Tuesday 23 September 2014

Franco Files:
Cartes sur Table /
‘Attack of the Robots’


By the dawn of the 1960s, hatchet-faced American actor Eddie Constantine had become an pretty iconic figure in European popular cinema, playing Peter Cheyney’s hard-as-nails private eye Lemmy Caution in a series of French thrillers that included seven films between 1953 and 1963.

Two years after his final ‘straight’ Caution film, things took a rather strange turn when Constantine found himself reprising his best known character in the lead role of Jean-Luc Godard’s inscrutable arthouse sci-fi mash-up ‘Alphaville’, and with his screen persona thoroughly beyond-the-looking-glass by that point, it’s a fair bet that things scarcely got any more normal for Eddie when 1966 found him working for Jess Franco, playing the lead in two films completed that year.

One was the self-explanatory ‘Residencia para Espias’, and the other the little number we’re looking at today. Released around Europe with the inexplicably bland title ‘Cartes sur Table’ (‘Cards on the Table’), the film reached American shores under the somewhat more punchy ‘Attack of the Robots’, and, whilst neither title really bears *that much* relevance to the events portrayed therein, no prize is offered for guessing which of the two names I prefer.

So, with an English title that suggests a sci-fi movie and a star chiefly associated with two-fisted detective roles, it comes as something of a surprise to settle into ‘Attack of the Robots’ and discover that what we're watching here is actually nothing less than a fully-fledged euro-spy film, marching out in all its Bond-ripping finery.

As a director ever shackled to the whims of contemporary box office trends, Franco made a number of films during the ‘60s that fall vaguely within the ‘eurospy’ bracket, but, crucially, he seems to have had little interest in making anything like a straight treatment of the genre. The live action comic book of ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’ (1967) is too weird and uneven to really hit its appointed generic prerequisites, whilst 1968’s two ‘Red Lips’ films are simply too goofy to count, and I’ve not yet had a chance to see the aforementioned ‘Residencia..’, meaning that, for now, ‘Attack of the Robots’ is by default the closest thing we have to a genuine Jess Franco eurospy film.

Of course, being a Franco film, ‘Attack..’ is still full of off-piste diversions and eccentricities, pushing heavily toward the sillier end of the genre’s stylistic spectrum and often toppling over into full-blown spoof territory. But nonetheless - aficionados of the marginally more well-known second string spy extravaganzas filling cinemas through the mid ‘60s will feel thoroughly at home here, in spite of the director’s relentless piss-taking.

Anyway! Plot summary! So, it seems mysterious assassins in black-face make up, black turtlenecks and Michael Caine glasses are popping up all over the place, annihilating important people as they head into big buildings to do important things! What the hell are the forces of international law and order going to do about it..?

(The loveably unconvincing globe-trotting during this opening assassination montage eases us into the low budget eurospy vibe perfectly, as on-screen captions inform us we’re visiting Buenos Aires, Amsterdam etc, despite seeing nothing more than vague shots of cathedral steps and airport runways.)

About ten minutes of exposition-laden chat at Interpol HQ follows, eventually leading us to introduction of Eddie Constantine, here not playing Lemmy C, but our old pal “Al Peterson” (in the English dub), a troublesome former agent picked out of a rolodex by an administrator with a surprisingly thorough knowledge of his operatives’ blood types. (Having copped that the assassins all have the same rare blood type y’see, they need an agent who matches it, vis-à-vis the general idea that the villains will latch on to him and pick him up for, well, whatever processes they use to create these ‘robot’ assassins… and Lemmy – I mean Al – is the only man for the job.)

Within the eurospy context, the comment that Peterson can be found “somewhere on this planet with a gorgeous blonde & a bottle of scotch” tells us all he need to know about our hero’s persona, even if the sexy dame we see him sweet-talking when the action cuts to a riverside casino in some questionably exotic ‘oriental’ locale is actually a brunette.

Much business with living statue geisha girls, soul-witheringly cheesy xylophone music and subterranean opium dens follows, as Eddie finds himself kidnapped by a cackling, shrieky-voiced Chinese agent named Lee Wee (Vincente Roca),(1) prompting an overload of sub-Fu Manchu orientalism that combines with a kind of bizarre back-and-forth slapstick comedy routine and some surprisingly elaborate set dressing to create the impression of a sequence that could have been taken from a film thirty years older than this one.

After he gets through with all that, our man finds his old buddies from Interpol waiting in his hotel room, and is duly given the lowdown. And if shooting in Bangkok or Buenos Aires may be off the menu for yr average Jess Franco production, his budget could at least stretch to a week or two in sunny Alicante, whence Peterson is soon dispatched with a new cover identity, a bag full of improbably dangerous gadgetry and the winningly Bond-like mission of simply hanging around drinking and womanizing until the bad guys obediently turn up to pounce on him. (“How many James Bond films have you seen recently?”, Eddie asks his handlers. “More than you’d think” comes the rather gnomic reply.)

