"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 30, 2010

"The Yukon Affair" (ep. 2/14)

The 1965 Christmas Eve episode is a series landmark:  It's the only time that a villain returned, played by the same actor.  (Thrush mistress of disguise Dr. Egret appeared twice in Season One, but was played by two different actresses.)  If they had recast the role, who could possibly have matched George Sanders as the urbane but deadly G. Emory Partridge?  Unfortunately we don't get Jeanette Nolan's daft, dangerous Edith in this one, but the entire story, while colorful, is daft enough without her.

I recall that CBN cut the teaser in the `80s, so it was new to me.  Nice touch, that scripter Marc Siegel gives us the pear tree "calling card" that Partridge sent to Waverly in "Gazebo in the Maze."  But why does Partridge attempt to kill Solo at all, let alone with the Quadrillenium X?  It was bound to bring the forces of the Command down on him.  Was that his plan -- to entrap Solo and Illya in order to earn a "premium" by handing them to Thrush?  (Yet he says seeing Solo in the igloo is a complete surprise!)  Solo, Illya, or Waverly should have speculated on this.  It's one thing for our heroes to be led into a trap; quite another for them to be trapped without any planning or forethought.

For a non-Thrush, Partridge has enormous resources.  How did he get away from the Command after the Eastsnout business?  And then, in just eight months (in our timeline), he has not only attempted to unseat a reigning sultan, but has set up the Q-X operation, no doubt with some Thrush help.  Remarkable -- especially since Solo says Partridge's sultan episode was "about a year ago"!

Interesting to see Solo and Illya as frogmen, being dropped off by sub.  Waverly must have called in some favors.  Problem: the location given by their computer lies in NE Alaska, not in Canada's Yukon Territory -- and about 100 miles inland from the Arctic Ocean!  A point near the ice-rimmed coast would have made more sense, and the story should have been titled "The Alaskan Affair."

Despite the illogicalities -- we see Partridge make an effort to lift a carving made of Q-X, and it's implied that Murphy's people carve the stuff!  How do children carve something fourteen times harder than diamond? With Q-X drills? --  the charm here lies with Solo and Illya.  Solo's enjoyment of Illya's discomfiture when he has disappointed Waverly; Illya's delight at the idea of dragging Solo along into the bitter conditions north of the Arctic Circle; and Illya's schoolmaster air about the aqualung/fuel device and the mission in general, are fun.  The most "U.N.C.L.E."-like moments, though, are Illya's neat escape from the local jail using his fuel cell, and Solo's swift concealment of his communicator and smoke bomb while alone in Partridge's sitting room.

I love Partridge's names, "Disraeli" and "Gladstone," for his team dogs.  One imagines he also has a "Stanley" and a "Dr. Livingstone."

Uh, Costume People, couldn't you have found something a little less silly to put on Solo's head than that thing with the flaps and straps?  A wool watch cap like the one he wore on the raft in "Shark" would have kept him from looking like Eb on "Green Acres."  Fortunately the Edwardian-style suit and cravat fit the Solo style much better.

Why is Partridge's jail guard wearing an RCMP uniform?  Has Emory a squad of rogue Mounties to enforce his dictatorship over the Eskimos?

Verdict:  The first truly silly story of Season Two, it could, like "Arabian," have been rewritten with some thought and research into a better adventure.

Memorable lines:
Solo (to Illya, as they sit captive in an igloo): "Well, the reception committee was Class A, but the accommodations leave much to  be desired."
Illya: "We'll complain to our travel agent."

Illya (to Murphy, about her father's harpoon skills): "A fine eye and a strong wrist.  I would sincerely appreciate being out of range of both."

Victoria (marveling): "How do you keep so fit, Mr. Solo?"
Solo: "I play games."
(Victoria with her Angelique-like style is much more Solo's type than is Miss Murphy, anyway)

Solo (holding the door to the general store for Illya): "Compasses, toys, formal evening wear, right this way in this department --"

Illya: "Life's too valuable to spend even a single minute of it in remorse!"

Partridge: "Children are so laxly reared nowadays. . . ."

"The Adriatic Express Affair" (ep. 2/13)

For years I swore that this one was not only set on New Year's Eve, but also aired on December 31.  It took Jon Heitland's list of airdates to set me straight (Dec. 17, '65).  "Adriatic," Robert Hill's second script for the series, is nicely paced and sets our heroes a challenge aboard a racing train -- as if Agatha Christie had collaborated with Ian Fleming. (Imagine James Bond teamed with Miss Marple!)

We open in a Vienna rail station, with Solo and Illya looking very spylike in trench coats.  I'm inclined to think Solo's is not the same one he wore in Season One's "Dove" and others; this one looks to be suede (!?).  The station set has a smart, authentic feel to it, with people scurrying around, and multilingual signs everywhere.

Jessie Royce Landis's Madame Nemirovitch must stand high on The List of Colorful Antagonists: a crafty, manipulative "old girl" who has lived life to the fullest, and regrets terribly that her youth, and therefore a lot of life's pleasures, are now gone.  (Her chemist, Dr. Ingster, says he discovered the reproduction inhibitor culture while trying to find her a rejuvenation formula.)  Here, too, she tells us that Thrush was formed "43 years and 11 months" before New Year's Eve '65, which takes us back to late January 1922.  Since she also claims that the whole organization was her idea, perhaps we should take the date info with a grain of NaCl, nicht wahr?

The Express leaves Vienna in daylight, but darkness would come early in late December, say 4:30 local time.  Solo reports to Waverly around that same time, which would be about 10:30 a.m. in New York. Check.

