October 05, 2010

New to DVD: WHO? (1973) - mystery cyborg spy game

(1973, USA)

An unusual cold war thriller verging on sci-fi territory

(Updated article, first posted in November 2008)

First time on DVD in the US, on November 23rd...

Lucas Martino, a top US scientist literally crashes and burns near the Russian border, at a time when the two superpowers were enemies. His life is saved by soldiers who cross the border and rush him to hospital. Months later, he's returned to the west, but the rushed and experimental surgery that saved his life now obscures his identity. His head and chest are now encased and partly replaced with steel and prosthetic parts. It's up to US security chief, Shawn Rogers, to verify whether it's still the same man behind the mask, before returning the scientist to a top secret project. He soon finds out that Martino has been in the hands of a senior KGB agent, Colonel Azarin, who may have sent back his own agent in place of the scientist.

Based on a book by the late Algis Budrys, the movie uses the same parallel timeline structure - alternately following Roger's attempts to debrief the scientist, while also flashing back to the events behind the Iron Curtain, between Martino's accident and his release. We see Martino being interrogated both by the Russians, and subsequently by the Americans.

The film is a straightforward re-telling of the novel, but adds a couple of silly action scenes, like a decidedly low-budget car chase, to try and open up the story. It also misses the opportunity to explore what's going on with the man behind the mask.

The film looks almost like a TV movie, not helped by me watching it on a cut-price VHS release, in NTSC EP mode, full of strange edits that even chopped lines of dialogue. It was also retitled RoboMan, with terrible and misleading cover art. The novel on the other hand has had some far more interesting covers through the years.

Elliott Gould (Capricorn One, MASH), as security agent Rogers, holds the film together. Trevor Howard (11 Harrow House, The Offence) plays the devious Azarin, the Russian mastermind behind the entire subterfuge. Though they never meet, the film plays like a chess game between the two men. Joseph Bova as Martino, evokes sympathy as the mystery scientist at the centre of it all.

This used to be an intriguing premise, the possibility of actual identity theft, and there are similar tales such as the recent K-Pax. But nowadays with DNA testing, the mystery could presumably be cleared up in days. Admittedly in Who?, the use of fingerprints and retinal scans are considered, so I'm sure a modern plot twist could outfox DNA tests as well.

Who? was released on DVD in Germany in 2008 as Der Mann Aus Metall - but all online information indicated that there was only German audio, no English subtitles.

The good news is Amazon.com is taking pre-orders for the first-time US DVD release on November 23rd - the cover art is at the top. The details on Amazon also promise this will be a new anamorphic widescreen transfer, with two commentary tracks, one from Elliott gould and one from the director Jack Gold.

Not essential viewing, but Who? is of interest to fans of the author, or those who may remember it from late-night TV twenty-odd years ago. I'll be interested to see the new digital makeover, particularly with extras.


  1. Code Red in the US have acquired the rights to Who?, so that mean's it might be released on DVD in about 2 years, after a lot of false promises and excuses about edits and ratios...

  2. Good news. I'll keep a look out for news of a release.

  3. Coming to DVD in the US in November 2010.

  4. That's a blast from the past... I think I read Budrys' "Michaelmas" maybe 30 years ago...