"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, March 23, 2010

What still draws people to "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." after 50 years?

Welcome!  If you've found this site through another, or via a search on "Man from U.N.C.L.E." or "Vaughn" or "McCallum," you've come to the right place.

What makes this series so special to so many fans, after five decades?

In some ways, the same things that drew me to it at age 11: style, excitement, humor, likeable characters, the visual techniques like the act titles, whip pans, and fast cuts.  U.N.C.L.E. holds up better in regard to pacing than many shows of that time period -- or in some cases, of today.

Of course, when you're 11, there's a lot you don't know about the world yet.  You're eager to probe the adult mysteries.  And U.N.C.L.E. provided my 11-year-old self with a window on an adult world that I found glamorous then, and enjoy now.

I'd like to think that even today, somewhere in New York and Paris and Buenos Aires, even in Tehran and Baghdad, there's a hidden chrome-and-gunmetal outpost staffed by dedicated men and women who stand between us and disaster, working to keep the world from tearing itself apart.

If our world isn't like MfU's (and I have to admit, sadly, that it's not), then, darnit, it should be!

I recommend that you start with the first episode here and work your way forward to the last episode and the 1983 reunion TV movie, "The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.:  The Fifteen Years Later Affair."  Or you can start with the movie (click "Older posts" below) and work your way back in time.

Either way, I'm sure you'll become a major U.N.C.L.E. fan.  Comments welcome.  Enjoy!

August 2015:  As I'm sure you've heard by now, the new film, directed by Guy Ritchie of "Sherlock Holmes" fame, debuts on August 14.  The trailer and other details we've found so far makes me, and many other fans, very hopeful that we will have an U.N.C.L.E. for a new generation!  (My nightmare: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Solo and Illya, two bumbling spies for an underfunded U.S. intelligence agency, with Kevin James ["King of Queens," "Mall Cop"] as Mr. Waverly.  The mind reels. . . .)

(Pics drawn from various places around the Web.  All credit to the original posters!)

Monday, March 22, 2010

"The Fifteen Years Later Affair," or Nostalgia Ain't What It Used to Be

So our favorite TV agents, Solo and Illya, are back.  From what I gather, fan opinions on this one are mixed, with “love” and “hate” running neck and neck.  (Okay, “hate” surges ahead on the final turn by the clubhouse.)  When "The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E." first aired in the spring of 1983, I was working nights, and called in sick to watch it, since I had no VCR.  For some reason -- probably the fact that Season One was a good 18 years in the past at that point -- I proclaimed that it was much like a first season show, which I wince to recall now that I’ve actually seen those episodes again.  But “Fifteen Years” has more than a few points to enjoy.

First we have to get through the initial 45 minutes, in which we meet our villains (good), catch up with Solo (poor) and Illya (fun), get a cameo by a certain Aston Martin-driving British agent (gack!), and have our heroes meet again after 15 years (cool!). 

What it suffers from most is a lack of . . . well, confidence.  Yes, it appears cheap.  The “new” U.N.C.L.E. Headquarters consists of a hallway with a new logo, a London club-style office for Sir John with a computer bank in it, and the new Heckler & Koch Special; and that’s about all.  Sure, the original series had budget constraints too.  Somehow, though, it made us believe in Sam Rolfe’s micro-world, tailor shop, reception room, steely corridors, and all.  This production appears to be trying to convince us, and trying too hard. 

I love the bit with Del Floria’s new owner.  It echoes Solo’s confusion when he can’t get into HQ in Peter Allan Fields’s “Foxes and Hounds” in Season Two.  But we needed to see the toy shop, see Solo enter the new complex and react to it.  (I understand that was filmed, and cut for running time.)

Things accelerate right at the 45:00 mark, as Illya rappels down the hotel face to Thrushman Kemp’s window . . . and suddenly, despite the ravages of time on our heroes’ faces, it’s 1966 again and they are clicking on all cylinders.  Illya’s hilarious-and-tense turn as a Russian immigrant phone tech as he rifles Kemp’s briefcase, and the scene in the computer room at HQ, as the beholstered Illya dials in to Thrush’s phone line and they analyze what they know, could both have come straight from the old days.  “Illya . . .”  (Solo's “Be careful” is implied.)  “I will if you will.”  And Illya’s turn as the Cockney pilot is another gem.

More good stuff:  the casting of Patrick Macnee as the Command's new commander (though he has little screen time), and a nod to the gone-but-not-forgotten Mr. Waverly. 

Oddly, Vaughn looks younger and trimmer in the bush jacket than he does in tuxedo or dark suit.  In the “old days,” as Kowalski puts it, it was the reverse.  Speaking of Kowalski, Tom Mason does a good if thankless job showing us how the quality of Command agents has declined since Solo and Illya’s heyday. 

The climax at the dam, with Solo slipping in past the usual comatose Thrush guards and the task force bearing down in speedboats, is exciting, with a visual sweep we rarely got in the original series.  (Though I question that the Command force would be able to pick off the defenders so easily.  There was a reason those medieval fortresses proved popular.)  Illya’s faceoff with Janus below the reactor in Chicago works well too.  Yes, we saw this time-running-out payoff many times in the Sixties and Seventies, especially on “Star Trek,” but director Ray Austin handles the cuts well.

Long-time fan and pro technical wizard Bob Short -- who, thankfully, steered writer-producer Michael Sloan into giving the film what true U.N.C.L.E. flavor it often displays -- appears here, at 1:16:43, about to be slugged by Solo: 

At the last, the quiet tag scene is a tribute to both actors and their characters.