The night scenes atop the rolling train are well done, with smoke from the engine blowing past them on what we assume is an icy wind.  Even the train models used in other shots are convincing.  I can't say the same for the party in the club car; it looks a bit too much like a set, and doesn't sway as a train car would.  (Nor can I believe a model saying, "Besides, I'm too thin"!)

Juliet Mills's Eva is charming (though I have trouble with the notion that a 19-year-old girl that pretty is that innocent, even for 1965).  Her attempted "seduction" scene with Solo is a particular favorite of mine, both funny and touching.  It also motivates Eva to ally herself with the "horrid" Solo, thanks to Mme. N.'s casual willingness to kill not only Solo but also her.  There goes that hero worship thing for sure.

The dialogue is neat and snappy, from Solo fencing over dinner with Mme. N., to his encounter with Eva and the escape from the baggage car.  For example, Eva says that Mme. N. carries her jewels everywhere.  A few lines later she suggests appealing to the old girl's better nature, and Solo comments, "She hasn't carried that around with her for years."  Plus there is the neat repartee about plastic surgery in Act IV (see below).

How and why does Illya have a pre-knotted rope tucked into the back of his slacks late in the story?  Such a rope is a necessary tool, but wouldn't he keep it in his suitcase?  -- Oh, wait; he has the rope in hand in the Act I scene in their compartment.  Never mind.

Neat Touch Dept.:  When Solo removes his jacket in the cell, his gun and holster are gone; the security people on the train would have searched them and impounded their guns before locking them up.  A last question: Would Mme. N.'s stomach acid destroy the culture?  Could it get loose during her autopsy?

Verdict: With a McGuffin that poses a real threat, this one rockets along from incident to incident, murder to murder, and never lets us down.

Memorable lines:
Mme. Nemirovitch: "At my time of life, Schulz, every New Year is not only happy, it is ecstatic."

Mme. N. (to the waiter, after she sniffs the slivovitz): "You have been stamping the prunes out with your own feet again, haven't you?"

Solo (exasperated): "Well, we can't tear the whole train apart."
Illya (seriously): "Why not?"

Eva (breathlessly): "I'm mad about you!"
Solo (tongue planted firmly in cheek): "Ah, you poor, foolish child.  So many girls are.  I guess it's because of my long black hair and the way I play the guitar."

Eva: "You're supposed to act like a ravening beast!"
Solo: "I'm sorry, I gave up ravening quite a while ago. I send all those sort of cases out these days."

Solo (about Mme. N.): "Well, she has an honest face . . . even if it is the result of a triumph of plastic surgery."

Solo: "I once had my eyebrows burned off having Cherries Jubilee."
Illya: "The result was a triumph of plastic surgery."

Friday, January 29, 2010

"The Children's Day Affair" (ep. 2/12)

When this first aired, your intrepid correspondent had the measles, and spent the two weeks before Christmas 1965 in bed or on the living room couch.  But miss U.N.C.L.E.?  Jamais, mes enfants! This pleasant Dean Hargrove script has some tense sequences and darker edges, with the most warped villain duo since the Partridges in Season One, and builds to an exciting climax.

For the second week in a row, Solo and Illya drive a Mercedes.  Carlo Ferenti's loaner is a 190SL, the little 4-cylinder stablemate of the famous 300SL sports car with the "gullwing" doors.  Peculiar, however -- there's no windshield!  The posts are there, though.  Did the crew remove the glass to avoid reflections as they filmed?  Huck's car in Act III, I think, is an Aston-Martin DB2/4, of an older vintage than Bond's car in "Goldfinger"; anybody know?

Let's get right down to it.  Mother Yvonne Fear and Captain Jenks are deliciously twisted, with a complex relationship that would delight any abnormal psych student.  Jeanne Cooper's Mother Fear, as her name implies, has a dual nature.  She controls the men and boys at Ecole Figliano with an iron hand, thus "Fear."  With Jenks she is maternal, nurturing, soothing his little rages, cheering him on; and it works.  Jenks is effective and organized, able to set up the plot to kill the Section One leaders and the trick to find out where the conference is being held.  Creepily, when he refers to his earlier headmaster posts, he mentions "brutality trials" -- plural!  (We see, too, that Jenks doesn't only think of Yvonne in a maternal role. . . .)

As for Yvonne herself, I get the impression that even if Illya had told her the new conference location, she'd still have given him, and her strap, a workout.

Ricardo, the little hellion on the train, is a Thrush recruit, which fits with the acid-loaded "toy" gun.  Was it a prize for passing his tests for the school?  I retroactively demand a 9mm Luger for doing well on my SATs!

Susan Silo's Anna Paola is charming and refreshing: "To tell you the truth, I cannot stand children!"   It's hard to cite another fictional character who admits it, even today.

The entire "Solo vs. the nerve gas on the model trains" scene is a model of how to drive an audience right out of their collective skulls.  Film students should study it carefully.

In-jokes galore: The name "Captain Jenks" may be a nod to an old bluegrass tune, "I'm Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines/ I feed my men on corn and beans/ And often live beyond my means . . ."   Jenks's "Operation Penrod" refers to Booth Tarkington's 1914 novel about, you guessed it, an eleven-year-old boy.  And I know you caught the names of the blond Thrushes, "Tom" and "Huck."

I wish Illya had simply shot Mother Fear at the climax.  The cake bit, and Anna's gosh-awful, predictable line, just don't work for me.  If the story has a real flaw, it's the cutesy scene at the end.   A much darker ending would have brought out . . . well, let's have Solo and Illya tell us:

Illya (quietly): "Napoleon."
Solo: "Hm?"
Illya: "Has it occurred to you that those boys . . ."
Solo: "Yes?"
Illya: "They have been schooled at a most impressionable age in Thrush methods, Thrush lessons in sabotage, in terrorism, in assassination . . . in the culture of Thrush, if you will. Thrush is now their 'family.'  It may be impossible to rehabilitate them. There will always be something in them that will respond when Thrush calls.  And when they are old enough . . ."
Solo (after a long moment): "Let's just hope that if that day comes, Illya, you and I won't be out here in the field to deal with it."

