Jun 19, 2009


DVD Review: Attack of the Robots (aka Cartes Sur Table) (1966)

Yes, Man vs. Machines, the "week-long" COBRAS event that all the other COBRAS actually managed to wrap up in a week, is still trickling on into Week 3 here at the Double O Section. That's the way things work around here. Attack of the Robots was my first foray into the world of Eddie Constantine, one of the most prolific–and unlikely–stars of the Eurospy canon.* And I’d say it was a great introduction! I hope all of his movies are as much fun as this one.

Constantine’s is a tough persona to describe. Just looking at stills of him, it’s impossible to accept that this man was a major, major star of French cinema in the Fifties and Sixties. Tim Lucas (editor of the much lamented–but maybe back? sort of?–Video WatchBlog) once described Constantine’s complexion as “vaguely reptilian.” That’s apt, but it may not even go quite far enough. Constantine looks like a full-fledged resident of Toad Hall! But a physical description alone fails to capture the persona. Fortunately for the actor, he shares not only Mr. Toad’s visage, but also his boisterous personality. What he lacks in looks and "serious" acting chops he makes up for in sheer enthusiasm–and an infectious grin. In nowhere but France, the country that made a sex symbol out of Serge Gainsbourg, could Constantine (already in his late forties by the time of the Eurospy boom) have become a matinee idol. But he did, and that status was cemented by no less a personage than that darling of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard, when the director cast him (in his most famous recurring role of boozy G-man Lemmy Caution) as the lead in Alphaville. (David Foster reviewed Alphaville on Permission To Kill at the very beginning of the Man vs. Machine COBRAS event.)

Attack of the Robots, made the following year, is about as far from Alphaville as one can get, although I would argue that its director, Jess Franco (that notorious and prolific auteur of Euro-schlock), and Godard are unlikely kindred spirits. Godard recycled pulpy American B-movie motifs to make high art out of low, producing pulp movies for the arthouses, while Franco (on his better days) produced art films for the grindhouses.** Both embraced low budget filmmaking and stretched the boundaries of the medium as far as they would go, albeit in different ways. Attack of the Robots is not one of Franco’s artier efforts, though it is not one of his more appalling ones, either. His direction is reliably solid if workmanlike, and lacks most of the regular touches which endear and annoy in equal measures, particularly his fondness for quick zooms. But just when you’re starting to wonder if it really is a Franco movie, along comes a striptease sequence in a nightclub (and then another) and you’re fully reassured. Furthermore, while the zooms may be (mercifully?) absent, the interesting, expressionistic angles that characterized his early Dr. Orloff horror movies do make occasional appearances. The playfulness that characterizes his most enjoyable work is also present, and it meshes nicely with Constantine's own unsuppressable joie de vivre.

Attack of the Robots is in black and white, which is too bad. Some critics praise the black and white, arguing that it–and Franco’s direction–creates a real film noir atmosphere. The problem with that is that despite Constantine’s fedora, this isn’t film noir. It’s Eurospy through and through–and Eurospy should ideally be in color. Weirdly, it’s rumored that the movie was actually shot in color, and then released (at least in America) in black and white for some reason! If that’s true, I very much hope that the color print surfaces one day. Even without the color, though, all of the other Eurospy elements are present: the plot, the locations, the girls, the bad guys (and their weird science) and the typical Eurospy hero.

We open with the assassination of an ambassador at a swank party in Buenos Aires. Then we see a cardinal killed at an airport in Amsterdam. Then an Interpol agent exclaims that there’s a troubling similarity between the assassination of the cardinal in Amsterdam and the ambassador in Buenos Aires! Evidently, Interpol can’t even keep track of who’s killed where. Anyway, both figures–as well as dozens more–were killed by assassins in glasses who behaved extremely oddly. The one in Amsterdam is actually captured and examined. He’s got an odd hue to him. On screen it looks like greasepaint, but we’re told that he has the look of a "mulatto." Then he gets killed trying to escape, and the greasepaint goes away. Ahem, that is to say, his skin tone turns white. That’s weird! What the Interpol autopsy apparently fails to reveal (but we know from the title) is that this man is actually a robot. (Duh! Everybody knows robots wear glasses and have greasepaint skin!) Someone has been kidnapping people with Type O blood all around the world and somehow turning them into robots.

Whether or not these robots are actual machines is debatable. They behave more like zombies, but the robofication process, when we finally see it, seems to involve being sealed in a giant plastic pouch and then blasted with lots of electricity, so perhaps there is some sort of mechanization involved. It’s unclear. But what is clear to Interpol that people with Type O blood are disappearing willy nilly, so they search through their files to find an agent with that blood type to send out as a decoy. But he can’t know he’s being set up as bait; the agent needs to be given a dummy mission. It doesn’t take much searching to turn up Al Peterson (as he’s identified on the English language version, anyway), played by Constantine.