One of the biggest complaints fans have about “Return” is that it reunites Solo and Illya, and then almost immediately sends them off in separate directions so they get little screen time together.  However, as we’ve seen, this was a standard script ploy in the series, not always in poor episodes.  Think of “Ultimate Computer,” “Nowhere,” “Four Steps,” “Prince of Darkness,” and “Master’s Touch.”

Verdict:  Despite many old-style music cues and the whip-pan effect, despite some crafty lines, it’s not U.N.C.L.E. at its best.  There are moments like the JB interlude that make us wince, and the slant is often more Bondian than it should be.  And let’s be honest with ourselves.  Vaughn and McCallum, though they’ve aged well, aren’t the youthful, dazzlingly good-looking guys we admired, and still do admire.  This is disappointing, and may be at the core of why so many fans feel let down . . . but the script wisely acknowledges this and plays off it.  Which, together with the humor, puts "Fifteen Years" head and shoulders above most "reunion" TV movies!

Memorable Lines:
Solo (at Caesar’s Palace, when his communicator suddenly sounds):  “New battery . . . in my pacemaker.”

Solo (to New York cabbie):  “Del Floria’s Tailor Shop, Second and Fortieth.”

Del Floria’s New Owner:  “Your uncle used to live in the back of a tailor shop?  Well, I guess apartments is pretty tough to find.  Where do you live -- the basement of the Pan Am Building?”

Solo (to Illya):  “How about a hot dog?”
Illya:  “Not up to your usual culinary standards, is it?”

Solo:  “[Sepheran’s plan] will totally destroy our energy program.”
Illya:  “How’s he going to do that?”
Solo:  “Well, that’s for us to find out.  For the sake of the world.”
Illya:  “Don’t throw ‘the world’ at me. . . .  How often did we save it?”
Solo:  “Constantly, as I recall.”

Illya (having agreed to work for the Command again):  “You must have been pretty sure of your persuasive rhetoric.”
Solo:  “No, just your sense of morality.”
Illya (wryly): “Oh, that old thing.”

Illya (as they stroll through the corridor of the new HQ):  “[The agents are a]ll men.  What happened to the beautiful girls who used to work for U.N.C.L.E.?”
Solo:  “They’re in the U.N.C.L.E. Home.”

Solo (trying to be funny as Z introduces the explosive bullets):  “Well, if the elevator doors don’t open on time, I promise to contain myself.”  (She eyes him, deadpan)  “What happened to the special U.N.C.L.E. guns we used to carry?”
Z (without missing a beat):  “They’re in the special U.N.C.L.E. wing of the Smithsonian.”

Illya (as the phone tech, loudly, to Kemp):  “Who you think you are, waving a gun at me?  This is New York!  And here we wave guns at each other!  We don’t need foreigners coming to do it!” 

Illya (as the outraged tech):  “I tell you both!  From telephone company you will be hearing!”

Innocent Pennington-Smythe (as he and Illya dangle from a pipe):  “You’ve been in this situation before.”
Illya:  “Frequently.”
P-S.:  “How’d you get out of it then?”
Illya:  “I carried an explosive charge in my watch.”
P-S.:  “Where do you carry it now?”
Illya:  “In my shoe.”
P-S. (astonished):  “What’d they change it for?”
Illya:  “Progress.”

Solo:  “This all seemed a lot easier fifteen years ago.”
Illya (with a weary chuckle):  “It was.”

(By the way, the screen grabs here are mine, so any complaints about the quality should come to me and not to Lisa!)

Friday, March 12, 2010

Summing Up: Season Four, The Awards

On the whole, the back-to-basics approach from Season Four producer Anthony Spinner worked. (Given a choice between fluff like "Jingle Bells" and a dark-toned mystery like "J for Judas," I'll go for the latter every time.)  Even the best episodes this year lacked some of the sparkle that graced the best of Seasons One and Two.  But on Spinner's watch, U.N.C.L.E. regained much of its strength and occasionally prefigured the grimmer tone of today's movie and TV spy thrillers.

Now, my coveted Silver Communicator Awards.  Feel free to join in with your own winners and losers:

Best in Show: "Summit Five," "Deadly Quest," "Maze"

Best Performance by Robert Vaughn: "Man from Thrush"

Best Performance by David McCallum: "Gurnius"

Most Important to the U.N.C.L.E. Universe: "Summit Five," "Survival School"

Best Innocent: Sheila van Tillson, "Deadly Quest" (the best of a rather dull lot)

Best Villains: Viktor Karmak, "Deadly Quest"; Harry Beldon, "Summit Five"

Most Colorful: "Prince of Darkness"

A for Atmosphere: "Deadly Quest"

And the Tarnished Medals go to:

Dullest: "Fiery Angel," "Gurnius"

Weakest: "Seven Wonders" (sadly, a poor final note for the series to go out on)

"The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, Part II" (ep. 4/16)

"And now, the end is near;/ And so [we] face the final curtain . . ." The last episode of the series opens with George Fenneman, once Groucho Marx's announcer, summarizing the events of Part I.

More neat visual shots here: the conference room with the Himalayan peaks in the distance; a focus on first Kingsley, then the General, up through the glass table, so that the telephones seem to float in mid-air; again Kingsley's vast installation, invoking Shangri-La in "Lost Horizon"; the white-robed acolytes peering down at Solo.

Erikson's daughter Anna is a step above a lot of the blonde Innocents we've seen.  Despite our being told she's a teenager, she seems older and more mature, at least in the scenes at Kingsley's installation, and is level-headed enough to shoot one of the white robe guys.