Upon his ‘arrival’ in Spain, Constantine drops the obligatory tuxedo and returns to his more familiar uniform of a shabby looking suit & tie with crumpled, ill-fitting hat, reasserting the visual identity he had constructed for himself in the Lemmy Caution films, even as ‘Attack of the Robots’ ostensibly finds him playing a different character in a very different scenario.(2)

Within minutes, Eddie - sorry, Al - has scoped out a beautiful but suspicious dame (Sophie Hardy, in her only role for Franco), checked into a fancy hotel, indulged in a fist-fight with an overly effusive Mexican, and been spied upon by a furtive agent in a safari suit (‘60s Franco regular Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui). And for the next thirty minutes or so things proceed in much the way you’d imagine really, which is just dandy.

Presumably filmed in close proximity to the preceding year’s The Diabolical Dr. Z (much of the same supporting cast reappear here, as do some of the props, most likely), ‘Attack of the Robots’ was also co-authored by that film’s scriptwriter, future Luis Bunuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere, whom we might conceivably credit with some this film’s more darkly witty moments.

The hackneyed Lee Wee stuff might not be terribly successful as comedy, but once we get past that, much of the rest of the film is actually pretty funny, with the combination of Franco’s cartoon-ish enthusiasm and a few well-placed zingers that I assume Carriere smuggled into the script leading to some genuinely amusing moments - not least the obligatory “gadget demonstration scene”, which is one of the best spoofs of such I recall seeing, as Eddie’s handlers palm off a series of increasingly absurd devices upon him with perfect deadpan unconcern, including a pair of electrified driving gloves that supposedly carry enough charge to kill “twenty adults, or about thirty children”, and, brilliantly, an explosive, poison gas equipped cigar whose contagion can only be avoided through use of a secret vial of antidote that can only be accessed by playing a particular jig on a flute disguised as a fountain pen (you might want to read that back a few times).

Further spoofy shenanigans follow in the shape of a random kid sending messages back to the villains using a ‘radio’ hidden inside a toy car,(3) and an agent who spends much of the film glued to a payphone delivering a series of uber-conspicuous code messages (“the roses and the gladioli have been set in the vase at last. You can play the delicate melody… but only in the minor key”). You get the general idea, I’m sure.

Unlike a crime or horror picture, a ‘60s spy movie really needs the oversaturated blast of cheap Eastman colour to get its groove on, and as such, ‘Attack..’ suffers somewhat from being shot in black & white, however admirable Franco’s moody, noirish photography might be. With this in mind, perhaps the decision to go as broad as possible with the humour may have been seen as the fimmakers’ best hope of overcoming such obvious budgetary limitations in the terminally overcrowded 1966 spy movie marketplace…? But who knows.

Either way, it was probably a good move. Rarely has there been a genre or an era in which the distinction been ‘serious’ examples of a form and spoofs thereof was as wafer-thin as in the post-‘Thunderball’ hey-day of these kinda movies, and, regardless of his producers’ intentions, Franco seems to have been very much on board with this on ‘Attack..’, amping up the same kind of breezy, good-natured bonhomie that predominated in La Muerte Silba un Blues to create a film that is similar in spirit to the uproariously entertaining Tony Kendall / Brad Harris ‘Kommissar X’ movies.(4)

From a directorial point of view, the filmmaking here is competent, briskly paced and engaging in a workmanlike sorta way, with only occasional lapses into sluggishness, even if Franco’s camerawork is nowhere near as inspired as it was in ‘..Dr. Z’ or Necronomicon. Fans worried that ‘Attack..’ might be little more than a goof-off should relax however, as, happily, the envelope-pushing kinkiness and general pop art dementia that crept into ‘..Dr. Z’ is back here in spades.

Just dig the movie’s villainess (Françoise Brion as “Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney”) wearing a shiny PVC dress as she takes a riding crop to similarly attired female ‘robots’ for instance, or a kidnapped girl being dragged around in chains prior to her dry ice and electric shock-based conversion into a ‘robot’. Franco was still riffing on exactly the same pulpy “women in chains” kinda stuff right through to the late 1970s of course, via Dietrich-era bangers like ‘Blue Rita’ and ‘Swedish Nympho Slaves’, and, though obvious limited by the more modest conventions of mid-‘60s action-adventure fare, he nonetheless has plenty of space to indulge his whims here.

Speaking of which, there are also two absolutely great nightclub scenes to enjoy here. Nothing quite as far-out as the “Miss Muerte” routine from ‘..Dr.Z’ perhaps, but classic Franco all the same. Clad in skin-coloured bodysuit & feather boa, Hardy vamps upon a velvet-curtained stage alongside a string quartet and a bunch of vaudeville bongo guys as feather fall from the sky, and later, apparently in the same room, she lounges in lingerie on a round central stage, looking more than a little like Maria Rohm in ‘Venus In Furs’ as she removes her stockings. It’s all a tad saltier than the “good clean fun” approach to sex appeal found in most eurospy flicks, but then would we really expect anything less from Uncle Jess?

