"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!


Update, August 2015: Henry (Superman) Cavill and Armie Hammer look good in the official trailer and posters! The Guy Ritchie-helmed movie premieres on August 14th!

(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 15, 2010

"The Project Strigas Affair" (ep. 1/9)

This, my friends, this is the episode for trivia buffs.  Not only William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (who have all of two scenes together), but Werner Klemperer as the villain!  On top of that, we have the delightfulness of Solo and Illya running a con game on their target, much as real spies often do to each other (see "disinformation").  Our heroes even have to recover from two stumbling blocks, providing even more excitement, much as the early "Mission: Impossible" scripts would do two years hence.  Solo and Illya's plan boils down to: "Set up the false 'fact' (Strigas), then foster the need/desire in the target which only the false 'fact' can satisfy."

Bill Koenig has commented that those who grew up watching Klemperer as Col. Klink on "Hogan's Heroes" will have a hard time taking his performance here seriously, and that's quite possible.  But I recall seeing Klemperer as Adolf Eichmann in the 1961 film; and he also had a turn as an unrepentant Nazi in "Judgment at Nuremberg" (Shatner was in that too).  In each case his performance is frightening.  Here, his Kurasov is believable as "a ruthless and dangerous warmonger" and a crafty bureaucrat, a survivor of many a political intrigue -- but clearly with two weak spots: his ambition and his vanity.

In Act I in Waverly's office, Illya holds a magazine labeled "News World."  In those days, it seems, TV and movie producers were leery of using real brand names and business entities.  I recall a "Dick van Dyke" in which a magazine called "News Time" is mentioned, and another in which Rob buys a car named "Tarantula" (a play on the "Spyders" from Ferrari and Porsche, no doubt).  Nowadays, product placement is big business. When did this change?

I presume this story is set in the fall or early spring.  In summer Illya's topcoat would have been out of place, and Kurasov, Linkwood, and Vladek all wear topcoats too.  However, Solo, Donfield, and the other folks on Third Avenue march around without winter gear, suggesting that daytime temps are fairly comfortable.

Okay, let's get it out of the way and move on.  Bill Shatner's performance as Donfield at the embassy party is a little embarrassing, a little over the top.  But isn't that the point?  He's supposed to embarrass himself and his wife!  Besides, Donfield is a chemical engineer, not an actor or a professional secret agent.  He'd be likely to ham it up a little. Certainly Bill's performance elsewhere is impeccable.

Illya is quite deft.  As the Trotsky-like Donyev at the embassy party, he obviously doctors Kurasov's drink as he puts a hand atop it to stop Kurasov drinking the "cyanide."

"Mr. Smith" is quite the cutie.  And what a nice switch on the "two spies meeting in a bar" routine, as she and Solo have ice cream sodas at a sidewalk café!  I've watched this ep probably twenty times since 1985, and I still edge forward in my chair during the moments when it looks like "Mr. Smith" will discover that the Donfield she met was not the real one.  Well done.

If anyone cares, the hat Vladek (Nimoy) wears is called a homburg, not a fedora.  Linkwood, however, wears a fedora in Act IV, as do the secret police who later escort Kurasov and his wife.

In Act IV, Ann Donfield describes the climax of the Solo/Illya plan as "diabolical," harking back to Waverly's comment that "I'm sure the two of you are capable of concocting some diabolical scheme."

The sting (Vladek's revelation that what Kurasov sent the General was nothing more than the formula for American floor wax) is hilarious and very apt, since Illya brought up the topic earlier -- like "diabolical," a bookending of concepts.  And when you recall how many floor wax commercials TV ran back then . . .

The other fascinating thing about this story is that Solo and Illya never draw their guns.  You'd never know they were armed at all, if not for the scenes where we see them with coats off and Specials in
holsters.  Kurasov and Vladek are quite willing to brandish pistols; our heroes manage this complex plot by guile alone.

Verdict: Henry Misrock's only script for the show is one of the very best U.N.C.L.E. stories.  Ever.

Great Lines (this episode is the champ so far): 
Donfield (to Illya's apparently lifeless body): "Oh, Illya, you didn't --!"
Illya (sitting up): "No, I didn't.  But when Mr. Waverly finds out what happened, I'll wish I had."

Illya (about the collapse of the plan): " 'Almost.'  A word to stick edgewise in the throat to strangle one."

Solo: "And then bring [Linkwood] home.  Alive -- and unmarked!"
Illya: "Must you qualify your requests?"

Waverly (smiling, to Linkwood): "You're our animal now."