The scene where Solo attempts to convince the other experts to bail on Kingsley's plan is remarkable for the series.  Like Captain Shark,  the antagonist is not an evil monster, displaying his grandiose plan to Solo as a prelude to killing him.  Kingsley the deluded idealist is trying to win Solo over to his side.  It gives writer Hudis a chance to bring up some ethical questions.

As sometimes with the two-parters destined to be movies, though, we get very little actual time for Solo and Illya.  I'd have liked to hear them talking in the guest quarters before Kingsley's men take them out to be gassed.  Here, even more than in "Bridge of Lions," they seem like minor figures dwarfed by the titanic events roaring over their heads.

Something about the way Kingsley's and Erikson's hands scrabble over the white buttons on their control panel is almost funny -- which I'm sure the actors and director didn't intend.

Thankfully, the voiceover -- "The seemingly endless battle against evil . . . the battle ends once and for all in favor of good" -- that introduces the final scene is a quote from Kingsley to Solo, spoken earlier, as if Solo is remembering.  Having a nameless narrator tell us this would have been awkward and confusing. 

Verdict:  Though a weak entry, vastly unlike any previous story, it makes a definite statement about the nature of man and leaves us with powerful images: the shattered control dome at 49:21, looking like a Forties cover for Astounding Science Fiction; the General an expressionless robot, waiting for orders (and reminding us of what humanity has escaped); the corpses in the control room; Kingsley tenderly arraying the body of the wife who has betrayed him . . .

Memorable Lines:
Kingsley: "General, you are a strange mixture.  You pursue a merciful ideal . . . mercilessly."

Solo: "Your plan denies humanity its freedom to find its own way to better times. . . .  Professor Garrow, you're a geneticist.  Your life work is the biological improvement of man.  Will you pervert that science into the creation of a -- a generation of robots?"

Kingsley: "Join us, leading a new world.  Let there be eight wonders."
Solo: "In your new world, Kingsley, there won't be any wonder."

Margitta (to her husband): "Don't look so startled, Robert.  Where else did you think I raised a hundred million dollars?  An overdraft at a drive-in bank?"

Margitta: "Humanity is dirt.  And it always will be."

General: "And don't call me Shirley."
(Oops, wrong movie --!)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

"The Seven Wonders of the World Affair, Part I" (ep. 4/15)

The penultimate episode . . . ah me, oh my . . .

Right at the start we plunge into a gunfight at Thrushman Webb's HQ.  It takes a while to figure out what's going on, but scripter Norman Hudis and director Sutton Roley are painting on a big canvas here, so we need to be patient.  In the meantime the story moves, and we get wonderful action shots like Webb's leap into the cockpit of Mrs. Kingsley's Jaguar E-Type.

At last, something we've wanted to see for so long: a regional U.N.C.L.E. officer, Grant, played here by Hugh Marlowe, with an exercise bike (?) in his office.  He's completely unimpressed by the two hotshots from New York, huh?

Margitta Kingsley and Mr. Webb don't seem to have much to do with the installation behind the meat plant.  They spend a lot of time lazing around Webb's red-carpeted office, smoking cigarettes and smiling suggestively to each other.  Neat, though, when she plugs Mr. Veeth and Miss Carla from Thrush.  That's one way of eliminating pesky competition.

When Solo and Illya approach the ship with Anna Erikson on board, and the officer with the deck machine gun shoots at them, it would have been smart of them to simply hang back astern.  They'd have been shielded by the cabins and wheelhouse.

Another drunken ship captain, as in Hudis's Season Three "Bottle of Rum"!  One point, though:  He couldn't have touched the searing-hot barrel of the just-fired deck gun without burning his hand.  What happened to him and his crew when Kingsley and Erikson left the ship?  Also, where is the ship -- off Hong Kong?  If Anna was in Berlin, it would have made more sense for her to fly directly to the vicinity of Kingsley's Seven Wonders installation, and for her father to meet her there.

The disappearances of Kingsley's other six Wonders, and the theft of personal items, harkens back to "The Shark Affair."  Yes, why would you need a public-relations man?  Once the world's been made docile, you won't have to convince people to buy, prefer, or vote for anything.  You'll just tell 'em what you want 'em to do.

Smart, and pro-active, of Solo and Illya to co-opt Dr. Garrow.  Unfortunately Kingsley sees through their plan.

The sequence as Solo's plane is hit and he bails out, and then staggers across the high desert, is exciting.

Verdict: One of the most vividly photographed episodes, almost humorless, considerably different in tone from everything that's gone before. (Cf. "Mad, Mad Tea Party" or "Ultimate Computer.")

Memorable Lines:
Illya: "How do you inject dignity into the word `help'?"

Steve Garrow: "It's Mr. Solo's plane. He must be dead."
Illya (clearly upset): "Listen, if you don't have anything positive to say, why don't you just keep quiet?"

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"The Deep Six Affair" (ep. 4/14)

The last stand-alone episode brings back scripter Leonard Stadd ("Maze") and character actor Alfred Ryder, this time as the clever, tricky Commander Krohler.  "Deep Six" shows the series was really getting its legs under it and starting to take off again.

We open with Illya in Disguise as he shuffles in to retrieve those all-important submarine plans -- and there was something else, what was it?  Oh yes, save Solo and top English agent Brian Morton.  The flash dazzler Illya uses to get Solo and Morton out is great, as are his single-shot cane, their rescue by the chauffeur, and the squeals of horror from the London matrons as the Thrushes shoot at their fleeing Rolls.

