The movie Who? (1974) begins with a duel between two cars and one of them crashes beside a barbed wire fence. It’s an East/West thing in Europe when the borders were divided between Communist Russia and capitalist Europe.
Cut to a car crossing the border from the – always seen as evil – Eastern bloc to the American controlled West where actor Elliott Gould’s (1938-) character meets with the occupants.
One of them is the person caught in the opening fiery wreck: Dr Martino – a man now with a metal face.
Who is this man? Is he the person he says he his? Why is he so important in the first place?
Gould introduces himself as FBI as he takes Martino away.
Martino looks like some sort of hideous robot, something he admits to.
This is an existentialist film. Existentialism being the philosophy that emphasises individual existence, freedom and choice and the view that humans define their own meaning of life and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe.
The premise of the movie: is Martino who he says he is?…. A man with information about the Soviets… a scientist vital to the West… or is he there to tell lies and infiltrate the scientific project he apparently was a key member of before he went behind the Iron Curtain? All questions which Martino must face himself.
It’s hard to tell in these days before genetic testing to prove identity. Martino, if it is him at all, was completely disfigured in the crash. He has a silver egg-shaped metal head with microphone grilles for ears and a lower jaw which is also made of metal.
“I’m sorry, sir – God knows what he is after, or what he can do,” says Gould to his supervisor, sceptical that Martino really is who he says he is. He thinks Martino is really a spy.
That Lucas Martino’s face bears no resemblance to pictures of the original scientist is a big bone of contention.
Cut back to the Eastern bloc and actor Trevor Howard (1913-88 cirrhosis and hepatitis) as a Russian Colonel appears in flashback with Martino bandaged and in hospital. Martino is important to both sides.
And cut back again to Gould who says: “That’s what came over, it’s meant to be Lucas Martino, but it could be anything”, as he shows pictures of the “metal man” to his agents.
Should they immediately get Martino back to work on special government projects when he might be a ringer?
Who? remains a rather modern film despite its Cold War era and 1970s trappings. Martino is some sort of bionic man with an artificial left arm and a nuclear pacemaker for a heart. There’s just not much left of Lucas Martino – if it is Lucas Martino!
“The eyes appear to be Martino’s,” says an examining doctor, although there was no retinal scan ever done…
Who? is based on a novel by Algys Budrys (1931-2008 melanoma) and the movie was filmed in 1974 although it sat on the shelf for five years before being released on video cassette under the title Roboman and The Man in the Steel Mask.
Although American, Budrys, interestingly enough, was born behind the Iron Curtain and thus this adds an extra dimension to his existential sci-fi-ish novel and is probably the major provocation for the genesis of the book and the film.
“Don’t worry, he’s not a monster. It’s more like a piece of sculpture,” says Gould, disparagingly, as he brings one of Martino’s friends to identify him.
Martino asks his friend about the classified Neptune Project but Gould says there should be no discussion.
Then we cut to flashback to where the Roboman practices the lines: “I am Lucas Martino.” Here we learn that Martino, if it is Martino, doesn’t even know if he is himself following the accident.
The question posed is: if the Russians are brainwashing this Roboman/Martino – does he even know? If it is Martino at all!
We know that as a child genius, he took some sort of monastic vow to the study of physics in a “perfect universe”. But we know that existentialism is existence in a universe that is far from perfect. Martino, the child and the man – the human being – must come to terms with a situation or universe which, for him, seems to become more and more impossible to face with each new day.
So we cut back to Gould and his interrogation of Martino… the film cuts back and forth as Martino is constructed physically and then mentally by Howard and then deconstructed by Gould’s probing agent. What is the truth?
Director Jack Gold (1930-2015) did the cult item The Medusa Touch (1978) starring Richard Burton (1925-84 brain haemorrhage) and the popular Escape from Sobibor (1987) starring Rutger Hauer (1944-2019) about life in a Nazi extermination camp.
The question is how well can spies be trained? So much so that they can seem to be what they are really not and they transcend reality. For some it must be hell if they cannot reveal their true selves. Others may revel in it. But for Martino this “transcendence” or hell must be doubly or triply so! We must decide.
Albert Camus (1913-60 car crash) the philosopher said the only real and important question one must consider in life is whether or not to commit suicide. Martino obviously has dealt with that question and continues to exist despite a world that doesn’t believe who he is. But in his own perfect universe of physics as the bedrock for his mind he knows who he is! Even if he is brainwashed!! This is something which keeps him going even though he may be invalidated in terms of working on the Neptune Project – part of his vow to physics and perfect universe he swore to upon discovering as a child. It is like the East/West divide forever for Martino as it follows him mentally despite him being physically in the West. It is possibly soul destroying. It is certainly an interesting dynamic.
Does it really matter if he is Martino? As this Roboman is suffering psychologically and physically as a possibly innocent man and in the end it is Gould who is internally more like a robot than a human compared to Martino, with his continual, if not haranguing, then harassment.
Who? is a character study to be sure, and a very good one. It’s very talky and with little action except for the opening crash and airport shootout and another car chase.
Joseph Bova (1924-2006 emphysema) is effective and slightly moving as the all too human and ultimately alone Martino, who must face the cynicism and mental inhumanity of Gould.