Verdict: A fun story that could have provided a springboard for the "Return" movie.

Memorable lines (Illya shines this week):
Illya (reporting to Waverly): "There's not even an out-of-place elf in the forest."

Anna Paolo (to Solo, about Ricardo): "They say there is no such thing as a bad boy, and that is what I keep telling myself. Over, and over, and over."

Illya (to Capt. Jenks): "This school of yours is quite an innovation.  I imagine the class reunions would be quite fascinating."

Illya (levelly, to Mother Fear): "I must warn you, I don't have any guilt feelings for you to prey upon."

Mother Fear (as Jenks caresses her with his riding crop): "Not in front of the children --!"

"The Virtue Affair" (ep. 2/11)

Henry Slesar, the scripter here, has been rather forgotten today, though in his time he produced a raft of effective short stories (I still shiver over his "A Cry from the Penthouse"; go find it), and was story editor on the crime-oriented soap "Edge of Night."  (It's his 1963 novel that became the episode "Bridge of Lions"; has anyone read it?)  Here he delivers a fairly clever story with a suspenseful denouement, as Illya waits to have his head handed to him.

The car chase in the teaser is well-done.  I'd like to know just what French car rental agency Solo and Illya use, though.  That big steel-grey cabriolet is a Mercedes-Benz 300S, even then ten to fifteen years old and costing seven to twelve grand US when new.  Or maybe the (unseen) chief of the local Command office loaned them his own car?  Darn good thing they didn't crash it!

During his briefing of our guys in the Paris HQ, Waverly says that since the death of her father at the hands of the white-suited biker thugs, Mme. Prof. Albert has withdrawn into her work.  This implies some time has passed.  Did Solo and Illya have another mission or two during the interim?  Nice detail, to have trees and three- or four-story buildings visible from the windows.

The Paris HQ agents' entrance is also a tailor shop, though there are differences in the details.  (Tellingly, there's no "Honesty is the Best Policy" over the door.)

Robespierre, as played by Ronald Long (we saw him last in "Odd Man"), is bombastic, larger than life, and clearly cracked.  I guess his plan to destroy the vineyards of France is only because of his temperance campaign.  I'd have liked it better if he confessed to Solo at some point that vineyards he secretly owns will remain untouched, and since his will be the only wines available, he will become even richer.

"Did you lose your little comforter?": Was this a tip of the hat to Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" strip and Linus's blanket?  It was on the pop culture map by this time.  We also get a nod to Christopher Fry's "The Lady's Not for Burning."

The "Most Dangerous Game"-style bowhunt of Illya through the forest is excitingly photographed. And Illya's bald-faced attempt to pose as a German electronic engineer to a roomful of real engineers is a delight, as is his and Solo's insouciant use of the guillotine to slice their bread.

I don't know if Solo's trick to electrocute Bernard the guard would work.  Nor do I know if 220 volts (house current in France, right?) would knock Bernard out.  When it comes to electricity, "my poor brain cannot comprehend such complexities."  If so, it's quite clever, as is Solo's tracking of the control room via the speaker wire.

Verdict: With a threat less plausible than, say, the plan from "Neptune" to deliberately start a nuclear war, it nevertheless gives us some exciting action scenes and snappy patter.

Memorable lines:
Illya (about the 18th-century Robespierre): "And if I remember correctly, his method of inspiring virtue was Madame La Guillotine."

Illya (about the modern Robespierre's political campaign to prohibit wine and whiskey in France): "How many votes did he get?"
Waverly: "Eighty-four."
Illya: "I should have demanded a recount."

Robespierre: "Monsieur Solo, did you say your first name was Napoleon? . . . What a cruel prank by your parents."

Robespierre: "White is the color of virtue!"
Solo: "And ambulances."

Illya (to his escort, about the imprisoned Solo): "Yes, he's the stupid sort.  The way the eyes are set so close together."

First Engineer: "To what tolerances are the parts machined?"
Illya (clearly thinking fast): "What would you guess?"
First Engineer: "Well, fifty millionths of an inch."
Illya: "Absolutely correct.  Next?"
Second Engineer: "What is the degree of torque?"
Illya: "Must I tell you everything?"

Mme. Albert: "We'll never find him!"
Solo: "We've got to. I want my children to drink champagne."

"The Cherry Blossom Affair" (ep. 2/10)

As I watched this one, which I hadn't seen since the CBN era, I was positive it was yet another Peter Allan Fields script or co-script.   Clearly Weingart and Yellen were using his best stories as a benchmark.  Tight Joseph Sargent direction, more dry humor than usual, and a plausible danger make for wonderful U.N.C.L.E.

The teaser is a model of "What the heck is going on here?"  In Waverly's office, Solo makes a mighty leap of induction when he concludes the Thrush scientists all come from countries with volcanoes. It would have been better for him to hazard a guess, and then Waverly could nod: "Quite right."  As he did in "Ultimate Computer," Sargent next shows us what they are discussing: Thrush Eastern HQ and their discovery that they have the wrong film.  Then he jumps neatly back to Solo and Illya's briefing.

For the longest time in this episode, however, I was confused as to where we were.  Waverly cautions Illya that "Miss Okasada is leaving for Japan tonight," and thus when we first see her I assumed she was visiting a novelty store in New York.  Later, it becomes obvious that the store is in Japan.  An establishing shot and label, "Tokyo" or "Kiru, Japan," would have been a good idea here.