Now I know a teeny bit about submarines.  The best atomic subs of those days in our world could only do about 20 to 25 knots submerged, and their depth limits were around 1300 feet. This 60-knot new one sounds like the Starship Enterprise-D in comparison; no wonder Thrush wants it.

Why is Waverly dealing with Morton's resignation and checking out (read: trying to torpedo) his relationship with Laura Adams?  Seems to me that's the job of either the London HQ chief (Morton's immediate boss) or the Continental Chief for Europe.  Certainly someone would have been appointed by now to take over for Harry Beldon.

Morton comes off as rather impressed with himself, worse than Solo by a long shot, but strong and determined to rescue his fiancée.  However, I can't see Waverly keeping him on, even in Antarctica, after what he's done.  If Waverly
was ready to detrain George Dennell ("Waverly Ring") for a much smaller breach of security, I'd think he'd have shaken Morton's hand and said, "Do let us know how you're getting on in your future endeavors."  (Yes, George's detraining was fake, but no one in that story seemed to think it was unwarranted -- which suggests it was standard procedure.)

This time out, the "What the heck is going on here?" occurs in Act I, as Illya, who apparently does not dislike cats, uses one to set up a diversion at the sub's shipyard.  (And just how did he retrieve Puss after the alarums and excursions were over?)

The moment in the hotel room when Solo balks at Waverly's instructions to delve into Laura's personal life, like the clash between them in "Concrete Overcoat," is startling.  Solo and Illya almost never question Waverly's orders.  It's a pleasant surprise, too, as in "Bridge of Lions," to see Waverly come prepared with an escape device.

The entire sequence in which Morton photographs the sub plans and outmaneuvers Solo and Illya is well done.  Not only is Solo not taken in by Morton, but Illya tumbles right away to Solo's bug-planting.  Smart stuff.

Morton drives one of the most gorgeous autos ever made, a left-hand-drive Mercedes 220SE or 250SE convertible.  We saw this one, or one like it, in "Round Table."  An expensive collector's item now, it wasn't cheap even then.  Unless he bought that beauty used, Morton must have some money of his own.

Nice that we actually get to see the sub everybody's been howling about.  It's roomier than the Seaview -- that bridge is huge.

The odd thing about this story is that, in the end, there is no Innocent.  Laura appears to be one until the end of Act III, when she reveals herself as a Thrush.  Perhaps this is one of those odd cases, as Dr. Cindy has mentioned, where one of the agents, in this case Morton, moves into the Innocent role.

Verdict: A fast-paced pure spy story, with a McGuffin that recalls the Sherlock Holmes story "The Bruce-Partington Plans."

Memorable Lines:
Brian Morton (dryly, to Commander Krohler): "Undoubtedly your man got caught in the London traffic.  It may be days before he arrives."

Solo: "Did you know I was the top U.N.C.L.E. agent in North America?"
(Cute -- but as Section Two, Number One, of course he would be considered the top agent!)

Waverly: "[Mr. Solo] has intelligence, verve, physical prowess; a kind of man most women would find very attractive."
Solo: "I thank you, sir."
Waverly: "But probably the worst possible candidate for marriage."
(Solo's discomfited look:  priceless)

Illya (to Solo, as they sit alone in Waverly's office after the latter says that Command agents make poor marriage material): "We have each other. . . ."
(This would have made a good last line for the entire series!)

"The Maze Affair" (ep. 4/13)

One of the best of this year, “Maze” is swift-paced and tricky: a reverse “Mission: Impossible” where we see just how clever Thrush can be, and with some real suspense at the climax.

The interior scenes at HQ are colorful, and really give us the impression we are looking at a busy nerve center.  Plus the entire demolition sequence is quite futuristic-looking.  Apparently bomb disposal is a new, or experimental, job for Illya, yet it matches with what we’ve been shown before.

Solo smartly circumvents the “security” at Febray Electronics and even checks the bona fides of the “generals.”  When we look back, we realize Thrush must have arranged the weak defenses -- made them look good enough to pass, but not truly effective.  The desk guard must really be dense, though, not to wonder at Solo showing up in a suit to check  the A/C!

We have to ask just when Febray and Barnes put this plan together.  No time elapses between the first attempt to bomb Command HQ and the mission involving the “molecutronic gun” (I wish they’d found a more elegant name for it!).  So their scam must already have been in motion at the time of the abortive attempt, since during it Solo and Illya are in Waverly’s office discussing the gun.  Yet the teaser scene with Barnes and his assistant implies they had a lot riding on this attempt, and they need to go back to the drawing board.

Second, Waverly might risk himself leading an assault force, but he certainly shouldn’t.  A fleet admiral commanding an aircraft carrier doesn’t take a plane up himself.

Third, how did Thrush “find” Febray?  Sure, they knew where he was; he was certainly reporting to them all along.  But Barnes & Co. were pretending they didn’t know.  How and why did Illya squeal?  It’s never implied they tortured him or drugged him.  Yet they must have, or he and Solo would have been wondering how Thrush located the good doctor.

The purpose of the dynamite Solo finds out in the desert is never explained.  We needed a line from him:  "So that's why you planted that dynamite -- to maintain the illusion that the gun actually worked."

Neat bits:  Illya crossing his fingers as he waits for the immersed bomb to go off; his knocking in a code pattern on the hotel door; the shadowy lighting in Waverly’s office as they examine the desert map, and later in the lab; the leather-jacketed Illya paying only $1.94 to pump five or six (?) gallons of gas; and town names like Vinegar Wells and Gossamer Flats.

