Friday, September 9, 2011
The Mechanical Man (1921)
“The Mechanical Man” by Director/Writer/Star Andre Deed is more a lesson in why films should be properly preserved for future generations than an enthralling cinematic masterpiece. A silent film from Italy, it was believed lost for decades until a fragment of a Portuguese version of the film turned up in Brazil in the early 2000s. Only 25 minutes of the original 80 minute film, what’s left of “The Mechanical Man” is nothing more than a messy context-less clip show that, even with the aid of additional plot summarizing text cards, will have you scratching your skull in confusion.
Escaping from a prison hospital, the evil gang leader Mado (Valentina Frascaroli) has stolen blueprints for an unstoppable robot called the Mechanical Man. Controlling the fiend from a massive switchboard, Mado sends it on a crime spree that leaves the police utterly powerless to prevent. Meanwhile, what I’m supposed to believe is our hero, Saltarello (Andre Deed), gets, like, arrested. Or something. And then… saves the day? I’m sorry, it’s just really hard to follow this thing. Anyhow, some guy who apparently was really important in the missing 55 minutes of this film, Professor D’Ara (Gabriel Moreau), builds a second Mechanical Man and the two giant robots duke it out at a crowded opera house.
The majority of the missing segments come from the beginning of the film... and really any parts that don’t involve a giant robot smashing stuff. So while that leaves us with lots of admittedly ahead of their time and ambitious special effects, there’s pretty much no narrative cohesion to this thing whatsoever. The additional text cards tell you who each character is and what their role is supposed to portray, but even when viewing what remains of the film, you simply can’t come to grips with that on your own. Even the fragments of this film appear to be in fragments and there’s lots of switching and flipping from scene to scene in only a handful of seconds; you hardly get a chance to sort out what you’re looking at before the scene changes to some seemingly random picture of a dog yapping. This problem persists mostly during the first ten or so minutes of the movie, thankfully, and after that things get marginally less spastic.
The aforementioned special effects are quite impressive by 1921 standards, going beyond just a guy in a big metal suit shuffling around with his arms outstretched. There’s a really fantastic chase sequence where our hero and his girl, Elena (Mathilde Lambert) try to escape the Mechanical Man in their motorcar and the thing proceeds to keep pace with them on foot. The Mechanical Man’s various rampages aren’t half-bad on the visuals, either, as the robot blasts through doors with a flamethrower and hurls people off balconies. The climactic battle at the opera house, while short, was probably a stunning sight back in 1921.
To date, Alpha Video is the only company to release the surviving fragment of “The Mechanical Man” on home video, which is a shame, as Alpha Video are known for their cheap, bargain bin DVDs of public domain films. It would be great to see what companies like Kino or Image Entertainment could do with this, as they’re the go-to guys for restored silent films, but for now I supposed we should be grateful for what we can get. Alpha Video’s release is in predictably terrible shape, with random tinting going on all over the film (one moment it’s green, then yellow, then blue, then red, with no rhyme or reason). The summarizing text cards would have been a nice gesture if they’d been distributed throughout the movie to put the scenes in context. Instead, you get one complete plot summary at the beginning of the film and then you’re thrown directly into the strung-together fragments, left to your own devices to make sense of the whole thing. There’s also a newly recorded techno music score that’s absolutely god awful, right down to a robot voice singing along with the film and sound effects added to an explosion at the end (a big no-no that defeats the purpose of a silent movie).
I feel I should be clearer that I’m not so much judging the movie-itself, as I honestly can’t, since only 40% of it still exists. I’m more criticizing the release of that 40%. I feel more could be done to restore this shard of cinematic history than what a low-budget public domain DVD company is willing to provide. From what I can glean from “The Mechanical Man”, it’s an impressive display of vintage special effects and an important stepping stone in the advancement of science fiction cinema; I’m pretty sure this is the first “evil robot kills people” movie in history, even preceding the more well-known “Metropolis” by six years. I also wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the 1941 Paramount Pictures Superman short, “The Mechanical Monsters”, which also dealt with a criminal using switchboard-controlled robots to steal jewels.
Unfortunately, we may never get to see “The Mechanical Man” in its entirety, as recovering extinct silent films is strictly the luck of the draw. What remains could certainly be more interesting were it properly restored, given an appropriate score and had the summarizing text cards distributed between scenes instead of bunched up at the beginning. Until that day comes, well, you can get the thing for $7 bucks. Thanks Alpha Video. Thanks a lot.
Grade: N/A (as in, “Now applying a letter grade just wouldn’t be fair of me, would it?”)