Just how does Cricket, following Illya's mention of the Ogaki Academy (she's smart!), get into the academy to save Solo?  Wouldn't the Thrushes have locked up behind them?  And how does Thrush get on to Cricket at all -- did she introduce herself at the novelty store, or mention where she worked?

And just how did Waverly get to Tokyo so fast?  Even today that trip would take some ten to twelve hours.  Was Illya held by the cops that long?

Despite such quibbles, and the fact that once again Solo and Illya work separately, there are real dangers, such as the stake pit with its skeletal victim (Illya) and samurai swords sharp enough to slice rope with one pass (Solo).  Cricket, the innocent, has a solid motive for mixing in the adventure; and we have the edgy, ultra-polite dynamic between Thrushes Kutuzov (from Central) and Harada (the local boy, from Eastern).  We see that Solo, despite his sometimes casual air, is no slouch at martial arts (though when the teacher knows his name, he should have been more on guard!).  Harada proves his tactical skill by using the dead man to ensnare Illya with the local police.  And Illya's setting off the firecrackers to get out of the store, and his posing as the A/C repairman, are twin delights.

Beyond all this, like a cherry atop your sundae, we get a tiny warm scene between Solo and Cricket that echoes Solo's heart-to-heart talk with Elaine, way back in "Vulcan."  Hemingway defined courage as "grace under pressure"; here we see it embodied in Napoleon Solo.

You might object that the Japanese police are made out to be buffoons, especially when the captain fires the U.N.C.L.E. Special thinking it a toy.  No racism here, though: There's a long tradition in mysteries of all stripes of having the officials be duller than the hero.  And the point of the scene is to show how cool Illya is, not how dumb the Japanese cops are (and to keep the toy gun in play, so it makes sense at the climax).

Verdict: With fast cuts, neat music ("Boo-Bam-Boo, Baby"), and dry wit, this smart story is vintage U.N.C.L.E.

Memorable lines:

Illya (re: Cricket's job): "Dubbing?"
Solo (helpfully): "Mm-hm.  That's the process where a person from one country says lines on film for a person from another country --"
Illya (briskly): "If there's anything I can explain, don't hesitate to call."
Solo: "I'm glad of that."
(-- In its comic timing, this echoes the endearing babble of Kelly and Scotty on "I Spy")

Kutuzov: "Isn't it the Japanese who say, `The longest journey must begin with the first step'?"
Harada (coldly): "The Chinese."

Cricket (to Illya): "Tell me, Mr. Kuryakin, are you talented in your profession?"
Illya (flatly; no false modesty) "Yes."
Cricket: "Do you know that [the recording engineer] has been listening to everything we have said?"
Illya: "Yes; I put him there.  He's an U.N.C.L.E. agent."
(The look on Cricket's face: priceless)

Solo (tied atop the fast-growing bamboo, to Cricket): "You're just in time for the harvest --!"

Police captain (to Illya in the lineup): "Just one question, Mr. Kuryakin.  Why do you carry two guns?"
Illya: "One of them is a novelty item.  A toy."
Captain (smiles): "Well, of course." (Fires the one in his right hand -- the Special -- shattering glass)
Illya (motionless while the other members of the lineup dive for cover; dryly): "I believe it's the other one."

Illya: "The U.N.C.L.E. is a worldwide organization devoted to the preservation of world peace."
Captain: "Like the Salvation Army?"

Thursday, January 28, 2010

"The Deadly Toys Affair" (ep. 2/9)

My notes from the CBN days (sure, I took notes. Didn't you?) sum this one up as "a deft script with some surprises."  I might not say "deft" today, but "Toys" does give us possibly the most colorful innocent ever, while losing points for a thin plot and one of the series' least memorable villains.

Startling to see Waverly chastising Warshowsky in full schoolmaster mode in the teaser.  (I shudder to think what he did with those agents who let Dr. W. slip away!)  And Bill Koenig is right; Solo and Illya's raid on Thrush's hypnotic gas plant, is exciting.  But this long sequence should have come at the climax of this story instead of the start!  Perhaps if the boy, Bartlett, has been holding a piece of the puzzle as to the existence of another plant which is really manufacturing the gas.  Once they rescue him, Solo and Illya find they must destroy the real plant. . . .

The rest of the story, unfortunately, is nowhere as strong as the teaser.  Angela Lansbury lights up the screen, and outshines everybody else, with her Zsa Zsa Gabor-like "schnookieputz" Elfie van Donck. The image she evokes, of Elfie floating down by parachute, with a cluster of aardvarks surrounding her like a host of heavenly angels, will haunt your dreams.  I'm warning you.

Is that really a Russian newspaper Solo is holding on the plane?  And I must say, you haven't lived until you've seen U.N.C.L.E.'s Chief Enforcement Agent, the man who defeated Andrew Vulcan, Captain Shark, and the deadly Brother Love, wearing a Groucho Marx eyeglasses-and-nose.

In contrast, I love Solo's measured delivery when he stares directly at Noubar the Generic Continental: "There's the yellow-bellied . . . Thrush."  He's not giving himself away to Noubar by doing this; since Noubar's men attacked him at the airport, he knows his cover is blown.  As regards covers, I don't see why he and Illya don't simply lay things out for Elfie and enlist her aid as they have other Innocents.  Instead they keep her in the dark almost to the end.
It's never clear how Elfie and Joanna Lydecker know each other, or even who this lady who wears breakfast diamonds is.  Is she another film star?  A jet-setter?  How and why does Illya attach himself to her (instead of Elfie)?  She's a diversion that doesn't go anywhere.  Better had she been a Thrush.  And though we are told endless times how brilliant Jay North's Bartlett is, we never see any evidence of it, other than his steely and very adult determination to destroy Thrush for killing his father.