High marks to scripter Leonard Stadd for not having Barnes mention early on that there is a “Mr. Big” somewhere.  It would have made us peer at and suspect all the guest characters, Febray included, and the revelation at the end of Act III would have been weakened. 

Abbe Melton is cute, but it is rather coincidental that Solo runs into her; and worse, she has no function except to pretend to faint at Solo’s direction and provide him with a safety pin.  Wouldn’t it have been neat if she’d been not a Daddy’s Princess but a tough-but-pretty rancher’s daughter who helps Solo survive the desert trek?  (“Watch out for rattlers, Mr. Solo.  Remember, they’re just as scared of you.”) 

We don’t get to see Illya conclude that the gun is actually a bomb.  We go from the staticky transmission, to Waverly suddenly ordering the demolition unit into action again.  I’d have liked it if we’d seen Illya zero in on some flaw in Thrush’s plan (perhaps wondering how they located Febray, as above), and leap to defuse the bomb.

(Peculiar . . . Disc Five has only two titles on it.  I suppose it’s so Disc Six can have both parts of “Seven Wonders” together -- but it reminds me of the night the last episode aired.  Instead of June Foray telling us that “Our man from U.N.C.L.E. will be back in a moment with a look at next week’s show,” there was only silence. . . .)

Verdict:  A twisty Season Two-like spy story with embedded surprises, a vivid look at HQ, and colorful desert locations to boot.

Memorable Lines:
Febray (examining Solo in exasperation):  “Just who are you?”
Solo (levelly):  “I’m Napoleon Solo . . . from U.N.C.L.E.”

Barnes:  “Are you suggesting that we simply kill you, Mr. Solo?”
Solo:  “Oh, no, no, no.  You can just let me off at the next bus stop.”

Waverly (scooping up the locator pin):  “Mr. Solo seems to have lost his tie tack.  I hope the same
can’t be said of his life. . . .”

Febray:  “. . . [T]hese childish games -- passing me off as a shah.”
Illya:  “I once passed myself off as a Tibetan lama.”

Illya:  “I always say, when you’re locked in an escape-proof room, it’s good to have a physicist with you."

Febray:  “I don’t know how to get to the M-5, Kirk; I really . . . do not know.”
(Oops, wrong TV series)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"The Man from Thrush Affair" (ep. 4/12)

This, the last Solo-only script and the first to dispense with even a mention of Illya since "Yellow Scarf," feels oddly rushed and first-draftish, but features a strong performance by Robert Vaughn as Solo carries off an undercover mission into the enemy camp.  As in "Summit-Five," the agents must operate out of touch with Waverly.

The Season One flavor is here in the opener.  We not only get an exotic scene in the Greek countryside involving a low-tech method of communication (the carrier pigeon), but we see two agents who are not Solo and Illya -- driving the U.N.C.L.E. car, no less.  Moreover, they're not hapless.  While they do die at the hands of Thrush, it's not before they get their information back to Waverly.  And the steel-nerved driver roars right into the thugs' rifle fire (the car must have had an early version of run-flat tires!) and swings neatly around their roadblock.  We get to see the car's high-tech weaponry, too.

Why couldn't we have had Illya in this one?  It makes sense that Waverly would tap agent Andreas Petros for his knowledge, however imperfect, of the Irbos dialect.  But we with inquiring minds want to know how this came about -- it suggests he has ties to the place.  Solo also implies ("Welcome aboard, Andreas") that this is Petros's first mission, or first out of New York.  Petros might well have been the Innocent in this story, if this mission were to cause a conflict with his past.  But none of this is tackled.

Similarly, the relationship between locals Marnya and Marius is never explored.  We needed a scene between them to show his hostility, and one later to show their rapprochement.  (Well, okay, we get to see them embracing in Act IV.)

Interesting technology abounds, though.  We have the invisible barrier; kudos to the actors for making it look tough to squirm underneath it.  (About time that old acting exercise of miming being trapped in a glass box came in handy.)  Plus the jamming field keeps our heroes from calling HQ.  Then, in the Thrush complex, Filene's ID card operates doors and elevators, which we see every day now.  Did our world have that so long ago?

The production staff had a lot of fun with the back of the Thrush ID card, didn't they?  Exclamation points ("Death, Torture and Terror!") and the three-pronged optical illusion as one of the symbols.

An earthquake machine?  Thrush tried that two years ago in Japan ("The Cherry Blossom Affair"), and it didn't work.  And The Voice of Armageddon rushes to deliver his ultimatum to the world without even testing Killman's device?  Killman, however, has neat character tags.  He constantly refers to himself in the third person, cheerfully admits to being cruel, and loves the Lepidopterae.

We haven't seen this blur-out to show the passage of time in a while.  It's also a superb touch that, when Solo and Andreas are burying their scuba suits, their hair is still wet.  But they should have landed by night.

Solo's performance as efficiency expert Filene (no doubt named for the Boston department store) is the delight here.  He's the perfect corporate drone, one of the fedora-topped, button-down Company Men who swarmed the halls of IBM and BBDO in those days.  The bit where he faces the captured Andreas, and has to try to save him without blowing his cover, is terrific, as is his putting the pieces together about the earthquake machine.  And for once, he's not rumbled instantly.  Killman suspects he's not authentic Hierarchy, but is not sure, and Solo is only revealed by Thrush's examination of his voiceprint.  His efficiency methods work well, even as we see that they are more humane -- putting the workers on shifts, for example, so they are rested.  (Why is it necessary to have so many workers polishing things, though?)