“Where is he?” asks one eager spymaster, practically salivating at the prospect of sending an agent with Type O blood into the field as bait.

“Oh, that’s very easy,” answers his colleague. “He’s somewhere on this planet with a gorgeous blonde and a bottle of Scotch.”

You would think so, wouldn’t you? You would think so for just about any Eurospy hero, and apparently you would think so for Lemmy Caution. But as it turns out, he’s wrong! Al is actually somewhere in the Far East with a brunette... and a Coke! Gambling. Apparently he’s given up drinking. Which is why it’s especially surprising when, as he leaves the casino, a statue starts talking to him! It turns out the (female) statue is a trap, and soon she conks him on the head and he's kidnapped by Chinese agents. The chief agent, Li Wi, demands to know some personal information about Eddie: what’s his weight and his height and his blood type? How old is he?

“Just last August I was 40,” quips Eddie with a grin. “And a few years.”

The Chinese want Eddie to work for them as a double agent. But he doesn’t like the fact that they ruined his “favorite tuxedo,” so he says nothing doing, beats them up and escapes. In the course of his escape, he has to jump over a pit with something growling inside. We never get to see what it was, but a growl can make an otherwise innocuous hole in the floor so much more exciting! It turns out he was being held on a boat (a boat with a tiger pit?), so he has to plunge in the ocean and when he finally gets back to his hotel in a sopping wet tux, the concierge asks if he had an accident. “No, this is the new style.”

Soon Eddie’s back at Interpol HQ where his own bosses also inquire about his weight and his height and his blood type. When Eddie gives the same quip about his age, that’s when he really started to endear himself to me. This guy might not be as young as Tony Kendall or as ripped as Brad Harris, but unlike them, he’s pretty likable!

The "Q scene" reaches new heights in audacity and new lows in budget. Every object used is just a regular object, not modified in anyway. We’re just told that it does something neat. “These gloves!” exclaims the pseudo-Q, putting them on. “They’ve got miniature batteries. When you wriggle your fingers–tick, tick, tick–as I’m doing, the batteries charge. The currents are sufficiently strong to kill twenty adults–or thirty children.” You’ve got to love a Q Branch that takes into account the fact that their agents might one day find themselves up against thirty children! “A ballpoint pen that’s really a flute,” he proceeds. What? “You’ve just got to blow into it here; the soundwaves break a glass vial that’s hidden in it, releasing a gas.” He holds the pen up to his lips and blows. The soundtrack obligingly provides some flute music, and voila! Instant gadget! The Eurospy imitators embraced the jokiness of the Q scenes long before the Roger Moore Bond films did, and this is one of the funniest. I haven’t laughed so hard watching a Eurospy movie since the pervvy version of Q in Fury In Marrakesh!

Here, Franco & co. decide to go right ahead and call out the gag. “How many James Bond films did you see lately?” asks the bemused Constantine.

“More than you think,” comes the reply.

The cover he’s assigned conveniently includes being a gambler and a womanizer. “Well, I’ll remember that,” says Eddie. Proving his point, he wolf-whistles at the girl who’s his only lead in order to make contact. She likes it. Despite his face, Eddie has a way with the ladies. (He’s even got them threatening to break down his door!) He’s always chatting one up, whether it’s a random window-dressing girl, the mysterious Cynthia (Sophie Hardy) or the villainous Lady Cecilia Addington-Something (Françoise Brion), who feels Eddie’s arm muscles and coos, “A real man’s such a rare thing.” (Granted, she spends a lot of time around robots, so that’s probably true.) When Lady Cecilia tries to seduce Eddie, he gets worried about making out in front of all those robots. “You don’t have to worry, you know,” she assures him. “Robots are devoid of sentiment.” So Lady Cecilia’s got an army of willing robotic slaves going for her, but Cynthia has an act at a local nightclub, so Eddie’s got good options, ladywise, either way. The nightclub routine affords Franco an excuse for the aforementioned stripteases, as well as a chance to cameo as the pianist in a band providing unusual classical accompaniment for these routines.

Besides beautiful women, there’s also plenty of humor to be found in Attack of the Robots. During a scenic car chase, a frustrated Eddie (who likes to whistle while he drives) is forced to pause long enough to let a herd of sheep cross in front of him. Impatient, he leans on the horn. At another point, an innocent looking boy watches Eddie leave his room, then revs up the wheels of his toy car and speaks into it! In another example of this film’s resourcefulness in turning ordinary objects into gadgets with no modifications whatsoever, it’s clear that the car is really a walkie-talkie. “This is X3,” the child reports. “Mission accomplished.” Apparently the Q guy was right to arm Eddie against child antagonists!

