The paranoia that sprouted due to the Cold War has been the subject of countless films, from the darkly comic to the terrifying realization of our collective worst nightmares. Of all the films that documented the fears of the Cold War there may be none odder than Who?, the unusual drama starring Elliott Gould and directed by Jack Gold. This oddball Cold War drama is now the subject of a brand new Blu-ray from the folks over at Kino Lorber and makes this different kind of paranoid thriller available to whole new set of audiences that may have never known about this movie.
The plot of Who? revolves around American scientist Lucas Martino (Joseph Bova), who is nearly killed in a car accident along the border of the Soviet Union. The Soviets tend to the wounds of the scientist and nurse him back to health before returning to him to the Americans six months later. Martino is brought to the Americans but he’s not the least bit recognizable as a human being, his face and body having been fully restored in metal from head to toe. FBI agent Sean Rogers (Gould) refuses to take the story at face value. Convinced that Martino is not who says he is, Rogers interrogates the metallic scientist and questions every angle of his story. For Rogers, Martino may be a brainwashed agent for Soviet Colonel Azarin (Trevor Howard), a plant to steal nuclear secrets. The movie then moves back and forth, exploring the parallels between the American and Soviet interrogation techniques, but keeping the audience guessing as to whether or not Lucas Martino is who he says he is.
Modern audiences might have a hard time looking past the film’s low budget aesthetic. The metallic makeup used to create the mechanized Martino, well, they haven’t aged well. It’s a goofy combination of plastic and silver makeup that looks silly with modern eyes. That being said, Who? doesn’t work as a movie because of effects, it works because it captures the paranoia of the Cold War and illustrates the similarities between the tactics and distrust on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Whether it’s the work of Sean Rodgers for the Americans or Colonel Azarin for the Soviets, they both see Martino as a piece to be played against the other side. They’re each willing to subject Martino to dehumanizing methods in order to achieve their goals of espionage.
The two headlining stars of Who?, Elliott Gould and Trevor Howard, never share a scene together despite the fact that their two characters are opposite sides of the same coin. Gould, who was always one of the coolest actors of the ‘70s, doesn’t quite bring that same even-keeled sense of cool that you would find in films like The Long Goodbye, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t bring gravitas to his abundantly paranoid FBI agent. Conversely, the legendary Trevor Howard doesn’t avail himself quite as well, perhaps due to the fact that the British actor inflects an uneven Russian accent as a Soviet leader. It is impossible to truly evaluate the performance of Joseph Bova as Martino due to the fact the actor is obscured by the odd makeup and constricting prosthetics.
Director Jack Gold brings a journeyman’s touch to the style of Who?. The film isn’t showy or flashy in the directorial style and most of the film’s strengths stem from the script by John Gould’s adaptation of the novel by Algis Budrys. Who? crafts tension from the lingering question of its title, and the manner with which the film bounces back and forth between the two sides and their treatment of Martino that makes the viewer doubt the identity of the metal man. It’s not until the film’s final scenes that the truth is revealed, and a number of revelations within the story as it unfolds does a magnificent job of keeping the audience guessing.
The Blu-ray features an audio commentary by director Jack Gold and moderated by film historian Anthony Sloman. Aside from the commentary, a trailer gallery is the only other special feature on the disc. This Blu-ray set is not a restoration. It’s obvious that the film’s print was transferred in high definition with little done to clean up any specks of dust or scratches to the print. That never really becomes distracting until the film’s final scene, when the print flickers in moments. I can’t fault the people at Kino Lorber for not undertaking a meticulous restoration of a movie that few know exists and it’s a miracle that such an oddity has found its way onto Blu-ray at all.
Who? is a movie that is of its time and place in history, capturing the distrust that permeated throughout the world as the two superpowers engaged in a war without bullets or fronts. The film’s modest budget doesn’t allow the film to feel fresh in the 40-plus years since its release, but it is a fascinating movie as it captures a bygone political climate that may be resurrected. Who? isn’t great and it isn’t terrible, just an unusual movie that entertains for 90 minutes thanks in part to the charisma of Elliott Gould at the peak of his powers. It’s reviving forgotten and overlooked movies like Who? that makes Kino Lorber an invaluable part of the cinematic landscape, bringing the obscure back to the forefront for all those who might want to peer upon the oddities of the past.