Killman's blackmailing Solo, to continue with the project to save the lives of the islanders, works.  Our Napoleon's sense of honor would never permit him to sacrifice the locals.  But Solo doesn't seem to have much to actually, you know, do before the project is complete.

Verdict:  Possibly rushed before the cameras before the script was really ready, the all-action climax and the tag scene seem hurried.  If there was a story this year that deserved more time, this was it: to show us about Marnya and Marius, Andreas's connection (if any) with the islanders, and Solo's dilemma of having to appear to help Killman as he waits for a chance to sabotage the operation.

Memorable Lines:
Solo (as he and Andreas pause in their scuba gear): "Let's get out of these wet things and into a couple of dry hopsacks."
(Always suspected Solo was a Brooks Brothers man!)

Monday, March 8, 2010

"The Gurnius Affair" (ep. 4/11)

This one, which reunites several character actors from previous seasons, is unfortunately rather uninspired, despite some startling visuals from director Barry Shear and an interesting, if heavy on the leering, performance from David McCallum as sadist Colonel Nexor.  Still, it has its moments.

We pick up “somewhere in Europe.”  Prison commandant Major Hartmann says he’s been there for 25 years, which puts it back to 1942 -- but Kragensburg from its name is probably in Germany or Austria.  Was this a German POW camp, and the major was left in charge even after V-E Day?  His security is lousy, too.  Gurnius’s men didn’t need to use the mind-grabber; a single bazooka shell from the unguarded high ground would have taken out the fence, gate, and guard house.  Maybe the reason no one’s escaped in 25 years is that it wouldn’t have been much of a challenge.

Will Kuluva’s von Etske does give off a paranoid vibe as he and Nexor approach the checkpoint.  Nice touch, as is having Illya not be an instant expert on “orometchrome B.”  But I’d think von Etske, when he meets “Nexor” later, would wonder why the colonel is not furious with him for grabbing the helicopter and leaving him behind.

If no one’s been allowed to see von Etske for a quarter of a century, how did he know Gurnius was going to break him out?  And how is it that Illya-as-Nexor is able to speak German so well as to fool Gurnius, a “former Axis dictator,” and von Etske?  We saw this Fourth Reich thing a lot on TV adventures in those days, and it was getting dull even then.

Too many cars:  Solo and Illya arrive at the prison in a blue Triumph (?) roadster.  Since Solo and Terry use, I think, an ancient Mercedes (one of their early postwar diesels?), possibly Terry’s car, Illya would have taken the roadster to the lab.  But then Illya shows up at the helicopter rendezvous in a VW Bug!

On the good side, we have Barry Shear’s eye for the arresting visual: the stark dark U.N.C.L.E. interrogation room with its single bright overhead light as Waverly catechizes Illya-as-Nexor, and the fight in Solo’s hotel room with the shots through the slowly turning ceiling fan.  Illya sensibly has the fogged film analyzed, which provides a lead to San Rico (a “humid country”!  Ha!).  The darkroom scene with Terry, as Solo and Illya find out what she knows yet reveal nothing themselves, is fun, as is Solo's outmaneuvering Terry when she tries to report the story -- and the sequence as they creep across the sunlit field, only to be brought up short by the machete-brandishing Indian. 

There’s no surprise that the Indian is actually a Gurnius man -- Solo should have expected it.  On top of that, we leave them at the end of Act II, about to be threatened, and come back to find the Indian is (pretending to be) an ally or a neutral.  We missed something. 

The famous, or infamous, sequence where Illya-as-Nexor is clearly torturing Solo (Solo:  “Can’t stand much more . . .”) has given rise, I expect, to a thousand fan fiction scenes.  Of course Illya had to make it look good for Gurnius and Brown.  It would have been powerful to have some of the torture scene on camera, but no doubt the censors axed that.  (Pun gleefully intended.)  My question about the scene:  Solo’s wired up to an electrical torture system, and Illya throws water on him???

When Illya steps up with the fake suicide pill and tells Solo to bite down on it, however, Solo hesitates not even a moment.  He must trust Illya as much as Illya does him; recall Illya’s instant dismissal of the notion that Solo could be a Thrush double agent in “Summit-Five.” 

Verdict:  Not very original, but at least played straight, with Judy Carne, Macready, Ruskin, and Kuluva adding some spice.

Memorable Lines:
Waverly (to himself, on finding that Solo is in the company of Terry again):  “Same one, hm? 

Terry (ignoring the fact that Solo’s been attacked and nearly killed):  “My camera’s broken.”
Solo (dryly):  “I’m all right, thank you --”

Illya-as-Nexor:  “You are not as young as you used to be, Mr. Solo.”
(Solo growls under his breath)

"The Survival School Affair" (ep. 4/10)

This is Season Four's Illya Episode.  In Season One's "Bow-Wow," Illya operated independently, yes; but here he is truly on his own, in a hunt for a concealed murderer/double agent.

See everything the well-constructed teaser does.  It tells us where we are and what the Survival School is, and introduces us to Jules Cutter, who "takes his job a little too seriously."  Then the security guy is murdered -- by someone he recognizes! -- and we wind up with a bikini-clad trainee holding a gun on Illya.  Wow!