Another thing you can always rely on Franco to come through with (in this era at least) is a damn good villain lair, and he certainly doesn’t let us down on that score here, building (perhaps literally) on ‘..Dr Z’s memorably zany lab scenes to create a direct precursor to what became the ultimate expression of his own particular brand of psyched out villain-lair cool in 1968’s staggering ‘The Girl From Rio’.

Allegedly located on a secluded island accessible only by motorboat (allowing Franco to indulge in a few woozy ‘out on the boat’ hand-held shots that prefigure the distinctive opening to ‘72’s ‘Countess Perverse’), the above-ground section of this particular lair consists of a beautiful hacienda-style summerhouse that longtime Franco viewers will probably feel they know their way around pretty well, given that both the exteriors and interiors have appeared intermittently in the director’s films across at least three decades. (Off the top of my head, it’s definitely one of the main locations for both ‘Plaiser a Trois’ (1972) and ‘Bloody Moon’ (1981), and no doubt many others besides.)

Filmed with high angles and heavy shadow, the shots in which Eddie make his through this building and its surroundings have a nice gothic horror feel to them, but naturally it’s when we get below ground that things really kick off. Here we find loads of great ‘computer’ machinery – giant dials, rows of flashing lights, rehabilitated typewriter keyboards, big “don’t pull this one” electricity levers, you name it – spread across an operations room that comes complete with a flashing light-enhanced world map (sadly not a transparent perspex one, but you can’t have everything), and rows of zombified fembot secretaries typing away at their ‘space-age’ workstations.

It is here that we also meet Lady Courtney’s male counterpart, “Lord Percy” (yes, the villains here are supposed to English toffs, presumably), who turns out to be none other than the esteemed Spanish thespian Fernando Rey - a man who was certainly no stranger to knocking out generous handfuls of b-movie appearances in between his more prestigious assignments.(5)

The finale, in which Rey’s character is toasted alive in his own electronic robot-making machine – a dry ice-filled perspex tube surrounded by stylized asymmetrical electrical cables into which the victim is lowered via a sort of medieval torture chamber chain & pulley system - proves a prime bit of sub-‘Bride of Frankenstein’ craziness, and the elaborate bedchamber scene between Constantine and Brion, with the ‘robots’ lined up around the bed, has a delightful air of sado-sexual weirdness to it too, all combining with some requisite eurospy goon-pummeling and self-destruct button pushing to ensure that, regardless of the merits of what transpired beforehand, the last few reels of ‘Attack of the Robots’ are an absolute hoot.

Whilst it’s not really anything special in the grand scheme of things, and is unlikely to inspire much in the way of widespread enthusiasm from 21st century viewers unaccustomed to the subtle joys of this-sort-of thing, ‘Attack of the Robots’ nonetheless sits high on the list of comparatively rare ‘60s Franco flicks that should prove essential viewing for both fans of the director’s work, and enthusiasts of breezy, low budget ‘60s pulp fare in general – a wonderfully off-beat eurospy contender that’s thoroughly entertaining on its own generic merits, even as its more erotic and surreal aspects directly prefigure some of the director’s later work, much to the delight of those of us out there taking note of such things.


Kink: 3/5
Creepitude: 1/5
Pulp Thrills: 5/5
Altered States: 2/5
Sight Seeing: 3/5


(1) An actor with an impressive CV of credits in European genre movies, Roca also appeared for Franco in ‘..Dr Z’, ‘Lucky The Inscrutable’, ‘The Bloody Judge’, ‘Sadisterotica’ and ‘Night of the Assassins’, and stepped beyond the Francoverse for bit-parts in ‘A Bullet For The General’, ‘Companeros!’ and ‘Horror Express’, amongst others. Whether or not he played an excruciating ching-chong Chinaman in any of them, I’m unsure at the time of writing.

(2) It’s likely that Constantine’s costume change may have been more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. The continued popularity of his “Lemmy Caution” screen persona across Europe can perhaps be gauged from the fact that in several countries, distributors went as far as to attach the name ‘Eddie’ to this movie’s title. E.g., ‘Kortene på Bordet, Eddie’ (“Cards on the Table, Eddie”, Denmark), ‘O Eddie Enantion tis Speiras ton Dolofonon’ (“Eddie Against the Gang of Murderers”, Greece).

(3) For more on those, begin here.

(4) Basically the child just holds the car to his mouth and talks into it, without the filmmakers even bothering to insert an appropriate sound effect – talk about a cheapskate effect. I half suspect Franco just found some kid playing with a toy car on the street and roped him into doing a few shots for the movie with the promise of some candy.

(5) Perhaps Franco hooked up with Rey when they were both working on Welles’ ‘Chimes At Midnight’ a year or two earlier? Just a thought. Either way, this was Rey’s only appearance in a Franco film to my knowledge.

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