The film’s main comedic setpiece is a classic bit of farce wherein a gaggle of bespectacled robots trash Eddie’s room (ie, turn some chairs upside down), then hide when he comes in. (Wasn't there a similar scene of hiding robots in Transformers?) When Eddie goes to the front desk to complain, they quickly rush around cleaning everything up, so he looks like a fool to the hotelier. Eventually, there’s a fight, and the surviving robots scamper off leaving Eddie with a dead one to hide in various places from the amorous Cynthia, who doesn’t mind using a stranger’s shower as long as there are no bodies in it! (“There’s a corpse in the bathtub. He’s keeping me from taking a shower.”)

Back at the robot lair, Lady Cecilia is mad that the robots came back short a man–or a machine. “You’ve made a mess of this!” she chastises them. “But what’s worse, you’ve lost Robot 8! You knew you must never leave a robot behind.” This dialogue is made all the more amusing by the fact that everyone in this film–like Jenabel in The Fantastic Argoman–pronounces robot “RO-butt.” The robot lair itself is rather impressive given the obvious budget constraints. It’s not quite how I pictured a robot lair. There are little cubbies with typewriters for the female robots to do their secretarial duties, and a loudspeaker keeps intoning random numbers throughout every scene set in the lair. It’s here that we finally get to witness the robot-making process as well, in which the unfortunate people with Type O blood appear to be microwaved inside large zip-lock bags. Evidently, this process turns their skin green, coats them in futuristic PVC fetish clothes, and makes them myopic.

Of course the film builds to a climax in the lair, once Eddie has come to the realization that “these robots are out to get me!” The ensuing melee is exciting and suitably surreal as the voice on the loudspeaker keeps intoning random numbers throughout and Eddie proves that you can kill a robot with a speargun. But can Eddie find a way to turn off all the robots? There’s actually a pretty good chance of it, because–unfortunately for them–Lady Cecelia and her mad scientist partner (Fernando Rey) have apparently designed a lair with a big “robots off” button! Of course, even if he manages to overcome the robots, Eddie’s still got the Chinese to worry about... and he’s still got all those nifty gadgets to use! Plus there's the unpleasant matter of being set up as bait by his Interpol bosses to be dealt with.

Attack of the Robots is a great introduction to Eddie Constantine. It’s both lots of fun and genuinely funny of its own accord. How can you possibly dislike a movie where the hero, desperate for forty winks, lies down in his bed only to discover a dead robot lying next to it? That’s the sort of movie that Franco’s Attack of the Robots is. The DVD from Something Weird leaves a whole lot to be desired, but then again this is the sort of movie that falls into the “lucky to have on DVD at all” category, so I’m not complaining. Buyers should be warned that the print is in bad shape (as you can see from the screengrabs) and the picture appears to be cropped not only on the left and right (as most pan-and-scan movies are), but the top and the bottom as well! That probably comes from a sloppy transfer from a 16mm TV print. But they should also know to expect that for the sorts of rarities that Something Weird offers. None of this impedes the enjoyment inherent in this movie. And at just $8.99 on Amazon, this DVD is a bargain even despite its flaws. That said, I would still love to see a gorgeous widescreen transfer of the supposed color print one day. Because Attack of the Robots has that Eurospy feel through and through, color would just seem so much more appropriate. Hopefully one of the companies that specialize in Jess Franco movies will one day get around to such a release. In the meantime, Something Weird’s is a great way to see such an obscure film.

*Well, that’s not quite true. I saw Alphaville in college, but at the time the actor left no impression with me.
**The key phrase here is “on his better days.” Franco was so prolific that he churned out proto-Lynchian masterpieces like Venus In Furs with the same regularity as shoddily-produced, irredeemable trash like Ilsa the Wicked Warden.


Delmo said...

I saw "Alphaville" in college, too. Can't believe I stayed awake through the whole thing. Can't remember a frame now.

night person said...

Aphaville was one of the first titles The Criterion Collection released on DVD. You two owe it yourselves to re-investigate Alphaville.

Tanner said...

That's something I've been meaning to do. That Criterion DVD has been in my bottomless Netflix queue forever. One day I'll get to it!

Anonymous said...

It used to show up regularly on TV in the 1970s, either on the afternoon "Million Dollar Movie"-type shows, or on the late-late-late show on weekends. I think it must have been distributed by American-International in the US; it seemed to be in the same syndication package with with a lot of sci-fi horror movies like Godzilla vs. the Thing, I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Amazing Colossal Man, and It Conquered the World. I saw it when I was a teenager and the main thing I remember was that the villainess (Francoise Brion) was hot.