Imagine a science-fiction influenced spy thriller about humanoid assassins directed by Jess Franco with a screenplay adaptation by Jean-Claude Carrière (a frequent collaborator with Luis Bunuel), a cool jazz score by Paul Misraki (Alphaville, Le Doulos, Les Cousins) and an international cast featuring Eddie Constantine, Fernando Rey and Francoise Brion. It sounds like a film buff’s fever dream but it actually exists. Released in 1966 during the height of the James Bond craze, Cartes sur table aka Attack of the Robots is a stylish and amusing entertainment that takes a standard world domination-by-madman scenario and infuses it with a cheeky sense of humor. The film will come as a surprise to those who only associate Jess Franco with Eurotrash favorites like 99 Women (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971) and Wanda, the Wicked Warden (1977).
Attack of the Robots, the U.S. release title, is somewhat misleading since the bronze skin tone killers running amok in the movie are not cyborgs but human beings with type O blood who have been converted by a giant test tube-like contraption into mind-controlled hit men and women. The male victims, in particular, are quite fashionable with their black turtlenecks, dark jackets and super thick nerd glasses (they look like Henry Kissinger with a weird tan). But this is only one aspect of the narrative that revolves around retired Interpol agent Al Peterson (identified as Al Pereira in the international version and played by American born singer/actor Eddie Constantine), who finds himself forced back into the game by his former employer in order to infiltrate and destroy the sinister operations of Sir Percy (Fernando Rey) and his scheming wife Lady Cecilia (Francoise Brion). There are other subplots which are playfully integrated into the fast-paced proceedings such as an attempt by Interpol rival Lee Wee, played by Vicente Roca, to kidnap Peterson from a casino and use him for his own purposes (Lee Wee figures prominently in the finale). Peterson also plays seductive cat-and-mouse games with Lady Cecilia and Cynthia Lewis (Sophie Hardy), an exotic dancer/undercover agent, that confirm Peterson’s reputation as a womanizer.
In addition, Franco sprinkles the film with fun film references such as the staging of an assassination on the steps of a government palace as seen from above and is clearly a homage to a similar scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940).
Eddie Constantine, a former protege of French singer Edith Piaf, had appeared in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville the previous year. That film thrust him into the international limelight briefly even though he was playing a more stylized variation of detective Lemmy Caution, a pulp fiction character he embodied in a popular series of French B-movies. Alphaville for Godard was both an allegorical sci-fi film without special effects and a deadpan sendup of the American private eye genre. He dedicated the film to Monogram Pictures, the ultimate poverty row studio in Hollywood, and who better to play the B-movie hero than French icon Constantine, who found himself stereotyped in countless tough guy roles besides the Lemmy Caution series such as Jeff Gordon, Secret Agent (1963) and Nick Carter and Red Club (1965).
Although Constantine is not playing Lemmy Caution in Attack of the Robots, his persona is very similar to the macho, two-fisted agent he played in such low-budget efforts like Women Are Like That (1960) and Your Turn, Darling (1963) where women and booze were his favorite distractions. Think of Attack of the Robots as a looser, more surreal variation on the Lemmy Caution formula and a visual upgrade in production values compared to that series.
The crisp black and white cinematography by Antonio Macasoli is an eye pleasing blend of film noir lighting and jet set ambiance. Equally appealing is the evocative score by Paul Misraki which mirrors the French nightclub jazz scene of its era with a beatnik vibe that sometimes permeates other Misraki-scored films like …And God Created Woman (Brigitte Bardot’s wild bongo drum dance). Attack of the Robots is also spiced with ingredients that would become more prominent in later Franco films such as eroticism (there are some unconventional striptease scenes, one featuring a Dixieland-jazz band), sadism (whippings, beatings and Sir Percy’s laboratory procedures) and exotic settings (the picturesque Mediterranean seaport of Alicante, Spain serves as a major backdrop).
Attack of the Robots is also rife with James Bond references, both direct and indirect, from the bronzed zombies (shades of Goldfinger) to the so-called ingenious gadgets Constantine is given to use against his enemies – a gas-filled pen, exploding cigar, gloves that deliver electrical shocks and a mysterious umbrella. All of them prove to be empty props except for one.
There are a few moments when Attack of the Robots threats to segue into complete buffoonery but for the most part, Franco keeps the film balanced between a campy sense of humor and James Bond-like shenanigans with compelling action stunts and violence such as a high speed car chase on treacherous mountain roads and an impressive fight sequence in a boat house that ends with death by speargun. It also helps that Francoise Brion plays her role with deadpan seriousness which makes her cunning femme fatale the most intriguing character in the film. The actress shares some physical similarities to Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve’s sister) and her glacial beauty adds a touch of class to the proceedings. Brion had previously appeared with Constantine in Women Are Like That (1960) and Ladies’ Man (1962) and is probably best known for her work in Alain Robbe-Grillet’s I’Immortelle (1963), Yves Robert’s Very Happy Alexander (1968) and Nelly Kaplan’s Nea aka Young Emmanuelle (1976).
In contrast to Brion’s calculated deadliness, Constantine appears to be having great fun as Interpol agent Al Peterson and perhaps it’s a reaction to his much more orchestrated, blustery performance in Alphaville. He is alternately unflappable, clueless, flippant and vulnerable here in ways that make his relationship with Hardy look like some weird, high stakes Rock Hudson-Doris Day comedy. Not surprisingly, Constantine would work with Franco on his next film – Residencia para sepias,1966 – in which he played a C.I.A. agent named Dan Leyton on assignment in Istanbul. It was not a popular success and remains an obscurity in the careers of both actor and director.
The supporting cast of Attack of the Robots includes Franco regular Ricardo Palacios as a not-too-bright Mexican tourist who keeps showing up to give Constantine a hard time and provides unwanted and annoying comic relief. As for the great Fernando Rey – so brilliant in such Luis Bunuel films as Viridiana (1960), Tristana (1970) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) – he is mostly wasted here as the evil mastermind Sir Percy. Instead of cutting loose and having fun with this over the top character, Rey chooses to play him as an introverted, methodical and quietly insane powermonger. At least he gets a memorable sendoff in the fiery climax.
Attack of the Robots is available as an English-dubbed DVD-R from Sinister Cinema but I recommend you seek out the PAL DVD from Gaumont if you have an all-region DVD player. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen which retains the film’s intended aspect ratio and is uncut, running three minutes longer than the U.S. release. It looks terrific but there is no English audio or subtitle option (The disc is in French). Still, the film is easy to follow and well worth seeing as an early effort from Jess Franco before he detoured into darker territory with films like Eugenie de Sade (1973) and The Perverse Countess (1974).
Other websites of interest: