"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!)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

"The Never-Never Affair" (ep. 1/25)

With this story and "Love," next week, we have two of the major highlights of the season and the series.  As Jon Heitland puts it in his "Man from U.N.C.L.E. Book," writer Dean Hargrove “had hit upon a blend of adventure and humor where the latter did not detract from the former.”  Like "Mad, Mad Tea Party" and "Four-Steps," this one plays out in one day and delivers a sense of snug peril, like a classic Sherlock Holmes story, while clicking on every level.

Why the title?  Is it to suggest Mandy's dream of exciting espionage, a glamorous "Never-Never Land"?  Or to suggest her vow to herself after this adventure, "Never, never again"?

Cesar Romero's Victor Gervais is a master of sarcasm.  He certainly believes in ostentation, doesn't he?  An elegant vest, gold rings, watch, and bracelet, and a massive dark Rolls-Royce.  No wonder Thrush looks attractive to some people.  Good thing Thrush never showed up at Career Day at my high school; I knew lots of folks who'd have been tempted.

Mandy Stevenson is introduced just as an Innocent should be, showing her normal dull workaday life before her involvement with U.N.C.L.E. intrigue begins.  (The difference here, of course, is that her workaday life is already involved with U.N.C.L.E.!)  Barbara Feldon is terrific, from her gawky but charming start (hey, I like the sexy librarian type.  So sue me) to her realization that this is not a game and her level-headed handling of it.  She isn't fearless, but courageous and realistic ("The moment I give [Gervais] the microdot, he's going to kill me anyway"). 

In another wonderful detail, the phone in Mandy’s control room doesn’t ring -- it whistles with the communicator tone!

Truly Iconic Illya Moment:  when he hitches a ride without permission on the lady's Volkswagen bug, then reaches down through the sunroof to tell her, "This is my stop, thank you --!" 

"Air Cooled" was a big selling point for theatres, bars, and restaurants even as late as 1965.  The creepy, shadowy theatre battle is justly famous.  One wonders, however, how Waverly's going to explain all this to the NYPD and to Mayor Wagner.  ("Alexander, we just can't have this sort of thing in my city!")

The fantastic fight in the garage really uses the set, doesn't it?  All the way up to the classic climax, Solo looks uncharacteristically, and believably, weary and rumpled. 

One quibble, though.  Why doesn’t Waverly send someone to the tobacconist on E. 76th Street to intercept Mandy there?  A line or two of dialogue would have addressed this.  Solo:  “We know she’s going to the tobacconist; I’ll go directly there --“  Illya:  “No, the area is swarming with Thrush agents.  We can’t be sure she hasn’t already been spotted.  I’ll go and act as decoy . . .”, etc.

The “Mandy gets the microdot” concept is a little confusing, too, until you re-watch it.  Solo tells her to pick up Waverly’s “dangerous” humidor and deliver it.  Then she tells her friend Baker in the lab that she’s Waverly’s special courier, and he (offscreen) gives her the microdot.  True, Solo tells her that the man at the tobacco shop will put something into the humidor.  But we should have seen Baker show her the microdot, and then we should have seen Mandy jump to the conclusion that the microdot is what will get placed in the humidor.  (In our world, I think Mr. Baker would find himself reassigned to northern Finland or Antarctica!)

Verdict:  A-Plus in every way.

Memorable lines:
Solo (as he and Illya kneel in the movie theatre over the dead Thrush sniper):  "Too bad.  He'll never know how it came out."

Mandy:  "And let me warn you, I don't crack under pressure."
Gervais:  "Not at all?"
Mandy [swallowing]:  "Not . . . noticeably, no."

Solo (re: Illya's loosening the distributor cap as a pretext to get into the Thrush garage):  "You're a smart Russian."

Illya (leaning close):  "How did you manage [the trick shot that stopped Gervais]?"
Solo:  "Smart American."

Gervais (re: Solo's threat to shoot him, aiming via the mirror):  "Do you really think you can fire accurately that way?"
Solo (levelly):  "Oh, I hate to count how many times I've done it."

Waverly (re: Mandy’s clever hiding place for the microdot):  “Most inventive, I must say.  Wouldn’t you think so, Mr. Solo?”
Solo:  “Da, da, da . . .”
(Implying that Mandy is yet another “smart Russian”?)

1 comment:

nephew-from-france said...

A good story, an exceptionally well-contrived and wittily-played feminine character, a charmingly attractive bad guy (actually a little too attractive and charming to keep up the tension) - and two outstanding scenes : with all these ingredients, no surprise that the episode gets very high marks.

The opening scene is a very high point for the whole series : brisk filming and odd angles, in the best 60s black-and-white style; an incredibly good and inventive partition, worthy of the best film ones (the music by Henry Mancini for the even more incredible opening scene of Touch of Evil comes to mind); and a resolutely paranoid atmosphere, both oppressive and unreal, almost dreamlike, with no explanation whatsoever - a prefiguration in its own way of the mythical Prisoner's series.
This is as good as it goes, and we thoroughly share the growing fear verging on panic of Ilya as a tracked down animal - though he knows, and we don't, why he is tracked down.
One strong detail is that the chase finishes, not in a dark dead-end alley as in most such situations, but in a bright open space between two streets. The feeling of oppression is greatly enhanced by that unusual choice. At first Ilya believes this to be a moment of respite, he even starts to pass a call, Then he - and we - begin to understand it is a trap, and seeing the situation as more and more desperate, even absurdly desperate in such an environment. But of course only we are meant to really despair. Our resourceful Russian uses the weapons of his adversaries - suffocating smoke - to make an escape.

After this breathtaking start, the episode goes in a completely different direction and endeavors until its end to take up another big challenge - finely balancing tension and humor. I would argue that it is on the whole more successful at the second than at the first.

The humor side works very well, in multiple configurations of characters :
- Napoleon with Mandy of course (he, first protective, then slightly subdued, finally recovering more or less assurance together with her admiration, she, gaining confidence progressively but still charming);
- Napoleon with Ilya (their smart Russian / smart American routine);
- Napoleon with Waverly (first humbled as a naughty schoolboy when he confesses all which went wrong, though Waverly does not need to raise or change the tone of his voice, or even to formulate any explicit discontent, to make his inner judgements perfectly clear; then "punished" at the end with the humidor chore and confessing he quite "had it coming");
- and Mandy with Gervais, for some witty and light-hearted badinage, though not devoid of tension, in the best vein.

On the tension side : after the opening, there are two main action scenes .
The one at the movie theater is justly celebrated. It is visually stunning, though by also aiming at humor (spectators believing they are shot at by the army on screen), it loses much of its tension.
As to the last scene in the garage, it is nicely done but not so original and rather underwhelming as the action climax of the episode (if one excepts the lighter gimmick, probably original at that time mainly for its whiff of sadism).

After that, does one tremble for captive Napoleon and Mandy opposite the decidedly unthreatening Gervais? Not really. There is a hint of something when Gervais calls in the very big THRUSH lady in overalls, who might have played nazi camp guard in a former life, but nothing very terrible comes from it beyond nasty smiles.

Not to say that one should regret the absence of it - these 60s series were refreshingly sweet and devoid of real nastiness, good for them and for us. But the slight feeling of something missing comes from the fact that the episode invites us to share and be anguished by the possibly tragic fate of a lamb thrown by mistake into the lions' den - and that we do not anguish that much, because one of the lions looks really more like a big purring cat, and the others like low-ranking predators with a very un-feline lack of wits.