July 03, 2022
The Mechanical Man Last night, besides the gachiest gacha game that ever gachad' and a successful grind session in FF14, the stream presented to our 8 viewers a 1921 Italian techno-thriller.
Only about 26 minutes of this ~80 minute film still exists, and the title cards of the only English version I've found are not particularly helpful.
In fairness, most of what's missing is merely context to the story. The footage we saw last night eschews such boring world building to get down to the important business of screwball chases, cosplay follies, and robot rampages.
So, for the 8 non-robotic viewers that my stream summary says watched the film, here is an overview of of what seems to have been going on, cobbled together from a discussion in film class 10 years ago, Wikipedia, the very sparse English subtitles in the version we watched, and the infinitesimal amount of information I was able to glean via my very atrophied 2 years of Latin from the more extensive Portuguese subtitles.
This was an interesting and remarkably forward looking film in a lot of ways.
The basic set up is that a city in post WW1 Italy is being beset by rising crime and a string of political assassinations. Meanwhile one Professor D'Ara, a scientist/engineer, has become the talk of Italy by inventing what is essentially an anthropomorphic, remote controlled drone, to which he gives the perfectly straightforward name of Mechanical Man. The device is fantastically durable, being built like a light tank and possesses speed comparable to an automobile. It is hoped that it can be used in mining and dangerous heavy industrial jobs.
A gang of criminals led by a remarkably competent and brazen woman(for a '20s film) named Mado attempts to steal the device but they are thwarted and it is put under close guard. Mado's gang proceeds to kidnap and tourture Dr. D'Ara in an attempt to get the robot blueprints from him. The police, led by a famous detective do locate and overwhelm the mob, arresting most of the leadership including Mado who is badly burned and suffers a heart attack during the raid. D'Ara did not break but the police discover he died from the gangs tender ministrations.
Mado turns out to be as dangerous and creative as The Joker, from Batman. It turns out that she faked her heart attack and her burn. Using her feigned coma to lull the hospital workers into complacency, she sets fire to the hospital, murdering numerous patients in the process, frames Saltarello (Dr. Dara's brother) for arson and murder, swaps a murdered nurse for her body (faking her own death) and escapes Scott free to reunite with the remains of her gang. (This is where the limited surviving footage mostly picks up...with the villain's clever arson and Joker-esqe escape from the hospital)
She the kidnaps Dr. Dara's daughter and forces her to give her the location of the robot blueprints. The detective Ramberti, who arrested Mado suspects that she is not dead but is unable to do anything until he finds Dr. Dara's daughter who has been free'd by The late professor's brother who is on the run from police, having been framed for arson and mass murder. (Whew!)
Meanwhile a series of smash and grab robberies are taking place that generally involve safe's being stolen wholesale or armored cars being broken into. Also a series of murders, with the victims being pulverized transpire over the next few weeks. There is one group of witnesses, a rich socialite reports that a mechanical man tore into her house and stole her jewelry safe while she and her friends were far enough away to not be noticed.
Mado has built her own mechanical man.
Allow a moment of silence for the chap that took refuge in the dresser.
Saltarello meanwhile is still on the run from police and trying to clear his name and avenge his brother. He has a close encounter with the mechanical man as the latter assassinates a politician.
He takes refuge at a costume ball, where, for reasons not entirely clear, he suspects something bad is about to go down. The ball, has apparently been a big looming "thing" for most of the movie, is being attended by a veritable "Who's Who" of Italian Politics, Industry, and old money. He has to flee, but not before he dresses up as Napoleon.
Meanwhile, Mado sics her Mechanical Man on Detective Ramberti and a number of witnesses including the late Dr. Dara's daughter and Dara's engineering assistant . They flee but discover that not only is the Mechanical Man bullet proof, but it can break through walls and iron gates. It also has cutting torches in its fingers that make short work of the iron door they attempt to slow it down with. They escape in a car, but the mechanical man almost overhauls the car until Terminator1921 suffers a short circuit and crashes by the side of the road in flames.
This chase is silly, but surprisingly good.
Ramberti and his party then run into a bunch of bicycle cops with his car, (literally) and he subsequently tries to get help to recover the infernal device.
Meanwhile Mado is able to get a team together to recover the Mechanical Man before Ramberti gets to it.
Saltarello escapes the costume ball, dressed as...uh...Napoleon or something, steals a police motorcycle, and is pursued and confronted by another detective (who is in an 18th century...dress, because he was undercover at the costume ball). The detective explains that Saltarello is no longer under suspicion for murder/arson/jaywalking.
The public is completely unaware of ANY of this so, a few hours later when some cosplayer shows up at the costume ball dressed as the famous 9 foot tall mechanical man, the person is awarded best in show and becomes the toast of all the movers and shakers of Italy, sitting down with them and not saying anything.
"This is not at all sus. Not one bit."
This lasts until, well, he gets right up close to all the most important people in the social register and reveals that his costume...isn't...and begins crushing them, throwing them off balconies, and generally being impervious to bullets.
MEANWHILE: Dr Dara's assistant, who has been trying to get the ORIGINAL mechanical man working again succeeds in getting the wireless remote control to work. He then sends the ORIGINAL Mechanical Man out to fight Mado's Mechanical Man. They engage in a robot slap-fight in the ballroom, destroying it in a most satisfactory manner as they wack away at each other.
Saltarello arrives at Mado's headquarters to find her frantically manipulating the wall sized control panel during the fight which she is observing via a television screen.
(BTW, in 1921 Television won't be invented for 7 more years)
He starts to sneak up on the most dangerous lady in Italy but decides to throw random switches in the hopes of throwing off her control. As a result the control panel shorts out. Mado is electrocuted and dies. The Ersatz mechanical man goes berzerk but is subdued by the original and explodes.
Mado is revealed to be a famous rich socialite with connections in politics and industry (explaining how she had access to the physical plant needed to make a Mechanical man in mere days). She also is the person responsible for having the big costume ball that gathered all the assassinate-able people in one place. The second detective, no longer in his dress, thanks everyone including Saltarello who is still dressed like Napoleon.
Later, Saltarello, in a normal suit, says his goodbyes to everyone and gets in a plane and flies off into the sunset.
Years ago I was told by a film student, when the discovery of this film caused the topic to come up, that this was one of a series of "great detective" films that was popular in Italy at that time, and that the detective character in this film is a star of numerous other films around the same time. That is, this would be equivalent to Sherlock Holmes meets The Terminator. I don't know if that is true, the detective is a central but supporting character in the extant footage, but I'll put it out there. If there is a "franchise character" in this it's seems more likely to be Salterello, though I can't find any references to such a thing.
There are probably several details that I've got wrong. If anybody speaks Portugese, then please correct me in the comments.
I was chuffed when I heard that the remnants of this historic film now had English subtitles, but as we discovered during the stream, they were so laconic as to not be particularly helpful. When they are compared to the very lengthy Portuguese subtitles, it's obvious the 'restorers' did not hire a translator.
My onstream commentary was based on my knowledge of the film from reputation, and the little bit of research I'd done, fully expecting that "English Subtitles" meant something.
On the other hand, the DMCA-Free Electro-Swing BGM that I paired with the film on stream was a surprisingly good fit.
In any event, this was an enjoyable watch, being a completely whackaloon little film that had all of its buildup and exposition destroyed allowing one to get right into the important business of fire, explosion, murders, and the first Robot Battle in cinematic history. So I'm calling it a win.
Screenshots for this post are not by me but were knicked from the film's IMDb entry and Tumbler's SciFi .gifs page.
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