Man, I am getting tired of movies subverting my expectations. I keeping throwing in a movie I think will be awesome and it sucks. Get myself ready to laugh at a film that looks to be hilariously bad, and it will end up actually being good.
Such is the case with 1974’s Who? I mean, just look at that title—this is a movie with low self-esteem. The only way it could be even sadder would be if it was titled What? Suddenly, I remember that is what Roman Polanski titled his worst, and most self-indulgent, film.
I went into this picture with as little information as possible. It was a purchase from one of the big Kino Lorber sales. To the best I can recall, I bought it because it was cheap and the cover made it look goofy as fuck.
And it definitely starts out as laugh-out-loud bad. It is night at a border crossing. Two American agents watch a figure cross the demilitarized zone to them from the other side. As the figure gets closer, we see these guys go literally slack-jawed. I think that’s the appropriate reaction to the approaching person, who turns out to be approximately 50% robot.
It’s even fully half-and-half, like a human torso on robot legs. This guy’s robot head is both the best and worst thing in this movie. It is so goofy, it is hilarious. It looks more than a bit like that offensive robot on the cover the Styx album Killroy Was Here. I think it is interesting Joseph Bova, as the robot man, doesn’t currently have a profile picture on IMDB, since we definitely don’t see his real face in this picture.
The question at the root of the picture is whether this weird cyborg that is being returned to the US is truly what was once a prestigious rocket scientist named Dr. Martino (Domo arigato, Dr. Martino). The communists claim the doctor had a nearly fatal auto accident and the bizarre measures taken were only thing that could be done to save his life. The American officials, led by Elliott Gould, suspect an enemy agent is impersonating the doctor as part of a ruse.
I think this is an interesting premise. That I came to be gradually engrossed in the story is a testament to the filmmaking, given how deliriously weird Robo-Martino looks.
The movie intercuts constantly between Martino’s life before the car crash and present-day interrogation sessions with Gould. For the most part, Gould asking him about something is his past will prompt a jump cut to that moment. Since those flashbacks are always from the doctor’s perspective, we never see his face before the accident. Then again, judging from his monotonous voice in those memories, he may have always been a robot.
I never felt certain if Gould was playing it straight here or not. A staple of that actor’s toolkit is a slight, sardonic smile. Here, it is hard to tell if it is part of his character or if the actor can’t disguise his incredulousness.
The actor I hate to say fares the worst is Trevor Howard. I didn’t realize he was supposed to be a Russian, as he didn’t have such an accent until the second scene in which he speaks. Even then, it will wander all over the map for the remainder of the runtime. It crushed me to see the man behind my favorite performance in my favorite movie (The Third Man) brought so low.
One would think a plot such as this would lend itself to action scenes, but this feature is far more concerned with ideas. I may be making too much of this, but I suspect one of the intended ideas it floats out there is what exactly makes you who you are. This seemed to be suggested particularly by a scene where Gould’s descriptions of false memories imprinted in agents’ minds. This bit reminded me of Blade Runner.
Unfortunately, the main action scene in the film is lamentable—a deeply stupid car chase confined entirely to a small airport. They never leave the airport grounds! And why is Gould the only person trying to intercept that vehicle? Is there no security at this airport?
The curiously titled Who? is a strange, but compelling oddity. In the end, it is a bit difficult to say whether it is more ridiculous or more genuinely interesting. Which is kind of like the half-human robot at the center of this story…
Dir: Jack Gold
Starring Elliott Gould, Joseph Bova, Trevor Howard
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray