Apart from farfetched clones and spoofs of the James Bond films, or television shows ranging from animation to puppets to live-action girls with nice bouncy boobies about, there aren’t a whole heck of a lot of noticeable titles falling under the heading of “spy-fy” in the world. We can fathom the sight of 007 driving an invisible car, or kids and talking animals preventing world domination. We are also able to accept comic book superheroes and space travelers in galaxies far, far away embarking on dangerous missions of intrigue with a straight face ‒ as such titles tend to be science fiction yarns first, espionage thrillers second. It’s when you reverse the formula, however ‒ weaving a nest of spies within elements ranging just beyond that of the acceptable amount of exploding pens and laser watches ‒ that we start to get a bit skeptical.
Two instances comes instantly to mind. The first, an excellent, seldom-seen Japanese film entitled Esupai (better known as ESPy or E.S.P./Spy to the ten people who have heard of it in the U.S.), brought us a fun globe-trotting adventure focusing on spies who had extrasensory perception. Alas, by the time the 1974 Toho Production (which half of the ten people who saw it have wondered if it didn’t help to inspire David Cronenberg’s Scanners in some way) made its American debut, it had been gutted into a Saturday afternoon television movie by the same production company which had made the Mr. Magoo cartoons, which meant most of the violence and all of the nudity (not that there was much of either to begin with) was sanitized and/or completely removed.
The removal and replacement of organs is actually a key component of another fun spy-fi relic from the Cold War, Who?, starring the great Elliott Gould. Made the same year as Esupai, this very modestly-budgeted (and that’s putting it nicely) effort from the UK finds our American marquee star as an FBI agent who is assigned the task of debriefing a prominent U.S. scientist after he is released from the other side of the wall a few months following a near-fatal car crash. It’s a relatively simple task under conventional cinematic circumstances. But when your living key to a major game-changing project is sent back from the Russians missing easily recognizable components such as an arm and some fairly important internal organs ‒ to say nothing of voice, torso, and face ‒ well, you just have to ask “Wait, Who is that?”
And that’s exactly what happens in this adaptation of the Russian-born sci-fi writer Algis Budrys, which features a surprisingly effective performance by a relatively unknown actor named Joseph Bova as the mysterious metal man whom Gould’s paranoid protagonist is unable to determine is 100% completely kosher. In fact, so sincere is Mr. Bova’s expressionless role, one can almost look past the laughable makeup the poor guy sports throughout the whole picture. Looking like what might happen were El Santo to be cast as the Tin Man in a public access TV remake of Andy Kaufman’s robot rom-com Heartbeeps, Who?‘s weakest link is definitely located in the special effects department. Fortunately, both the writing and acting in this movie are good enough to forgive the low-budget representation of Burdys’ literal description.
While filmed primarily in an appropriately sunless West Germany, the producers of Who? were able to soak up a few rays of sunshine during a week of location shooting in Miami. Likewise, locals and visitors alike who happened to be in the right place at the right time were treated to the sight of Mr. Bova walking about in costume ‒ their very honest (and hilarious) reactions recorded on celluloid for all to see. Not that anyone noticed in the long run: I’m fairly certain no one took notice of Who? when it hit U.S. screens in 1975, wherein distributor Allied Artists artwork emphasized on Gould’s (sadly, already) waning star status and a sexy bikini babe. Both served to conceal the silver cyborg’s caricature, which was reduced to receiving a sliver of space emerging from a gun-pointing Gould’s curly locks.
A few years following Who?‘s U.S. release, Allied Artists folded up shop, leaving the film in a dubious position which surely resulted in anyone who may have inquired about the film to get a “What?,” “Where?,” and “Why?” for their troubles (or, at the very least, were given a poster of Pete Townshend smashing a guitar instead). A grey-market VHS release in the late ’80s (under the slightly misleading title Robo Man) was about the closest anyone came to seeing Who? for what it was until Scorpion Releasing got its pincers on it a few years back. Now, thanks to Kino Lorber, this well-written oddity also featuring Trevor Howard as the cunning Russian general responsible for the metal man and a nifty little chase from 007 automobile stunt legend Rémy Julienne has a chance to shine its faux metallic goodness in High-Def.
That said, the source material available is not without its faults (in addition to its American distributor, all of Who?‘s initial production companies went under, too). Some scenes lack a great deal of depth, and there were two instances of flickering that could prove problematic for anyone who suffers from seizures, but all in all, the 35mm print used to bring this underrated spy-fi gem to Blu-ray is good. While the included trailers for this release are for other Elliott Gould/Trevor Howard titles, a bonus commentary with director Jack Gold and historian Anthony Sloman is quite nice to behold. And when you stop to consider Who? features a wonderful funky score by John Cameron and a scene with a cyborg riding a tractor on a farm, well then, I can only attest this film is worth its weight in silver. Or Gould, perhaps.
Recommended either way.