Speaking of which, why does Dr. W. give U.N.C.L.E. the slip after requesting their help?  If he's even half smart, he'd know, once the gas plant was destroyed, that Thrush would know he squealed.  Instead he walks right into the school he wants the Command to rescue his son from.  We needed a scene in which for some reason he loses confidence in Waverly and his men, and decides to run for it, to try and rescue his son himself.

Again Illya is not given a lot to do, aside from look mysteriously foreign as Joanna's hairdresser.  He does demonstrate his gymnastic ability ("You're a professional cat burglar!") in his clever escape from the meat locker.

Verdict: With a raft of clever lines (mostly Elfie's), a template for what should have been the rare lightweight episode as a break from more serious stories.

Memorable lines:
Joanna: "The parts of speech have always bewildered me.  Can you tell me the difference between 'who' and 'whom,' and 'me' and 'I'?"
Solo: "Why don't you sit here . . . and I'll start by pointing out the difference between 'his' and 'hers.'"

Joanna (to Elfie): "You've gone blonde!"
Elfie: "Oh, is tragic accident.  The yak butter shampoo, it backfired."

Elfie: "You still have that traveling hairdresser . . .?  Rachmaninoff?"
Joanna: "Oh, Rocky went into the catering business."
Elfie (nods): "Too many egg shampoo, hein?  It was bound to end up in an omelet."

Joanna: "My own hairdresser, secretary, companion.  A sweet-looking man named Illya."
Bellhop: "He's all those things?  Formidable!"

Solo (to Bartlett): "Thrush is one of the worst conspiracies of modern times."
Elfie: "Thrush?  Thrush, what is this little bird?  Beep, beep?"
Solo: "No, no, no.  It's an omnivorous vulture that's going to gobble up the brain of your nephew here."

Elfie: "But you told me [Illya] was the criminal type!"
Solo: "Yes, and if we don't rescue him immediately he'll probably wind up the defunct type!"

"The Tigers Are Coming Affair" (ep. 2/8)

A rather grim story, Alan Caillou's last script for the series is well done overall.  Having the "World Congress for Undeveloped Countries" bring U.N.C.L.E. in to investigate Prince Panat is smart. Obviously there would be other worldwide entities, not just Waverly's judgment, that would call our men into action, and not only in response to Thrush threats.

Strangely for a Caillou script, Illya is given very short shrift.  He has action scenes but very little dialogue, and no exchanges worth mentioning with Solo, who is clearly the boss.  It goes so far that another Enforcement agent character could have been substituted for Illya.  His absence from the first scene in Act I sets up a strange vibe that is reinforced by the lack of any dialogue at all between Illya and Suzanne.  (I suspect this was when David and Jill were divorcing?)  The Illya we know would have fired back a retort to Solo's "Try and look busy, all right?" kidding in Act II, or would have found a way to get his own back later.

The teaser is startling and effective, though I question whether a Chrysler Imperial convertible would make a good shooting brake, or would even be able to get around the country; we saw very few roads.  That faded Plymouth station wagon would work better.

Solo's floppy straw fedora (which he discards, thankfully, after one scene) and that neckerchief are a bit over the top.  You'd expect Panat to be hot; Illya's lightweight shirt and trousers seem much better suited to a subtropical climate than Solo's buttoned-up bush jacket.

The prince's plot, to use his own desperate people to mine his rubies, is devilish -- and efficient, too.  Why expend your resources rounding up unwilling workers (read: slaves) when you can get them to come to you, begging for work?  Lee Bergere's prince is a fascinatingly urbane sociopath.  To him, other people are not human, but merely tools, cheap robots, or obstacles in his path.

Baron Cosimo is really developing a meaningful relationship with his rifle.  Do we even need him and Drusilla in this story?

There's 10.5 hours' difference between New York and most of India.  If Solo calls Waverly in Act II at, say, 6:30 p.m. local time, that's 8 a.m. in New York; certainly the old warhorse would be at his desk.  In Act III, Waverly calls Solo in the middle of the Indian night, say about 4:30 p.m. NY time.  Then in Act IV, Solo calls him at a little past local dawn, say 6:30 a.m. Waverly is still there at 8 p.m. on the same day?  He's wearing a different suit in Act IV; perhaps he ducked home for an hour, napped, and changed.  (Still, I want some of whatever he smokes in those pipes of his!)

Speaking of calls, how do we account for the return of the cig-case boxes, when Solo and Illya have been using the new pen for the last few episodes?  Well, don't most new inventions have bugs in the early releases?  What we saw before was field testing, and now Section Four has yanked the pens back for "tweaking."

When the Prince and Col. Quillon (who seems a fine example of our modern term "useful idiot") have Solo, Illya, and Suzanne captive, we see Solo's heroism.  He doesn't hesitate to accede to the Prince's demand in order to save the lives of innocents. However, my big quibble with this story is with this scene.  Why does Waverly accept Solo's word alone that the Congress's delegation should come to Panat?  What about a little thing like, yanno, evidence?  Surely Waverly would want to know what Solo bases his judgment on.  And as with "Gazebo in the Maze," you'd think Solo would slip in a code word to inform Waverly that he and Illya are under enemy control.

The long and nearly dialogue-free escape from the mine emphasizes how well Solo and Illya work together. 

Verdict: Despite the sentencing of Illya to spear-carrier status and the annoying helplessness of Suzanne (except at the climax), a fast-moving and colorful story featuring a consistent villain and with a plausible reason for U.N.C.L.E. to investigate.

Memorable lines:
Solo (as the Sage reporter): "If you don't mind, Your Highness, jungle war stories are a dime a dozen today."
( -- Possibly the only reference the show ever made to a certain infamous war in Southeast Asia?)

