"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!)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

"The Yellow Scarf Affair" (ep. 1/17)

I'm a Solo-phile, and so "Yellow Scarf" has been one of my favorites since the '80s reruns. It's the last Solo-only story, I think, until "Deadly Smorgasbord" in the third year, and the last to dispense with even a mention of Illya until "Man from Thrush" in the fourth.

It has several charms even for Illya fans, though. "Yellow Scarf" features some good detective work by Solo. It's the only episode, as far as I know, to show the backpack in which Enforcement agents carry the carbine attachments for the Special. And it's one of only two (along with "Hong Kong Shilling") in which Solo extracts his ID disc from the back of his watch. This is so much better than a card with a name label on it, or the flimsy ID he shows Fran in "Deadly Decoy"! I imagine the disc as a special alloy, and secret services and large police forces would be furnished with a testing chemical. One drop, and if the alloy reacts correctly, they know it's an authentic Command ID.

Beyond that, the story was rather original for its time, updating the Thuggee cult for the 20th Century two decades before "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" used them as antagonists.

It was unusual back then to see members of an ethnic group portrayed by actors of that ethnicity. (Of course people were not as obsessed with political correctness as we are today.) But Kamala Devi, born in Bombay, plays the Maharajah's niece here. An Indian actor also plays the clerk at Solo's hotel. And none of the locals are portrayed as buffoons, or as evil, because of their ethnicity. Matheson's Maharajah? Evil, yes, but he comes across with a certain dignity and majesty. The hotel clerk and Vito Scotti's airline manager may be willing to take bribes, but so are public officials everywhere. (I know; I live in New Orleans. Ever hear of "Dollar Bill" Jefferson?) And David Sheiner's Inspector Darwa would fit right in with the NYPD or LAPD's best. Much as he wants to bury Solo under the local jail, he still follows procedure to check him out. One tough and honest cop!

Neile Adams, the overconfident Thuggee agent Sita Chandi, was once married to Vaughn's old buddy Steve McQueen. She looks authentically Indian here, but was born in the Philippines.

Ever read Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu thrillers?  Today Rohmer has been forgotten, when he isn't being castigated (not always fairly) as a racist for portraying a Chinese as evil.  But he was a master of atmosphere.  The Fu Manchu stories have a shivery air of unseen menace, of silent wheels moving behind the scenes, of sudden exotic death by night. And the Libott-Ingster script captures this spookiness perfectly: from the opening with McAllister's murder on the plane, through the attempt on Solo's life on the balcony, his stalking by the Thuggees, the discovery of Sita Chandi's body, and the maharajah's cavern.

Interesting acronyms here.  HAT, I guess, stands for Hindu (or Hindi, or Hindustani) Air Transport?  And "Unified Northern Casualty and Liability Exchange"! Ha!

I love Solo's reference to "your own [India's] secret service in New Delhi."  The "Feast of Lights" the Inspector mentions, Diwali (thanks, Google!), is real and is held during October/November.

With all this going for it, the episode falls down on a couple of points.  You might ask how the Maharajah manages to strangle Mac on the plane without detection.  Well, his men, and women, were on board, and could keep the passengers quiet while the Maharajah disposed of Mac.  (I'll bet they were all in first class anyway. Anything goes up there, right?)

Simpson the Thrush (Linden Chiles) is obviously some satrap's nephew or son-in-law, sent in at the last minute or to allow him to make his bones.  He's sneaky, yes, but in the long run he's so ineffectual, nepotism is the only answer.

Somebody on the production crew wasn't paying attention.  Several times, the stock establishing shots of India are daylight shots; but the very next scene is set at night at Solo's hotel, the maharajah's palace, etc.  Normally I don't notice technical slipups, but this is jarring.

I've always wondered why the Maharajah's Thuggees kill the Thrush sniper after his attempt on Solo.  It's not like they were punishing him for failing the Maharajah; he'd been sent by Simpson! Maybe the Thuggees were out on patrol, thought the sniper was planning to kill their boss, and rubbed said sniper out as a precaution.  Then the rifle and his suspicions of Solo tell the Big Guy his cult is in danger of exposure.