Linkwood (to Kurasov, scurrying out like a tiny mammal beneath the legs of a doomed dinosaur): "I ask nothing, Excellency.  Let all the credit be yours!"

Illya (to Kurasov, as the latter is marched under guard to his plane and an almost certain death for treason): "I'd give you a pill, but it failed to work with me, you see."

4 comments:

Darci said...

Werner Klemperer also appeared twice in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, in "The Blizzard Makers" (Dec 1964) and "The Saboteur" (Feb 1965),
Hope this helps!

nephew-from-france said...

There is certainly much, much to be enjoyed and commended in this very inventive episode - first of all the right balance of tension and humor it succeeds in striking : Kurasov may progressively appear more a subject of derision than awe, and Vladek not look particularly bright at first - actually slightly brighter than Kurasov, one may eventually conclude. Still we are never allowed to forget that both of them are ruthless people and a real danger.
Fun starts very quickly : with the Khrushchev-like desk-banging speech-rehearsing Kurasov, and the softly/nicely scolding of his wife intimating that the speech would look much more threatening if spoken less loudly. Now she does not even raise her eyes from her ladies review, and she says this very gently, like a well-meaning mother reprimanding a mindless child. And from the way her husband thanks her and calls her his "nupchik", we wonder who is really calling the shots and more dangerous in this unscrupulous and ambitious couple. At the end of the episode Kurasov becomes noticeably colder to his wife - understandable as his world, ambitions and even safety are crashing around him not with a whimper but a bang. Still it is fair that Narda Onyx, the Estonian-born actress playing the wife (however unlikely, seems to be her real name) should share some of the praise heaped on Klemperer's great performance, as her character shares his delusional dreams of grandeur and shattered prospects of impending doom.
Another performance worth saluting - they all are - is Woodrow Parfrey's Linkwood, finding a quick demise from cunning predator to frightened prey, first a rabbit in the headlights of quietly wolfy resurrecting Ilya, then a mouse in the mouth of catty Napoleon, finally "our animal" to an unexpectedly merciless Waverly. And he gets a nice final touch when he makes his fast escape from Kurasov and suggests he should keep all the credit - which he will...

nephew-from-france said...

(end of the comment)
Speaking of credits, I was pleasantly struck by Shatner's and Garner's easy-going approach to their roles. The two of them are clearly having a lot of fun, both as actors and characters, enjoying as a godsend every minute of the unexpected caper they are offered - it is a pleasure to behold. They are a young couple - not so young any more, actually - who might have made some rash and unwise choices - a mom-and-pop pest control company? on the verge of bankruptcy? for a dashingly brilliant young chemical engineer? Still they are as careless and goofy as their first day together.
Garner is delightfully unexpected, she seems to be giddy even when she does not drink champagne. As to Shatner he may sometimes look slightly over the top, such as at the embassy when he overplays as a drunk - appears from his headache later on that he did not merely overplay - but it is consistent with his amateur status as a would-be spy. I loved the scene with Linkwood when Donfield strives to strike a credible demeanor as a high-flying smooth operator. Suddenly he starts to reflect on how to achieve this - and dons a mighty silly, large knowing smile, slightly frowning - worth a million.
I wonder whether Brad Pitt had not Shatner's performance in mind when playing the dim sports trainer in Burn after reading - he dons an exactly similar stupid knowing smile in his scene as a would-be blackmailer opposite real-spy John Malkovich, who then gets instant confirmation that this guy is a pure fraud. Or maybe the Coen Brothers remembered the scene, and they made the suggestion to Pitt. Anyway all of Strigas Project has strong affinities with their style of humor - "never under-estimate people's abilities / propensities to act stupid" being sort of their own motto.

One thing I really didn't get though is the whole charade with the nurse, her milk-bottle and phony baby. Who hired her and what exactly for? Not Mr Smith, as she is unaware that Napoleon is not Donfield - and why ruin her own bribing meeting? Could someone decipher this for me?

Unless of course this was just a botched / unclaimed attempt by THRUSH to crash into this story...

Benzadmiral said...

Nephew, the charade with the nurse was planned (by Kurasov, or his agents like "Mr. Smith") to remove Donfield's guard, not Donfield himself. The plan, as Solo says ruefully in the previous scene, was "to take me out." This was so Donfield could meet with Mr. Smith without Solo, his watchdog, knowing about it.

The plan goes awry when Donfield steps toward the carriage instead of Solo and gets a faceful of the tranquilized milk. So Solo has to send him back (via Illya's waiting cab) and pretend to be Donfield.

Good comments!