Julali: "Upcountry is forbidden, sahib.  Men go there, they not come back.  Never."
Illya (calmly): "Then let's go and find out why."

Prince Panat: "The dacoits are very difficult to control.  They're much like the teenage problem in America, I should imagine."

Prince Panat: "Why, I can get fifty miles a day out of the average beater."
Solo (sotto voce): "Ask the man who owns one."
( -- A play on the famous ad slogan for Packard automobiles)

Solo (as they speed away from the dock, preparing to fire at the gleaming insecticide cans): "I think I see a silver turkey --!"

"The Arabian Affair" (ep. 2/7)

Some argue that scripter Peter Allan Fields knew the characters and format (along with Dean Hargrove and Sam Rolfe himself) best of all the MfU writers.  Unfortunately this one is not a patch on his "Fiddlesticks" or even "Ultimate Computer."  The script as pitched must have sounded terrific, and great whacking chunks of it are quite good, with one of the funniest lines ever in the series (see the last quote below).  Somewhere, alas, it went off the rails.  And those fans who hate it when Solo and Illya work separately wouldn't like this one anyway.

The thing that knocks my inner hamster off his wheel is the "vaporizer" threat.  Now its demonstration, as it turns the desert tribesman into molecules, is impressive.  Unfortunately it looks like a roomful of Mr. Bubble.  Besides, it's a slow weapon; as we see later, it expands less swiftly than a man can run.  How did Thrush plan to deploy it?  Much better, says I, if it had been a real, frightening threat -- say, a biological warfare lab hidden in the desert, where Thrush is developing new, more virulent strains of anthrax, bubonic plague, and influenza.  Then we'd have a real sense of danger.

The grand stuff is the background on Thrush:  the idea that they permanently, uh, "retire" their employees who survive to age 65 is clever.  (Aside from the secrets said employees won't be able to blab, Thrush would save millions in pension funds!)  Solo's plan to find a "nice, retiring Thrush gentleman" is ingenious.

On balance, most of the Solo scenes work quite well.  His bearding Lewin and his wife in their cozy little walk-up apartment, Lewin's fear that the U.N.C.L.E. agent is there to kill them, and his
convincing them of their fate, all click.  Solo's mini-raid on the satrap, however, is the sort of thing that leads Waverly to think Solo's days on this planet are numbered.  Why not just pick Lewin's brain about the deliveries to the project?  That would have led him to the right spot.  (Not as visually exciting, though, is it?  And his use of the exploding watch to blow open the kitchen door is sharp.)

Okay, let's get it over with and move on.  Phyllis Newman is horribly miscast as Sophie, and an Arabian tribeswoman wouldn't be named that anyway.  The fight between Sulador and Illya is spoiled by the silly "Dance of the Flaming Swords" music:  if you mute the sound, the scene is well-done.  On the other hand, Illya gets off some nifty "Taming of the Shrew" remarks; his use of the resemblance between himself and T.E. Lawrence is clever; and he really holds the stage as he narrates the story of "his father" to the tribe.  (How did Illya happen to have this history at his fingertips?  Perhaps he read up on the region in preparing for the mission.  Besides, the movie with Peter O'Toole was only three years back.)  

The tag scene, with Illya the "limping bunny" hobbling away from Sophie, is silly, as are the painted insert shots of Norman's plane.

On balance, the Arabia scenes weaken what could have been a solid episode.  If they had cast a different actress (remember Ina Balin?), and if the script had played it straight to make you believe in these people and their terror of a mysterious death coming out of the desert, it would have worked.

Verdict: Not one to show somebody new to the series. (But the script could have been fixed! It could have!)

Memorable lines:
Sulador (about the wounded Illya): "Look at that leg!"
Sophie: "So we cut off the leg. I sell him as is anyway, half price."

Solo (to Lewin and his wife): "Now, the moment one retires from Thrush, you not only cease to be an asset -- you become a distinct liability. . . .  I'm certain you'll find U.N.C.L.E.'s fringe benefits far superior."

Sophie: "Why did you take that bucket from me?"
Illya (exasperated): "To be polite, you silly little girl!  And before you open that nasty flapping little mouth of yours, I suggest you study up a bit on that trivial amenity called courtesy.  No wonder
you're still unmarried at your age!"

Illya (snapping at Sophie): "Why don't you take that sparsely furnished mind of yours, and go and join the other elderly unmarried women?"

Illya (pretending to be annoyed at Solo): "I should have known who it was when I saw you trip over your own feet."
Solo (fingers Illya's burnoose; lightly): "Gee, I wish I had a dress like that. . . ."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"The Re-Collectors Affair" (ep. 2/6)

“Re-Collectors” has the feel of a first-season story, except in color.  It’s Alan Caillou’s second-to-last script for MfU.  (I wonder why Caillou never wrote about Thrush?  A Caillou/Rolfe script focusing on a power struggle within the Hierarchy would have been fascinating.)  And while this is very much a Solo story, in that he is clearly the team leader, Illya gets a lot of excellent character moments.

This one has two major delights for me, aside from the plot switches, intelligence of our heroes, and the realistic tone and atmosphere.  It’s one of the comparatively rare stories in which U.N.C.L.E. sets a trap for their quarry (the ad in the Rome paper, designed to flush the Re-Collectors out of the bushes).  And it features Solo as classical detective, a la Ellery Queen (scroll down on that page for a pleasant jolt!).  His hinting at the nature of the puzzle to Illya in Act III, and then his revelation of the true nature of the Re-Collectors, work very well; in fact he actually uses the word “deductions.” 

Evangeline must have been one of many personal assistants Waverly auditioned over the years until he settled on Lisa Rogers.  Possibly because Lisa was the first to resist Solo’s charms, or Illya’s.

