"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!)

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The Hong Kong Shilling Affair" (ep. 1/24)

While this Alan Caillou script isn't one of my favorites like "Fiddlesticks" and "Mad, Mad Tea Party," a foreign location, exotic details like the geese as watchdogs, an unusual male Innocent, and a mysterious mastermind revealed at the climax all make it enjoyable.

Glenn Corbett was fresh off "Route 66" at this point.  His Bernie Oren (former Marine, two tours of Vietnam) makes me wonder:  Wouldn't ol' Bern have made a good U.N.C.L.E. recruit?  Once he learned to follow instructions, of course.  All through this episode, Solo and Illya make clear the gulf between the amateur like Bernie and the professionals like themselves, and yet Bernie acquits himself well.

The exterior of Command HQ in Hong Kong could be a tailor shop, just as in Rome.  Interesting that, unlike New York's offices, the steel-walled rooms are decorated -- here, in Far Eastern fashion.  Possibly Mr. Samoy's office in Calcutta boasts brass sculptures of the god Ganesh and paintings of Krishna and Lord Shiva.

There's a 12-hour time difference between NYC and HK, and Mr. Waverly and Solo speak live.  This is possible; if this is summertime, the scene in HK could be taking place at 7 pm, and Waverly could be in the NYC office at 7 am -- earlier that same day.

Why does Solo refuse to tell Bernie who he is, and about U.N.C.L.E.?   They might have been able to get his cooperation without the thousand-buck bribe.

Illya touch-types!  I wonder where he picked up that skill.

While I don't know about geese being used as watchdogs in the Orient, I do know the ancient Romans used them that way.  Our word "admonish," "to warn," comes from the use of geese as a warning system outside the Roman mint (from Latin "moneta," whence also comes "money."  See what you learn reading U.N.C.L.E. reviews?  And your mother used to say, "You'll rot your brain with that U.N.C.L.E. stuff!")
Hard to believe that Solo, as he approaches Cleveland's place, wouldn't have heard Heavenly's shoes clicking behind him, she was so close.  Better if we saw him break in, then cut to a shot of Heavenly at some little distance, watching.  (In fact, the more shots of Heavenly, the better.)

Yes, that is Gavin MacLeod as well-dressed thug Mr. Cleveland.  For those of us who grew up with him as Capt. Steubing on "The Love Boat" and witty news writer Murray on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," to see him as a criminal is startling.  (I still recall his nasty turn as a convict nicknamed "Big Chicken" in an early episode of "Hawaii Five-O" -- as unlike Cleveland as Cleveland is unlike MacLeod's more cuddly roles.)  Intriguing here that his sidearm should be the big Colt Peacemaker revolver!

Illya first poses as a rickshaw coolie (I suppose that broad straw hat might keep people from noticing he wasn't dark-haired, let alone Chinese) and then as the irascible, misogynistic Mongolian warlord -- kind of an Oriental Nero Wolfe.  Now I knew before I saw this episode, thanks to a fan magazine, that the warlord was one of Illya's disguises.  But the makeup is so good he's really hard to recognize.  Were any of you fooled the first time you saw this story?

This is the other episode to feature the Command ID disc from the back of Solo's watch.

Bill Koenig mentions on his site that Glenn Corbett actually injured himself while filming the fall shown in Act IV, and that's why he doesn't appear on camera at the end -- that Solo, Illya, and Heavenly all play to him as though he's on the floor behind the bar.  This works fairly well, thanks to the hand gestures from Heavenly and Bernie, plus Illya's line, "Well, he's safe now . . . in the arms of the law."

The identity of Apricot is held until the end for maximum suspense.   It's hard to judge whether a mystery or surprise in a story really works when you know the answer.  The zoom-in on the dragonfly emblazoned on the purse of the female sampan pilot, followed within minutes by Max's muttering of the word as he dies, seems a giveaway . . . but you could also say it's a fairly planted clue.  As with Prince Fasik in "King of Knaves," though, I question that a criminal mastermind would spend her days doing something so mundane!

Verdict: Fun, with a strong international flavor.

Memorable lines:
Illya (in disguise as coolie): "My feet are getting cold."
Solo: "Well, your suffering distresses me.  But not very much."

Illya (roped to Bernie as Apricot interrogates him): "I refuse to talk in this debased posture."

5 comments:

carabele said...

It struck me while watching HONG KONG SHILLING again tonight that particular mission could well have raised some... contrary thoughts for Illya.

Though of course having military secrets sold to the highest bidder would be something he wouldn't want to see happen necessarily, the secrets in question were particularly American and NATO military secrets. As a Soviet, how did he feel about having to protect those? And really weren't those folks bidding on those secrets simply spies themselves? Thrush isn't ever mentioned as being part of this operation.

