"No man is free who works for a living . . . but I am available." (-- Illya Kuryakin, "The Bow-Wow Affair")

These reviews/commentaries on the show's 105 episodes originally appeared in slightly different form on the Yahoo! Groups website Channel_D, from 2008 to 2010. If you're new to MfU fandom, these may give you some idea of the flavor of the series, which is still famous and beloved more than 50 (!) years after its premiere in 1964. Enjoy!

News: Decades Channel is running a "Weekend Binge" of MfU episodes on July 2, 2017. Check the schedule here.

(Except where otherwise noted, images are used with permission of the exhaustive site Lisa's Video Frame Capture Library. Thanks to Lisa for all her work!)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"The Fiddlesticks Affair" (ep. 1/16)

Here we are, just past the halfway mark in the first season, and "Fiddlesticks" is a top-notch story in a season which has hardly seen two stories at all similar to each other.  I imagine Bruce Geller watching this one in January of '65 and murmuring to himself, "Yes!  That's just what my series should be like --!"

Of course there had been heist stories on film before.  "Five Against the House" (1955) features a casino robbery, and "Rififi" (1955) and "Topkapi" (1964) focus on jewel heists. The difference here is that Solo and Illya are law officers, not criminals.  Plus this is one of the rare MfU stories in which they take the initiative against Thrush, rather than merely reacting to the supranation's moves.  Fifty-five mil may not seem like much to us today, but it translates to something like $350,000,000 in 2006 dollars.  Still, it seems paltry for a sum intended to bankroll all of Thrush's activities in the Western Hemisphere.

In the `80s CBN cut the scene between Solo and Illya on the plane, and for years I thought they already had their innocent and their safecracker lined up somehow.  It seems improvident for them to wait until they reach the resort to look for a girl to help them with their diversion.  Wouldn't it make more sense to draft a female Command agent like the lady on the plane and in place at Vulcan's soiree, back in "Vulcan"?  But then there would have been no innocent (Rudolph could hardly be honored with that term), and it would have been a team of pros like the Impossible Missions Force.

Speaking of Rudolph, Dan O'Herlihy's performance is a gem.  Rudolph is raffish, cowardly, untrustworthy, proud of his skills, and hugely amused at Solo's distress in the vault.  He would have made an excellent return guest character: still on the run from Thrush and therefore vulnerable to Solo and Illya again -- or perhaps, after a year of hiding from the Hierarchy, exasperated and willing to help our heroes strike again at his tormentors.  (Heck, Rudolph'd make a fascinating antihero on his own.)

CBN also cut that bristly little scene at the lagoon between Solo and Illya.   Illya almost appears to be jealous of Solo getting the girl, even though the "getting" is only in the line of duty. I t's a peculiar scene, and begins a tradition, especially in Peter Allan Fields scripts, I think, of having the two snipe at each other almost like a long-married couple.  Their exchanges in "Terbuf" -- for instance, when Illya kids Solo, "It's a handicap, isn't it?  Being so obviously American" -- work much better.  On the other hand, we see how worried Solo is about Illya when, in the vault, he realizes he will not be able to deactivate the explosives before Illya begins to cut through.

As we saw in "Giuco Piano," Solo and Illya focus on the job, excluding Susan from their world of planning.  (Does anybody else think that Marlyn Mason looks kind of like Shelley Fabares of "The Donna Reed Show"?)

The suspense, accentuated by the superb Lalo Schifrin music (was Bruce Geller inspired by this episode to use him to score M: I?), is ratcheted up by two simple techniques.  Not only does Solo not know every hazard they have to face and so must improvise, but chance takes a hand as well, delaying Illya because his sparker cannot light his torch and his torch will not stay lit.  Again much like early M: I.

You might wonder why Illya is able to kick his torched panel loose so easily.  Well, he had 14 pounds of air pressure per square inch pushing on it from his side, and very little pressure on the vault side.

A neat character touch, that Anton Korbel keeps his teeth clenched on his stogie even while on his back on the floor.  Somehow, though, his name doesn't fit a guy who looks and talks as if he should be running a bookie joint in Queens.

Verdict: With sparkling dialog on top of exciting plot, one of the most memorable stories of the entire series, showing that the production, writing, and acting teams have really hit their stride.

Great Lines:
Illya: "Into the valley of Thrush rode the six hundred."
(Clearly Illya is familiar with Tennyson; and just as clearly the audience was expected to recognize the original line)

Solo: "Never in the history of the American drama has the cavalry been late."

Solo: "If you touch the wall before I throw the switch [to turn off the explosives], I will hear a very loud noise, and you will be scattered all over the Caribbean."
Illya (fatalistically): "Well, a good agent should be in many places at once."

Illya: "A deceptively easy beginning . . . to a frightening series of hazards."

Rudolph (aghast, to Solo): "Are you insane?"
Solo: "I don't, ah, think so." (To Illya) "Are you insane?"
Illya (pulling on his flippers): "No, but I'm chilly."

Solo (to a reluctant Rudolph): "You're supposed to follow instructions. That's all ye know on earth and all ye need to know." 

Rudolph: "This is Thrush, you blockhead! You will never pull it off!"
Solo (levelly): "Well, that's unfortunate for you, Rudolph. Because you're going to go in front of me. And where I step, you will have stepped first; and where I die, you will have died first."


Unknown said...

This one gets my vote as best show of the series (though I still have an overall fondness for MAZE from Season 4).

More specific comments on this one later, but gotta run for now.

Benzadmiral said...

I second that, C., though my admiration is unbounded for "Mad, *Mad* Tea Party" and "Project Strigas" -- the first because it so perfectly shows the series' blend of danger and humor, and the second because it is so deft and the heroes accomplish their goal through guile.

nephew-from-france said...

Well, not that I intend anybody to change his/her good opinion of this episode, but I would like to politely dissent - definitely not among the best ones for me.
Is this opinion unfair, because we have seen so many (too many) of these sophisticated safe vault heists since then? Maybe so. But I find it hard to abstract from that and go back to the freshness a 60s viewer might have experienced. I say might, because I am not convinced it was so fresh even then - many noir movies about the theme before that.
What might have been new was the number of "sophisticated" protection devices our agents have to bypass / deactivate. Allow me to feel not so impressed either by these devices - Edgar Poe invented much brighter ones one century earlier - or by the ingenuous UNCLE ways to counter-act them : a bulky inflatable rubber boat to cross a three-meter-wide electrified floor, really? Would not thick-soled rubber boots have performed the same trick in a less ridiculous way? Just asking...
Granted, Rudolph is an entertaining more-than-half scoundrel, though a complex character he certainly is not. And also granted, the fairly weak moral standards of the young ingenue might also be considered refreshing after a number of episodes with high-minded heroines - especially at the end when she suggests half-jokingly that they all embark on a casino-robbing spree in Vegas.

All the same I feel there are many episodes with sharper plots and more striking characters. And the adversary is really weak in this episode - when is this THRUSH cigar-chomping minion going to start feeling really worried about losing all the war treasure chest of his unkind-to-failure employers?