As we’ve seen before, Solo speaks fluent and rapid Italian.  It lends weight to the idea that at least one of his parents was from Italy -- though he states later, in “Concrete Overcoat,” that he is not Italian at all.

Theo Marcuse’s Gregori Valetti is smooth and effective, except, naturally, when he comes up against Illya in Act IV.  I almost wrote “well-barbered,” but he doesn’t have anything on his head to barber.  (Personally I suspect he wears those gloves to protect the gloss on his fingernails after his manicures.)  And I wonder just how Miss Donato thought a pearl-handled pistol would influence a snake like Valetti to lower his price to recover her painting.

Solo tells Demos that “his” painting was stolen “during the war.”  Unless he’s pretending to be a lot older than he is, he’d have been about 12 or 13 back then, and Demos should have remarked on it -- and used it as one reason for not believing Solo is on the up-and-up.  Better if Solo had told Demos, “The painting was stolen from my family.”

Illya’s moments here are few, but memorable.  His tinted hornrims as he makes notes on the case file in Waverly’s office; his dark dark Foster Grants in the Rome post office; his Hugh Hefner-ish presence in dressing gown as he hosts Valetti . . . and that very suggestive moment where it looks as though he and Lisa have been snuggling (“Mr. Waverly told me to relax,” says he!) on the couch.  Not to mention his moment of near-insubordination to Waverly (“We were just making sure . . . sir”).

In a nice casting touch, George Macready, who plays Demos, was an art collector in his own right, together with his friend -- Vincent Price.

Verdict:  Not a Thrush or science-fiction story, but a solid tale of intrigue and international detective work.

Memorable lines:
Valetti (hyping the Re-Collectors):  “We hunt, we find, we kill.”

Solo:  “I’m certain that Valetti’s gun will be pointing in the right direction.  I just must remember not to be standing in front of it.”

Solo (to Demos, declining to drink his wine):  “I promised my dear old mother that I wouldn’t drink until I was twenty.”

Sergeant:  “So you see, nobody sent me.  I came.”
Solo (murmuring):  “And saw . . . and conquered.”

Illya (to Waverly):  “I think I’d better go and get Mr. Solo out of there before something unpleasant happens to him.”
Waverly:  “No, no, no, no, no.  When Solo gets into trouble, that’s when he starts getting results!”

Illya (re: their plan):  “Casting bread on the waters to bring home the bacon.”

"The Discotheque Affair" (ep. 2/5)

This one, a Dean Hargrove co-script, is the first of the new season to feel as if it needed another rewrite.  Solo’s Houdini trick in Act IV, plus Ray Danton as villain Vincent Carver, make it work fairly well, though not on the same level as “Foxes and Hounds.”

We open up with a delivery of Thrush ordnance to a garage.  Why does Mr. Carver (roaring up in his snazzy Barracuda, and with driving gloves, no less) deliver the bomb to the store at all?  Was it coincidence -- this particular Thrush front was due to be “dismantled” anyway?  Or had someone in the garage radioed him with an SOS?

The idea that the brownstone apartments belong to U.N.C.L.E. as part of their cover, and that they have tenants who pay rent, is genius.  It reinforces the idea that the Command, despite its high-flown technology and purposes, is restricted, like any other huge corporation, by the laws of economics. 

Carver’s discotheque is about as much like real ones as most in movies or TV of the time.  A real disco would be darker (more like the scene at the close of Act III), the go-go girls would wear miniskirts if not less, and the music would feature more Top 40 hits.  And Tiger Ed, as played by Harvey Lembeck (late of William Asher’s “Beach Party” movies), is really kind of embarrassing.

Carver is not.  Danton’s sleek Carver is the highlight of the episode; swaggering, super-confident, he seems amused by it all (“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”).  Watch his head-bob and body language in Act IV when he leaves Farina on guard, and you’ll swear he was channeling Cary Grant.

Hans Gudegast’s cool, controlled, prideful technician, Mr. Oakes, is another highlight; the clash of personalities and philosophies between him and Carver is sharp, and I wish Oakes had survived to be a worthy antagonist in another story.

Leaving the body of Mr. Sherman, the inspector, behind the wall in Sandy’s apartment was foolish if Oakes’s eavesdropping project was intended to be long-term.  Eventually the corpse would betray itself (as it does), Waverly would investigate, and thus endeth the project.  A short-term goal -- say, if they expected a particular piece of information to come across in the next three days -- would have posed no problem, except that Waverly, once he realized what Thrush had been up to, would increase security on the entire block.  Better if Tiger Ed, say, is in charge, shoots Sherman and tucks his body behind the wall, and then we see Carver and Oakes are furious at him for spoiling the project.

Nice Touch Dept.:  Solo must carry his watch in his pocket while his left hand is in the cast; dead Sherman’s shoestring poking out from the wall; Illya plays bass with the band, and questions Sandy in his “interrogation” outfit of tinted hornrims, open shirt, and shoulder holster; the Thrush records being concealed as literal 45 rpm records; the hint of a long-standing relationship between Carver and Farina; Solo does not get free in time to keep the fire from starting; and he must tuck his left hand into his waistband to support it after he’s freed it from the cast.

If Solo’s plan is to get Sandy into the club, did they kill the bug to get Carver to make that move?  A line about this when Solo is with Illya in the car would have been nice.  But then why does Solo stop the workmen?  They could have let Oakes get it back on line, then supplied Thrush with all sorts of disinformation.  As it’s written here, Thrush would know very shortly that the failure of the bug means U.N.C.L.E. is on to them.

Yes, I’m sure that slipping out of a cast is close to impossible -- the doctor has to cut it off, right? -- but Hargrove & Stadd set it up with Solo’s “My cast has taken quite a beating tonight.”  And Vaughn makes it look difficult, if not painful.