The Survival School itself is well drawn.  We see multiple languages on the gate signs, the same kind of computer power HQ sports, and more.  There are more than just two male trainees, and at least five female ones (who have, logically, their own barracks).  The island, Cutter tells us, is 2000 miles from New York.  This suggests that it's in the Caribbean, not the Pacific.  Also, it's 700 miles from the shipping lanes?  Hard to schedule a leave.  I'd guess nobody is asked to be permanently assigned to the School, that staffers rotate, six months on and then off to a new posting.

Yes, Cutter is a bit of a blowhard, but only a bit.   His job, like any good drill instructor, is not to coddle recruits, but to make them tough.  It's not a nice counterintelligence world out there.   (I suspect, though, that he's gone a little too long between vacations.)   Charles McGraw's performance as Cutter is top-notch:  He walks like a man with authority.

Richard Beymer ("West Side Story") makes a solid believable agent out of Harry Williams.  When, wounded in Act IV, he inches himself up the wall to switch off the machine guns, he really looks like it takes everything he's got.

Along with the mystery's requisite three major suspects (and a minor one, Harry), we get information about Illya that we've long wished for.  We hear he was in the class of '56 and that Cutter kept him an extra month to instruct the demolition class.  This sort of thing backgrounds our characters and their world, making it and them three-dimensional.

Illya's reasoning in Act I, that the double agent must suspect he isn't graduating or he'd wait until he was inside the Command to steal its secrets, is neat.  Waverly's line about "this threat to our very existence" is kind of stagey and awkward, however, like some of the "romantic" exchange between John and Melissa.

Melissa reminds me a little of Anne Francis as Honey West.  During her training stalk, though, when she simply finds a revolver on the ground, shouldn't she check to be sure it's loaded?  And I thought Section Twos weren't allowed to marry?  If so, and Melissa was planning to marry John (before he was revealed), was she going to give up any shot at Enforcement?  John implied that he sure wasn't.

After all the agents' reports about using access tunnels to get into Thrush bases, you'd think a Command installation would be the last place on earth to have such wide tunnels!

No, the revelation of John Saimes as the double agent is no thunderbolt, but it's plausible, and he's dispatched fittingly on the firing range we saw earlier, when he tried to kill Illya and Cutter.  (The old Chekhov maxim: If you show a gun on stage in Act I, it needs to go off by the end of Act III.)  Agatha Christie or Ellery Queen might have had Cutter as the prime mover behind the whole thing. While astonishing, that would have required a lot of work to make believable, and would have made Cutter much less memorable.  It's a shame that Illya himself doesn't pinpoint the agent, though.

Verdict: Tight, fast, exciting; we don't miss Solo (well, not much) as we peer behind the curtain at how U.N.C.L.E. trains its agents; and we get a murder mystery too.  A minor classic.

Memorable Lines:
Cutter: "[Hargrove] acts like a woman in love."
Illya: "And that's not in your manual of training."
Cutter: "Certainly not at this school."

Illya (to Harry): "Keep your communicator handy and let us know if you hear anyone approaching.  It, ah, just might be a double agent coming to kill you."
Harry (wryly): "It's nice to know that somebody cares."

Harry (clasping his wounded shoulder): "Cutter's Survival School gets tougher every year."
Illya (flatly): "So does surviving."

Cutter (after heaving himself up from Illya's judo throw): "You should have done it in four [seconds].  I'm sure Mr. Solo could have."
Illya: "I'm sure he could.  Though Mr. Solo has better things to do than play games."
(Cutter's reaction, and the way his men snap back to attention: priceless)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

"The Fiery Angel Affair" (ep. 4/9)

This, from a writer (John W. Bloch) we haven't seen since "Neptune" in Season One, is colorful, fast-moving, and features a tricky plot and characters modeled on the Perons of  Argentina.  (I can see it now: "The Fiery Angel Affair -- the Musical!")

Our Innocent this time, Angela of Querido, is essential to the plot.  Madlyn Rhue as usual is effective, not heavy on the Latin accent.  Her Angela, we're told, was "a dancing girl from the streets," as Eva Peron was a film and radio actress, and is beloved by the people of her country, as Eva apparently was.  In the same line, her husband Abaca, a military man like Juan Peron, presides over a country clearly riddled with graft and corruption.  Thrush is in there pitching as well, eager to grab Querido's oil.

Joe Sirola's Abaca is well done.  His rattled-off Spanish phrases sound authentic, as does his Latin-accented English ("How can my own brother be so estupid?" and "You need no' be concerned").

If the storytelling has a flaw, it's that there are so many factions.  Angela, Abaca and his brother, the Secret Three (occasionally, and confusingly, called "the junta"), and the unseen threat of Thrush -- it gets a little complicated.  Of course, whenever I'm inclined to grump this year about a plot that's too complex or a tone that's too serious, I remember "Matterhorn," and all is sweetness and light again.

Rather odd that the bulletproof car would explode, not when the engine starts, but as it drives away.

Illya seems quite pleased with himself for his high-handed kidnapping of Angela, and for covering his tracks.  At the same time, Solo seems disgruntled and unhappy with the entire mission.

It would have worked better if the Secret Three had worn masks under their cowls.  The light is dim, but their faces and voices are recognizable.  Vinay's ring is so obvious it seems like a red herring, though it's not.  Nor is it very bright of their men to place high explosives next to hay!

Some more good detective work by Solo, as he goes undercover to get himself into the local jail and thence to the Secret Three, and some solid strategy ("If you're after the Three, get the Three, not the one").  We also get good deduction by Illya as he realizes that Abaca must be behind the attempt on Angela.

