(1974, Rated PG) Elliott Gould (Sean Rogers), Trevor Howard (Col. Azarin), Joseph Bova (Dr. Lucas Martino), Edward Grover (Finchley), John Lehne (Haller), James Noble (Gen. Deptford), Lyndon Brook (Dr. Barrister), Michael Lombard (Dr. Besser), Kay Tornborg (Edith), Joy Garrett (Barbara), John Steward (Frank Heywood). Screenplay: John Gould (based on the novel by Algys Budrys). Director: Jack Gold. 93 minutes.
Tags: Psychological Thriller, Cold War, Existential
Notable: Also released as Roboman and The Man in the Steel Mask. Various sources list the film’s release date as 1973, 1974, and 1975; the film’s opening credits show MXMLXXIV — 1974.
An important American scientist is burned nearly to death in an automobile accident inside the borders of the Soviet Union. He is returned after six months, only his right arm and his brain still intact; the rest of him is a silvery, robotic imitation of a human being. The FBI agent assigned to bring him back to his work on the top-secret Neptune project is not satisfied with the artificial man’s identity. The arm is real; the fingerprints and DNA identity are real. What about the brain — is it the scientist, and even if so, has he been brainwashed into being a Soviet agent? Who is he… really?
The promotional hype for this film depicts it as a slam-bam action thriller, referring to the “megaton brain” and the possibility that this is “a newly-created killing machine… ROBO MAN. Death and destruction follow as a Russian agent and [the FBI agent] square off in a deadly game of cloak and dagger.” (Taken from the description on the back of the DVD case.) Those of you salivating for something like Terminator meets James Bond, just keep walking. This film is nothing at all like that.
Algys Budrys, whose 1958 novel this film is based on, was a Prussian-born writer of existential science fiction, which is described in Wikipedia as concerning “isolated and damaged people and themes of identity, survival, and legacy” (quoted from Wiki’s main page on “Algis” Budrys). I’ve read only one of Burdrys’ novels, Rogue Moon, which is described as the best of his eight-or-so novels, with Who? coming in second. My review of that novel can be found elsewhere. For the purpose of this film review, let’s just say that Budrys seemed to have reveled in describing the most outlandish possible circumstances under which the question of self-identity can be explored ad nauseum with little or no desire to resolve the otherwise interesting science fiction aspects of his story. This film may not have intricacies explored in the novel (which I’ve not read); I can say with confidence, however, that the film gets the story told well in a fraction of the time that it would take to slog through the book.
Who? is a psychological thriller from the Cold War days that satisfies its goals quite well. Throughout are hints and clues in the form of flashbacks, both during the time of Martino’s recovery after surgery in the Soviet Union and during Martino’s life before the accident. Director Jack Gold (The Medusa Touch, Goodnight Mister Tom) is masterful in his handling of details. He never lets us see Martino’s face, even in photographs; the flashbacks of his life are filmed as if seen through Martino’s eyes, and although we hear a voice, we never see him. Since the robotic man’s voice is provided by an artificial larynx, it’s impossible to determine his identity either through voiceprint or through our own recognition of the voice in the flashbacks.
A synopsis of the book presented in Wikipedia (beware using that as a primary resource!) tells me that screenwriter John Gould may have taken a certain liberty with the ending. Revealing it would be considered a spoiler, but I’ll go so far as to say that I like the film’s ending much better. My research has not unearthed Budrys’ own opinions of the film, but if he is like his writings, I suspect that he didn’t like it much. As a writer myself, and one who is quite opinionated regarding an editor’s interference with my own work, I would have to express some sympathy… but I still like the film’s ending better.
I must introduce one irony in my commentary. Inasmuch as the story seeks to unravel the tangled concept of self-identity, Gertrude Stein’s famous comment that “a rose is a rose is a rose” comes to mind. Similarly, Elliott Gould is Elliott Gould is Elliott Gould; he is no more this FBI agent than he was Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye or “Trapper” John McIntyre in the film of M*A*S*H. He’s still effective, mind you, but there is nothing in his portrayal that ever lets us forget that he’s an actor delivering his lines properly. It would take him years before his performances developed subtlety, so take the stereotype with a few thousand grains of salt. For this film, a certain two-dimensionality is acceptable — the irony of that statement, in the context of this existential film, notwithstanding.