The biggest glitch, for me, is that the lie detector's case has been rigged to explode . . . and yet Solo uses it as a weapon in the rather silly fight at the climax, bashing the Thuggees as if it were only a typewriter case.  True, Waverly implies that the nitro will only go off when you try to open the case.  But then, when Solo has the maharajah's man bring it over to "buy [his] life," doesn't he expect the thing to blow up in his face?  (Or still lower, given that he's kneeling right by it?)

Verdict: A-plus on atmosphere and mystery, B-plus on execution.

Memorable lines:
Inspector Darwa: "India is a very poor country.  Its jails reflect that poverty."

Solo (eyeing the statue of the goddess Kali):  "I must say she is a . . . demanding . . . mistress."

Solo (regarding Sita Chandi's lifeless body):  "It seems the goddess Kali has called for one of her own."


Unknown said...

Quick comment here. The backpack for keeping the accessories to the U.N.C.L.E. gun was also shown in IOWA SCUBA. I'm not sure it's the exact same design, since we don't get as close a look at it in IOWA SCUBA. However, when Napoleon hangs up his suit jacket in preparation for get ready to take that shower that almost turned into a killer in IOWA SCUBA, there is a pouch of accessories on the back of his hip that is showcased when he is turned away from the camera to put the suit coat in the closet.

More on this particular episode itself at another time, but I just thought I would mention about the accessories pouch.

nephew-from-france said...

Well, this episode is rather fun to watch, though it is far from hold the promises of its rather exciting introduction.
However, as to gaping holes in the plot, it is in a league of its own.

The whole plane abduction story is thoroughly absurd. Is it very bright for the maharajah to be himself on the plane, busily strangling people, considering that his presence is rather conspicuous and likely to be noticed later on the list of passengers (well, the police inspector seems to have missed that one)? How come that his niece, who states that she saw all passengers going onboard, did not spot him? And, more basically, how can only four killers (the four missing passengers) take control of a whole plane, not with pistols or cutters but with strangling scarves as their only weapons? Tedious, that...
And it is rather three killers than four actually, if one deducts the apparently useless pretty-faced lady, whose role in those attacks is not particularly clear - except for stealing family heirlooms and showing them off just afterwards in a very public place, while showing at the same time he own disappeared self, and flirting with - among all people - the police inspector in charge of the investigation.
Who by the way appears later to be a very honest man, though one might question his dubious tastes in love interests.

But frequently the episode is also extremely funny because of some of these weak spots. The way Napoleon heartily smashes the case on the head of any Thuggee head or back passing close by in the final melee, for instance, is a great roar once you think about it - considering, as you mention, that only a minute earlier everybody including Napoleon himself seemed to believe that the case contained nitroglycerine and was likely to explode in a big way if only it fell on the ground from his head.

I also find extremely funny the way the THRUSH killer with the infra-red rifle botches his assassination attempt on Napoleon on the maharajah's balcony. He certainly takes his time to pull the trigger... just enough to let Deirdre realize something is fishy and Napoleon escape and understand the situation. But why did he need all this sophisticated infra-red device in the first place? Possibly he is a very poor physiognomist, or short-sighted? The balcony is quite well-lit, and obviously so close to the killer's spot that Napoleon has no difficulty whatsoever to spot him - without infra-red... - and shoot him back. THRUSH selection procedures of low-rank killers appear decidedly weak. Granted, the THRUSH agent in this episode does not seem one of their brightest lights either.

However, one must recognize that the episode has also at least one very good, = voluntarily = funny scene. This is when Napoleon attempts to get out of the hotel room where he is consigned as a suspect - and raises his head to stare a seemingly gigantic Indian guard at his door. The very bright idea is that we do not see the guard's head. This is a funny way to suggest he is so tall and daunting (that certainly is what Napoleon's expression reflects) - even too tall to fit in the frame.
But there is an equally funny way to consider the scene "as a knowledgeable viewer" - it is to see it for what it probably is, just a camera trick. We are led to believe the guy is gigantic because Napoleon looks up to him impressed; but we really see so little of him that for all we know he might just well be a very average-sized guy...

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