Illya makes a bad mistake when he underestimates Angela and lets her slip a message out.  When Waverly reprimands him and takes him off the case, Illya does not argue or try to evade.  I'm reminded of the Robert Conrad vehicle "A Man Called Sloane," a decade or so later, in which Sloane and his sidekick frequently double-talked and outmaneuvered their superior, played by Dan O'Herlihy.  In contrast, Waverly is clearly The Boss.

I love that red-lit reflection of Waverly's face in the computer screen as he gets ready to lower the boom on Illya.  Earlier, too, we have a couple of neat shots as Solo moves past the camera, and it shoots up past him into the sky.

Were the thugs attempting to kill Illya and Angela in Switzerland, or in Querido?  If the former, they got back to Querido in time to save Solo awfully fast.

Verdict: Lacking a strong climax, it's no classic like "Deadly Quest" or "Summit-Five"; but our heroes are smart and professional (and fallible).

Memorable Lines:
Cab Driver: "Imagine, senor!  It is Angela's birthday, and she gives to us a present!  A, uh, a courthouse!"
Illya (dryly): "Every capital city should have one."

Solo (guying Illya about his newfound celebrity): "Bullfighters are out and Kuryakins are definitely in."

Abaca: "You spoke with [the Secret Three].  You must have some clues."
Solo: "Mm-hmm.  One, a ring the size of an egg, in the shape of a bull's head . . . with ruby eyes."
Abaca: "Are you sure?"
Solo: "Well, it wasn't the kind of ring you'd find in cereal boxes."

"The Deadly Quest Affair" (ep. 4/8)

When, a year or so back, Diana of RaspberryWorld asked the members of Channel_D for our recommendations for episodes to show a first-time viewer, this was my pick for Season Four.  The first episode filmed this year, "Deadly Quest" (the sixth and last episode to use that adjective) has even more of the feel of Season One than does "Thrush Roulette" -- partly due to the use of that year's music, as Bill Koenig has noted.  For danger, suspense, and Solo smarts, this is a true winner.

Again we find a hospital to be a slightly less than safe haven, as Illya is kidnapped by Viktor Karmak's thugs.  Somebody at Arena must have had a bad experience during his tonsillectomy or prostate exam.

The shadowy former theatre contrasts sharply with the brightly-lit gas chamber where Illya is held; and the nighttime setting, the croaking mynah bird, and those scenes actually filmed at night set up the atmosphere beautifully.  We also see Solo's wits at work: a chisel for a weapon, using the backhoe to clear the electric fence, and the current of the bulb wire to blast a hole in the ice house wall.  Whether that last would really work, I don't know, but it's part of the essence of U.N.C.L.E., like his shaving can bomb in "Iowa Scuba."

Yes, this one separates Solo and Illya very early, so that they have only two scenes together; and Illya is not given much to do -- though his attempt to manipulate the glass to cut through his leather wrist bonds is edge-of-the-seat stuff.  Unfortunately, the imprisonment of Illya is the linchpin of the plot.  The captive must be someone Solo, and we, care about.

No, I don't suppose that even in 1967 so big an area of Manhattan would be condemned all at once.  If they had set it in one of the other boroughs, it might have been more plausible.  On the other hand, the first map slide in Waverly's office is correct in showing a simplified version of the streets around the Manhattan Bridge.

Marlyn Mason is lovely.  Did we need her character, though?  Well, we needed an Innocent, someone for Solo to converse with during the ordeal.  Why not someone attractive?  Plus she adds a little lightness to a heavy story, and her emeralds come in handy during Act IV.

Darren McGavin's Karmak is an over-the-top villain, true -- something about his boots, his stance, and his leopard reminds me, paradoxically, of the comic-book hero the Phantom.  But he's a powerful and threatening presence.  While you wouldn't call him noble by any means, he faces death in his own gas chamber on his feet and without begging or whimpering.   (He's also one of the worst shots ever.  He misses Solo across the width of an alley while using a telescopic sight?  Or was he just playing with his quarry?)

I guess Karmak always intended to have Stefan pretend to betray him to Solo, to lead the agent to the ice house trap, and then dispose of Stefan afterward.  Illya plants the seed of "A reward?" in Stefan's mind, and so he demands money from Solo (which he planned to conceal from Karmak) in the process of playing out Karmak's game.

Thompson has Solo say that "felinophobia" is "fear of cats."  Isn't it "ailurophobia"?   Similarly, his villain, Brach, uses "intractable" for "tractable" in "Green Opal." 

Solo's darn lucky that Ying the leopard didn't disembowel him with its back claws while they were wrestling.  And I don't think the big cat's fangs would have broken Solo's arm, as the tag scene implies; his arm would have been lacerated, and he'd probably need reconstructive surgery and physical rehab, too.

Verdict: For atmosphere, setting, and tension, as an old enemy hunts Solo through a dark urban landscape and time ticks away for a captured Illya, the halfway point of the final year is superb adventure.

Memorable Lines:
Solo (to Illya in his hospital bed):  “. . . You have time for meditation!  Fruit of the vine; flowers of the field; exquisite view --”
Illya (looking around at the sterile room):  “What exquisite view?”
Solo (as an attractive nurse comes in):  “That exquisite view.”

Solo (to Waverly):  “What was left of Karmak was staked out in a jungle clearing for the scavenger ants.  With scavenger ants, death is never slow . . . but it’s always certain.”

Solo (to Sheila):  “Come on now, jump.  You said you did some skydiving, didn’t you?”
Sheila:  “Well, not exactly.  I started to.  I even went so far as to get a silver lame jumpsuit.  But when I actually looked down out of the plane . . . acrophobia!”