Rogers: "First we don't know who he is, second we don't know what he is, and third, we do know who sent him."
During the Cold War, top secret American scientist Lucas Martino suffers a near-fatal 'accident' along the East German border. The local enemy military powers employ cutting edge technology to restore him to health, reconstructing his body to a hitherto unknown extent. Despite the salvage of his eyes, Lucas now has a metal head, a metal arm, and an artificial cardiovascular system. There is very little left of his external body from which his identity can be confirmed. Even his voice, when he relearns to use it, is only similar.
So, given that he will be impossible to physically identify, why not send back to the US a sleeper agent in his place?
This film, then, is 93 intensive minutes of US interrogator Sean Rogers (Elliott Gould) refuting every last supposition that the man received back into his custody is indeed the real Lucas Martino.
Rogers' real nemesis is Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard) - the Russian bigwig who throughout this film we witness in flashback, pumping the recovering Martino for every last detail of his personal life. The parallel editing between Azarin extracting this information from the real Martino in the past, and Rogers extracting the same info from the mystery man in the present, speaks its message loudly. The two agents, on opposing sides, have rather a lot in common.
'Martino': "Questions! Questions! What about skin pores? Enzyme patterns? Voice prints?"
Rogers: "Physical tests for a body like yours just have not been invented yet."
In the present, the metal man protests that the fingerprints from his good arm will confirm his identity, until Rogers points out that they will only prove who that arm came from. His eyes may well be the same ones too, but no detailed record of the real Martino's eyes exists. (today they'd probably cover the DNA test etc. options with the same argument)
Even 'Martino''s artificially regulated respiratory system refuses to shed any light for or against him. His robotic heartbeat, breathing and so on remain constant, whatever his feelings.
'Martino': "You think panic has something to do with the heart racing, the nerves getting tense, the breath getting labored? Mine doesn't. But I'm in a constant state of panic, Mr. Rogers. My mind is poised for flight. I'm on the edge of screaming all the time, except that if I did more people would stare at me and that would make me scream more until I wouldn't be able to stop!"
Whatever known information our man volunteers about his life before the accident, no matter how personal, could have been extracted from the real Martino by fair means or by foul.
Rogers (centre): "Or someone taught to be Martino."
Haller (left): "Security isn't the only thing that matters, if we haven't learned that yet..."
Rogers: "Haller. When we send an agent over the line to them, we just don't give them the right papers and let them get on with it. We give them the right coins, doorkeys, cigarettes, we give them photographs printed on the right kind of paper with the right kind of chemicals, we even put the right fluff and dust in his pocket, and that's not all. We give him memories of things that never happened to him. We train him to walk and talk their way. To write and read, drink and eat... smile, laugh, cry their tears, and it's all false, every single thing. But if he's good, it becomes real, and he's no longer an agent. He's a baker, or a mechanic, or a train conductor, and no matter what they do to him, he remains a train conductor. He's as bewildered and scared as a train conductor would be, and if necessary he screams and bleeds and dies like a train conductor."
Haller: "He dies. And what if that man really is a train conductor, huh? What then? Doesn't your Colonel Azarin ever stop to wonder?"
Rogers: "If he starts acting like that matters, he won't be doing his job. He's finished. If I start to believe that our metal man is Martino, I'll be going soft on him and I'll be finished too."
Haller: "Uh-huh. You're just not willing to admit you could be wrong are you?"
Rogers: "Ohh, no, no, I could be wrong, I know that. I have been. I've made mistakes. Every time I remember them I break out in cold sweat. I wake up in the middle of the night wondering when the next time's gonna be, because one day, Mr Azarin might put a really good one over on me. Could be now. And if I make a wrong decision, my friend, all our kids could end up snorting vodka and eating borsht with chopsticks."
As the subject is presently released 'back' into American civilisation and observed from a distance, just about every choice 'Martino' makes can be interpreted as exactly what an enemy agent posing as Martino would do to keep up the act. The fact that it's also what Martino himself would probably do doesn't help any. Ultimately it seems that while this fellow can easily prove himself to be an imposter, it's fast becoming impossible to come up with any scenario that can prove to Rogers that he's genuine.
'Martino' visits an old girlfriend, apparently unaware that this behaviour has been anticipated, and her apartment appropriately bugged in advance. She's convinced that he's the same guy, and accurately predicts the man she once loved's next choice.
But if she could predict it, then arguably so too could a Russian impersonator. Everywhere you look in this film it's stalemate. Perhaps a bit like the Cold War itself.
What about his scientific genius? Well they could ask him about the top secret US work that he was engaged on before the accident, but then in asking those questions they would be risking giving away information about it to a potential ringer. And again, any information that he volunteers could have been extracted from the real Martino.
I suppose my high praise for this low-budget 1973 drama says alot about what I look for in a good movie - a strong script. They've taken their idea here and really run with it! I say this because some of the other elements in this one can be kind of ropey.
For example, the old trick scalpel that appears to draw blood instantly instead of after a moment. Elliott Gould, sorry to say, phones in his performance throughout. Finchley's sudden accidental death happens out of nowhere, apparently because there are simply no more scenes left with him in. The undercover spies trailing 'Martino' stick out like a fancy dress temp handing out leaflets for a Blues Brothers gig:
Rogers: (regarding the car chase)"That wasn't even real out there!"
(Elliott Gould, again not really acting)
Strangest of all though is the soundtrack, much of which is dubbed, including all of the enemy doctor's scenes. I don't recognise his face, but, darn it, I do know that voice...
And then there are all the flashbacks to Martino's pre-classified youth. Like in V For Vendetta, we never see the main character's natural face in this, so these scenes are all presented from his point of view. When filming of course this required the relevant performers to deliver their entire scene to camera in a single take, and while some of them misjudge their delivery, others are stunning. His girlfriend on the boat is flawless, even despite Martino's lines being added to the soundtrack in post-production, and really not matching.
The real Martino's blood-curdling scream when, in the Russian hospital, he first discovers that he now has a metal face is absolutely terrifying, made all the more so by the apparent print-through on the soundtrack, which provides us with several quiet echos of the moment in the seconds leading up to it. Terrifying. Sorry to use the same word twice, but no other synonym fits it quite so exactly. It. Is. Terrifying!
All this and Benson's governor James Noble as a General - really, he's funny without even trying to be. I hope the army uses him as a spokesperson whenever they have to break bad news.
Ultimately at the heart of this film is its own title Who? What makes a person who they are? Their body? Their history? Their choices? Their attitude?
It's one of those films that really does keep you guessing right until the very last scene. Is he Martino, or isn't he? It's got to be one or the other. But whichever it is, there's no crowing afterwards, "Oh of course I figured it out before that!" It's not a mystery for the audience to unravel. It really can go either way. And yes, at the end they are brave enough to explicitly show us the answer.
Even so, I could still build a case for the opposite...
If you can't find Who? on a low-budget movie channel near you (at time of writing it doesn't even have a page on wikipedia), then you might find it under its reissue titles of The Man In/With The Steel Mask or the vastly dumbed-down Robo Man.
In a Lucas Martino-ish way, some of these posters might help you, or not:
Isn't it still the same movie underneath?
(available here) (NB. Do check it contains the right disc)