Sunday, December 16, 2018

Attack of the Robots, aka Cartes Sur Table (France/Spain, 1966)

The Lemmy Caution movies are unique among Eurospy series by virtue of one of their entries being directed by one of the leading lights of the French New Wave—that entry being Alphaville, a deadpan masterpiece of dystopian surrealism helmed by Jean-Luc Godard. This makes Cartes Sur Table, aka Cards on the Table (American title Attack of the Robots) all the more interesting, because it was the next film to follow Alphaville in the series and, as such, gives us some idea of what the Caution films were like minus the symbiotic burden of the Godarian style.

As a first point of contrast, Cartes Sur Table was directed by Jesus Franco, a director whose fulsome self-indulgence was as far removed from Godard’s stark modernism as possible. Though it must be said that this was Franco circa 1966, when he had not yet succumbed to his impulses and was still capable of working within studio restrictions to craft an entertaining little B picture that purrs along like a well tooled engine. That is unquestionably what Cartes Sur Table is. Which is not to say that Franco didn’t work a couple of languidly erotic night club numbers into the picture to mark it as distinctly his own.

Hardboiled FBI man Lemmy Caution was created by British author Peter Cheyney and was the subject of ten novels written by him between 1936 and 1945. The character made his film debut in a Dutch compilation film called Brelan D’as in 1952, but would not receive the feature treatment until 1953’s La Môme Vert de Gris, produced by French producer Bernard Boderie, which was followed by two more Caution films within the same year. For his lead, Boderie chose American Eddie Constantine, a singer turned actor who had studied under Edith Piaf.

With his pocked, craggy features, Constantine was far from a glamor-puss. In fact, Godard had played on the actor’s rough looks in Alphaville by refusing to let him use makeup in some scenes. Nonetheless, Constantine was possessed of a rough-edged charisma and good-natured affability that made him perfect for the role of Caution, who, in the films, was portrayed as a wisecracking rogue who prevails as the result of a kind of bemused indomitability.

Cartes Sur Table begins with a series of political assassinations carried out by assailants who are, to a one, bespectacled, bronze-skinned, and capable only of saying the last thing said to them. It is later determined that these robotic killers all share the rare blood type Rhesus 0, a blood type also shared by the subjects of a number of recent missing person cases. The higher ups at Interpol decide to bring retired agent Lemmy Caution (“Al Anderson” in the English dub), who also has the same blood type, back into the fold to investigate and also serve as unwitting bait for the mysterious organization behind the killings.

When we first meet Caution, he is gleefully cleaning up the table at an Asian gambling den, where he first meets the character played by Franco regular Mara Lasso, the requisite beautiful woman of mysterious origins who serves as his companion throughout the rest of the film. After leaving the club, he is accosted by a gang of men in the employ of Asian crimelord Lee Wee (Vincente Roca) and taken back to their boss’ hideout. We will later learn that Lee Wee is also interested in using Caution as bait to entrap the rival gang, but for now Caution just beats the hell out of his men and escapes.

Once dispatched to Spain under the guise of globe-hopping businessman Frank Froebe (likely a nod to Goldfinger’s Gert Froebe), Caution learns that the villains behind the murders are relying on a pair of dissolute aristocrats with a knack for mad science to create their zombie-like assassins. These are Sir Percy, portrayed by reliable Eurospy villain Fernando Rey, and Lady Cecilia Addington Courtney, played by French actress Françoise Brion. It is in the scene where these two appear that Franco’s B Movie instincts really come to the fore, complete with flashing control panels, gothic atmosphere, and screaming captives being lowered into a giant test tube.

What surprised me about Cartes Sur Table is that, on top of being satisfyingly action packed, with a number of memorable fist fights and car chases, it is also quite funny at times. One of the most successful comedic sequences takes place when a quartet of robot assassins breaks into Caution’s hotel room, only to find a gang of Lee Wee’s men, who summarily kill all of them, then tidy the place up before an irate Caution can return with the hotel manager to complain about the mess.

This kind of deft genre alchemy combines with Eddie Constantine’s rakish charm and Franco’s pacey direction to make Cartes Sur Table a disarmingly captivating watch. Although Alphaville is one of my favorite films, I can confidently say that, without it, Cartes would still be a worthwhile investment of time for any fan of the Eurospy genre.

No comments: