James Coburn and Harry Andrews in The Internecine Project (1974)

Secret Identities and Secret Codes in Ken Hughes and Jack Gold Films

The Internecine Project and Who?: Two twisty, methodical, unusual thrillers whose heroes are masters of secret codes.

From the forgotten depths of the mid-’70s come two Blu-rays with much in common. Both are twisty, methodical, unusual thrillers, not well known at all, whose heroes are masters of secret codes. Both feature American stars surrounded by British cast and crew, and both are produced by Barry Levinson.

No, not the famous Barry Levinson who directed Rain Man (1987) and produced such TV series as Homicide and Oz. This unrelated Barry Levinson, also American, produced several projects in Europe during the ’70s. His first effort was Maximilian Schell’s directorial debut, the Oscar-nominated First Love (1971), which seems lost in the historical shuffle except for a German DVD. Levinson did the rest of his work in England, including a popular family ghost movie, The Amazing Mr. Blunden (1972), an excellent TV film and character study called Catholics (1973), and these two mid-’70s oddities.

The Internecine Project follows a story as ambiguous as its pronunciation. We begin with flashy bits of business involving a gloved hand and a stopwatch as its owner drives around London and isolates various characters targeted in file folders. Then an alleged journalist (Lee Grant, typically projecting more intelligence than her character) rushes into a TV studio and debates US policy with Robert Elliot (James Coburn), an international expert on something or other.

He works for a ruthless tycoon (Keenan Wynn) who’s tapped him for a position with the US President, whomever that may be. As the dialogue carefully explains, leading us by the hand, this means eliminating Elliot’s team of four industrial spies to make a clean break with his past, thus confirming our worst ’70s suspicions about the military-industrial complex. Elliot constructs an elaborate set-up whereby the four of them will kill each other in one carefully timed night of cross-purposes, with every step signaled by phone calls and checked off on a timesheet and map so we can all follow the program.

While the boffin (Michael Jayston) and the sweaty petty bureaucrat (Ian Hendry) need their arms twisted, the cat-loving masseur (Harry Andrews) is eager to put down the lone woman (Christiane Krüger) in a Psycho-esque shower scene that abruptly raises the film’s blood pressure. Second-billed Grant really has nothing of significance to do. For that matter, neither does Coburn, whose puppet-master dominates from the shadows, exuding self-satisfied mastery with moments of nervous tension.

As writer Jonathan Lynn explains in an interview, it’s kind of like a heist movie, although he also points out that not much of his script was used. What he wrote, based on a treatment by ex-CIA operative Max Elkind, was a Cold War spy story with shades of Kissinger references, and what got made (with Levinson as co-writer) is about industrial espionage. In either case, it’s a grim and greedy vision of power, surveillance, and manipulation. Mention should be made of Roy Budd’s score, which boosts the picture with lots of ’70s percussive effects (cimbalom, bongos, etc.) while coming up with diverse, non-repetitive cues throughout.

Director Ken Hughes, obscure outside England, did a lot of B crime pictures before getting briefly mixed up with Hollywood in the ’60s, yielding the Tony Curtis murder comedy Arrivederci, Baby (1966) and by far his most famous movie, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). His background in budget-conscious crime serves him well here in conjuring that gritty downbeat ’70s vibe amid its sleek trappings and clockwork plot, and this may be why it’s still watchable.

Joseph Bova in Who? (1974)

Even odder and fresher is Who?, whose main character is only seen in a silver robotic helmet that foreshadows Robin Williams’ make-up in 1999’s Bicentennial Man. It’s quite a good make-up job that unwittingly exemplifies the film’s own identity crisis. It’s also been released in the UK as The Man in the Metal Mask and has sometimes played as Robo Man. This disc labels it a 1975 film, apparently the date of its US release, while IMDB cites a 1974 UK release and some sources claim 1973. We cannot resolve these conundrums.

The hero might or might not be top-secret American scientist Lucas Martino, played with a quiet, grounded, ambiguous magnetism by Joseph Bova in his only major film role — and we never see his face, or at least not much beyond his expressive eyes. He’s been refashioned after a car crash near the border with East Germany, and the American CIA agent (Elliott Gould) in charge of the case is deeply suspicious that the man is really Martino instead of a diabolical substitute.

The drama follows three threads in different timelines — not unlike the 1958 Algis Budrys novel on which John Gould’s screenplay is based. There’s the current story in which Martino — if it’s really Martino — feels estranged from his former home in the free West and tries to convince others, and perhaps himself, of his identity.

This present narrative is shadowed by carefully placed flashbacks of the previous months in East Germany, where an intelligence mastermind (Trevor Howard, putting on an accent) interrogates Martino. The cross-cutting between the past and “now” echoes words, images and camera gestures for smooth transitions. These are calculated to lead our surmises in one direction, then another. It’s transparently manipulative, calling attention to itself in a satisfying way.

The third timeline involves flashbacks to Martino’s previous life, in which other characters speak to the camera as it adopts his subjective POV. Thus, we can never make our own physical comparison. This technical cleverness deepens the existential crisis until the question becomes not “Is he Martino?” but “Who is Martino, and who does he want to be?” The things in which we invest our identities may not be what’s good for us, or to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, he may get what he needs rather than what he wants.

Director Jack Gold, who had a distinguished career in TV films, died in 2015 but was able to record a friendly commentary with Anthony Sloman, who points out that Gould’s suspicious, methodical character shows less human emotion than Bova. Still in good memory, Gold doesn’t have much to say about non-directorial aspects of this film, which was shot in German and Florida without any sets and with one lengthy pointless car chase (the needed “action scene”) that makes him sigh. “I went into films because I like working with actors, not with cars,” he says.

It’s a minor movie that plays well in our era of Millennial Unreality, and we’re glad finally to see this “lost” work of science fiction. All the top secret paranoid stuff, which has the effect of evaporating politics into broader existential concerns, works because it’s in a low key that feels undated. The internalized drama is well balanced by the strangeness of the concept and the mask. We quickly become accustomed to it while never ceasing to stare at Martino. If that’s who he is.

The Internecine Affair was previously released on DVD by Scorpion with interviews with Lynn, Grant and Lisa Coburn (James’ daughter), so collectors might wish to hold onto it while upgrading. Scorpion also released a DVD of Who?, from which this new edition imports the commentary track. That older disc also had some Gould commentary and another interview, so collectors may want to hang to that one too. Both editions have the same distracting strobing or flashing in a final scene, indicating a problem in the original negative.

RATING 5 / 10