I do think Illya had a definite loyalty to his native land. I do think he was a "good" communist but not a "blind" communist. However, protecting those military secrets detailed in HONG KONG SHILLING kind of crossed the line between protecting humanity and "saving the world" to protecting the military machine of the U.S. and its allies. I can imagine that being frustrating for him.

It's an intriguing question to ponder. And I did notice that at the end he hands the shilling, which is supposedly made of the same material as the nosecones of U.S. missiles, to Napoleon with the comment: "A souvenir of Hong Kong. Take it home to your family." Perhaps it can be interpreted that he didn't want to be responsible in the end for restoring the coin to the hands of the U.S. military? And that by "your family" he really meant the United States government?

nephew-from-france said...

Interesting speculations about Ilya's psyche defending US/NATO secrets...
The series never dared to go as far as having its heroes defending strategic Soviet interests (it only came close in the Finny Foot Affair, but it was about ploughshares, not swords), So we will never know whether Napoleon would have behaved in the same selfless, de-nationalized way.

This episode, which has a big debt towards The Maltese Falcon as to the plot and films like Macao as to the atmosphere and characters, is still very enjoyable.

But it ranks high among those where baddies - and even goodies - act highly incompetently:

- why does Max leave his precious one-million-dollar coin in the care of a poor Chinese boat-woman he has no reason to know, much less to trust (if he knew she is actually Apricot, this would have been even much sillier)? arguably he has an idea to conceal the coin just in case and to get it back later, but one can hardly think of a riskier place - she could lose it, give it away, not be found again by him...

- how does Apricot not understand where the coin is, when it is not found on Max's body? and why, indeed, does she lose so much time being a boat-woman? not to watch Max's arrival and to determine where he put the coin, at least... as a whole, she is not striking as a particularly bright head for a gang stealing and selling top-level international secrets;

- why does the allegedly very bright Cleveland employ such a numbskull as Merry for key missions? in the first one, Merry kills Max instead of extracting information from him (well done!), and does not even stay to hear him utter the crucial information he was seeking; does that tell Cleveland how stupid he is? no, next he asks him to conceal the now precious Solo from the police - and Merry merrily dumps him in a garbage bin, then does not even follow the truck which takes him and Bernie away; didn't Cleveland tell him to bring back a prisoner now supposedly worth also one million dollar, as he knows where the coin is?
In that day Merry has therefore cost twice a million dollars to his very indulgent employer.

Not that the Hong-Kong police appears extremely brilliant either. Heavenly, among others, is shining more through her dress than with her wits - she appears rather clueless all through the episode.
Bernie on his side has a few bright - and not-so-bright - moves. But for a former Marine, his ethics seem a bit shaky : he takes his time to intervene in the brawl between Merry and Max - and when he does, oops, Max is already killed; later on he defects without a minute's hesitation from UNCLE's side to Heavenly's, though at that moment she is still known to him and to us as a bad Cleveland associate, who among others let Max be beaten and killed without batting one of her long eyelids. In both situations, Bernie is clearly guided much more by love-at-first-sight than by his moral compass.

And last, our heroes. Ilya might be fun to watch as a rickshaw-puller, then as a Mongolian warlord - but his intervention under both disguises is less than decisive. One might have thought that he was waiting Max with his rickshaw to escort and watch him closely - not at all (what for, then?), he lets him go and be killed. Then, as the fearful warlord, he is quickly unmasked - and obviously happy to quit his disguise as fast as possible, though it has not achieved anything worth all the makeup effort.

As to Napoleon, he mocks and dismisses Bernie for being amateurish - and then behaves even more amateurishly. First he encounters the alarm geese Ilya has duly warned him about - and does strictly nothing to prevent them from advertising his presence. Then he is easily overcome by the wits of Merry, that giant mind... Fortunately he redeems his reputation at the very end, by guessing both who Apricot is and where the coin is to be found. But still a fairly middling performance from him on the whole.

vintagehoarder said...

I just watched this, and it was Illya who figured out who Apricot was and where the coin was hidden.

And I had a thought which was the flip side of Carabele's thoughts about Illya. Why did Bernie agree to work for Napoleon so easily? Napoleon refused to tell Bernie who he worked for, and he was obviously working with a Russian partner! Surely that should have set alarm bells ringing for a patriotic American in the 1960s. (Maybe MFU takes place in an alternative 1960s where the Cold War isn't quite so frigid?)

Anonymous said...

Illya was a patriotic Russian who despised Communism, just as Yul Brynner's Captain in the 1965 film Morituri was a patriotic German who loathed the Nazis.

-- Channel D

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