The question Who? asks: is life worth living if you are invalidated and how do you go on living once this has happened? Can you ever be validated again? There must be a philosophical shuffling of deckchairs on the ship that must ultimately sink. You must learn to go on although all projected plans you had for your life are scuttled. What do you do with your life then? It is a decision which could happen to anyone unfortunate enough to be in such a situation as Martino’s. The question marks over identity and sanity and how they are linked are shown in Who?
It is said the film contains brainwashing elements of The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and a second chance at life, or another serve of the same with a different face, used in Seconds (1966). Both of these films were directed by John Frankenheimer (1930-2002 complications of spinal surgery). You can also go back in history and note elements of the character who was The Man in the Iron Mask. He was a prisoner whose face was covered in cloth and then later romanticised as a metal mask in one of Alexandre Dumas’ (1802-70) novels. In that case the man was said to be an illegitimate half brother of King Louse XIV of France. Others say it was the king’s twin although no one really knows his identity for sure. But I go on… Thus one of the movie Who?’s video titles was The Man in the Steel Mask.
So, Martino is not valid in the real world as the individual is probed and prodded like some sort of criminal or mental patient… and yet still they don’t believe he is real and even a walk down the street is an encounter with stares en masse in a scene of the movie which is ingeniously filmed. It is the further humiliation of a man who even the general public thinks is a freak even without a personal introduction! They never met the guy and yet he is judged.
This man doesn’t belong in almost every way, as he has no spouse of family, or parents either. There is an old girlfriend… will she believe who he says he is?…
Philosophically, it’s definitely a frightening movie about paranoia being realised and yet with that paranoia seemingly legitimised, there is still no hope or treatment, or resolution as Martino is rejected on every level. If he is not mentally ill, he is definitely on his way. This is shown as Martino sits dejected at a bus stop or park bench… or is it all just the act of a clever spy?
This level of dejection from rejection and alienation caused by invalidation has recently been used to great effect in the film Joker – although Who? is far more intellectual in comparison. Joker is perhaps the better and more effective movie though. Both movies show polar opposite outcomes from rejection.
Martino’s girlfriend remembers a boat trip they took in the 1950s… and Martino remembers they came back by the causeway… The FBI listening in are still not convinced… despite the fact the ex-girlfriend was in on it and had bugging equipment in her apartment.
“He looks lost,” says the guy staking out Martino when he stands vacantly on the road as they accidentally reveal their bugging plot.
In the scene that follows, the FBI agent who dares to care about Martino is hit by a car and killed. It is an event which affects Martino further in terms of his isolation. Martino wants to go back to the family farm – screw the Neptune Project!
“I’ve had enough Mr Rogers… I can’t take anymore…,” says Martino about not going back to Neptune. It now sounds like another alien place anyway. “I am in a constant state of panic Mr Rogers, my mind is poised for flight. I’m on the edge of screaming all the time…”
But then, as Martino says, if he did scream, even more people would stare.
Gould and the FBI have pushed Martino too far in their spying and interrogation… but to the bitter end, Gould will still not believe it is the real Martino. Like an objective psychiatrist, Martino will always be only a patient.
“Identity doesn’t depend on physical appearance,” says a recruited spy in flashback with Howard in Russia, who they hope will be turned into Martino’s Roboman and work as a spy on Neptune.
So the question remains unanswered until the dying minutes of the film, although it looked like it was the real Martino made into a brainwashed spy… but there could even be a tussle over this within Martino himself. Does he even realise?
But what does it matter, now that he’s on the farm? And Gould goes there to ask him to come back to Neptune even though he doesn’t believe it’s Martino.
“Will you believe I didn’t like treating you like I had to,” says Gould. If only the world could be so apologetic to those who aren’t “real”, who are “invalidated”.
And the film cuts back to Russia where the recruited spy who is made to look like Roboman and impersonate Martino dies after his face and body operations….
“I am a farmer now and I’m accepted for what I really am, a man with a metal face. It doesn’t matter ‘who’ – I know.”
Despite memories and dreams, Martino settles to toil and use and change the soil of the Earth and not change the world with the discipline of physics. It is still his perfect universe and Martino on the farm finds that inside he’s stopped screaming.
Gould questions his own actions again but Martino tells him to beware, as it could be him being extra clever in the end.
“Tell them I’m not Lucas Martino anymore,” says our “metal man staring out of a metal skull” as he starts up his tractor and forgets his former life as a scientist.
Or maybe he dwells on it occasionally. He is, after all, only human.
Who? keeps us guessing to the end and while it is not a great movie, it is certainly one that shouldn’t have remained on the shelf so long, as it fulfils its promise of posing many more questions than just the one of the title.
The intense scrutiny of the self can cause more scrutiny by the self on the self and that can be life changing for the positive – if that’s what you want it to be and if it doesn’t destroy you instead. Thus Camus’ rule of thumb about the question of suicide as the most important decision you will ever make as you may well feel the scream inside. You must really want to live like Martino, metal face and all, and only you know who you are and perhaps what you once were. Hopefully, in the end, you will also know better.