. I'm not as confident in my guess for this, but it looks like a misaligned camera shutter. Neither flaw lasts very long or detracts from our ability to enjoy the show.
The disc carries two commentaries. Director Gold talks about the production on one track, while actor Elliott Gould makes a few remarks about the shooting and his fellow actors on another shorter scene-specific track. Self-proclaimed "working actor" Edward Grover provides an on camera interview, with many anecdotes about the acting personalities around him on the movie, especially the other "working" New York actors like Joseph Bova.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Good with a couple of minor problems
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Audio commentary with the director, scene specific commentary with the star Elliott Gould, interview with actor Edward Grover
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 20, 2010
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2010 Glenn Erickson
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