The late Jesús Franco was, we are told, once named by the Vatican as being, along with Luis Buñuel, "the most dangerous filmmaker in the world." There's little evidence of that in early spy caper Cartes sur table (Cards on the Table, a.k.a. Attack of the Robots, 1966), but there is, by pleasing coincidence, a Buñuel connection or two. Franco's co-writer on this and other early productions was none other than the great Jean-Claude Carrière, the collaborator's collaborator, who worked with Buñuel on all his later French movies (as well as ghosting Don Luis's autobiography My Last Breath). The movie also features regular Buñuel star Fernando Rey among its seamy rogue's gallery of villains.
The movie stars craggy Yank abroad Eddie Constantine as a former Interpol agent lured back for one last job, but betrayed by his bosses who see him as a pawn in the game. Although the movie is light, even silly, it does have a bracingly cynical view of politics and law enforcement.
It also has a goofy plot about mind control experiments which turn kidnapees with the requisite blood group ("Rhesus zero") into swarthy robots. The swarthy, shoe-polish skin is a side-effect of Rey's weird process, which involves dangling girls into clear plastic tubes, the only scene which recalls Franco's usual S&M tendencies.
The real revelation is Constantine, in a role which echoes his usual Lemmy Caution tough guy roles, but reveals a surprising comic flair. It's a little startling to see that huge grizzled halibut's face register sheepishness or dismay or the other lighter emotions signifying weakness and vacillation, but he does it with skill and after a while it doesn't seem incongruous at all. As a Bond parody, his Joe Pereira character is quite winning, and shares some qualities with Michael Caine's low-status anti-Bond, Harry Palmer: Bond never rode on the bus.
Though lightweight, the movie benefits from a wealthy of goofy ideas, thrown together by Franco and Carrière with puckish abandon: Constantine is assaulted by a girl dressed as a statue; his hotel room is wrecked by rival gangs fighting, then repaired in his absence when he reports it to room service; Interpol equip him with lethal gadgets including an exploding umbrella, electrocuting gloves ("can kill a dozen men, or fifteen children") and a poison gas cigar, complete with a ball-point pen that converts into a flute which releases the antidote. None of these work, because Constantine getting kidnapped and brainwashed is part of the plan, which leads to an amusing episode where Constantine hurls his cigar onto the table between his enemies and ducks behind a bookcase to start playing the flute. Nothing happens, but the odd behavior does rather recall Buñuel (Rey snatching ham from under a table in The Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, for instance).
The wealth of incident and more-or-less classical filming style, with nice moody night scenes à la Franco's more celebrated The Awful Dr. Orloff, make this rather unlike She Killed in Ecstasy or Vampyros Lesbos, movies which operate more via atmosphere than plot. There are a few moments when Franco, an enthusiast for exotic locations, can't resist zooming randomly in on the Rock of Ifach in Alicante, or on a pretty girl's legs, but he generally keeps his mind on the breakneck narrative and lets the visuals support that.
Unlike Franco's later espionage capers like the rambling, repetitive and nonsensical Blue Rita, this has a linear narrative with motivations clearly laid out. James Bond globe-trotting is simulated with a sequence laid in China, though apparently shot in a Chinese restaurant in Spain. The treatment of Chinese characters, not to mention a comedy relief Mexican, is pretty insensitive, alas. As the movie ends, he's drowning in the sea while our hero and heroine laugh hysterically in that forced way people used to do at the end of TV shows.
The dusky-hued slave robot scheme might also carry intimations of racism, but more agreeable readings are available. What with the Spanish location and action centering on a hotel (furnished for covert surveillance in the best Mabuse manner), the idea of outsiders being snatched, turned brown, and brainwashed by remote-control sunglasses, suggests a commentary on the booming package holiday trade that turned the Spain of Franco (the Generalissimo, not the filmmaker) into Europe's top vacation destination.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.