Why does Carver, as he says, leave the records to be destroyed?  That’s almost as bad as letting U.N.C.L.E. have them!  Central will not be pleased.  And  he should have had an exit line when Waverly grabs his cane.
Verdict:  Clever in places, sloppy in others, it nonetheless gives us a sparkling villain (who even announces what “a heel” he is) and highlights the determination of our heroes.

Memorable lines:
Solo (opening the register, to the vacuum-cleaner store customer who wants her money back, after he has put a sleep dart into the Thrush behind the counter):  “There’s your refund. . . .”

Carver (jauntily, inspecting the freshly–painted wall behind which his men have stashed Mr. Sherman):  “Well, if nothing else, we’re neat.”

Farina (drunkenly, as she is freed from the buzzsaw by Solo):  “I’ve had a rotten life --!”

Illya (indicating Solo’s arm still in its sling, after Waverly has detailed him to investigate a Prague motion-picture studio):  “You mean, after all this, and what with your arm, don’t you think you’d better stay here for a while?”
Solo:  “What, and give up show business?”

"The Foxes and Hounds Affair" (ep. 2/4)

Oddly, I have no memory of this one in its first run.  I well remember "Ultimate Computer" and "Discotheque," which bracket it -- and how could I have forgotten Vincent Price's turn as languid, poisonous Gallic Thrush Victor Marton?  "Foxes and Hounds," in addition to bringing us more of Peter Allan Fields's snappy dialogue, shows us once again Waverly the crafty spymaster; and also that Thrush has internal factions, rivalries, and politics like any corporation in our world.  (Of course, not many corporations today are vying for mind-reading machines.  I hope.)

The teaser immediately treats us to a background detail about Illya: that he was a "little boy in Kiev."  If he's about 31 at this point, that puts him smack in the middle of (to him) the Great Patriotic War.  We find that he's thinking, not about the cute girl in tights, but about "Monsieur Solo"!  Yet it seems to be the mention of Kiev that makes him snap at Merlin, "That's enough."  See everything this scene does: it tells us that the machine does indeed read minds, that Solo is not on this mission because he's on vacation, and introduces the Innocent, Mimi Doolittle.

At least Cantrell gets away with the translator.  Walk-on agents, like those hapless red-shirted Security guys in "Star Trek," usually get themselves dead by the end of Act I.  Wisely, Fields doesn't show us that he is probably killed when Belmont's men divert him and capture the translator in Act IV.  It would have ruined the light tone.

Marton's "automobile" is that quintessentially Gallic motorcar, the Citroen DS (nicknamed "Goddess," for its initials in French).

Clearly Illya and Waverly know that Thrush has Del Floria's under observation via that rotating fire hydrant, since Illya and the lady staffer play the scene together and dispatch Solo to JFK for the observers' benefit.

Next we meet the ferociously ambitious Thrush, Lucia Belmont (middle name "Cougar," no doubt), as she clashes with "that continental masterpiece," Marton.  Just watching Price and Patricia Medina trade barbs with such superb timing would make this episode a classic.

Solo seems out-of-character harsh with the cabbie ("Get thee gone, varlet!").  But he's operating in the dark, something I'm sure he hates.  No need to take it out on the cabbie, Mr. Solo, he's a fellow Command agent just following orders!  The Irish cop ("Napoleon, Waterloo is upon you!") calls Solo "Raffles," after E. W. Hornung's gentleman burglar.

How does Illya get out to the airport before Solo?  An U.N.C.L.E. 'copter?  I presume Illya uses the phone rather than his cig-case communicator to contact Waverly because whatever he has arranged to bollix up Solo's device is affecting his communicator too.

"The Loved One" Mortuary --!  Somebody was reading Evelyn Waugh.  That, or the movie of that name with Robert Morse had just come out.

Seeing Price and Leo G. Carroll together when Marton strolls into HQ hints at what it must have been like to see them as adversaries in Broadway's "Angel Street" (1941; later filmed as "Gaslight").  Waverly's crew, including the receptionist, are on the ball.  I suspect David McDaniel was inspired by this to have Ward Baldwin visit HQ in his last published Ace novel.

Waverly should never have told Illya about Cantrell's true destination unless he intended Illya to meet Cantrell.  A neat plot twist would have been if Waverly had planted this with Illya in case he was captured; the Thrushes thus go to New Jersey, while Cantrell lands at a field in upstate New York.  But this would have required some other way for Marton and Belmont to capture the translator so that it can be destroyed at the end.  Perhaps they have broken U.N.C.L.E.'s latest code, and send an emergency override to Cantrell, so he does land at Wadsworth.

Verdict:  Despite a bit more comedy in some scenes than necessary (see the melee at the climax), Price, Medina, and the regulars carry the whole thing off with such verve and style that we love it anyway.

Memorable lines:
Illya (to a frightened Mimi, as Marton's men break down the door):  "Innocence is not a bulletproof commodity, young lady!"

Waverly (to Illya, regarding keeping Solo in the dark about the mission): "Besides, it won't hurt Mr. Solo to be ignorant once in his life.  Good for the humility."

Solo (to Del Floria, as he begins to realize he's fallen into a rabbit hole): "Actually, I was just chasing around after my pet leprechaun."

Marton: "Miss Belmont: I have been patient.  I have withstood your inflammatory rudeness.  I have pointedly ignored your -- whatever it is that frustrated women become. . . ."
Belmont: " . . . Why, you pompous, facelifted boulevardier! . . .  I've worked too hard!"
Marton: "And you soon may be working equally as hard, lovely lady, over a hot stove in the kitchen of some lonely Thrush outpost -- making chicken soup for our sick and wounded."

Illya (to Mimi, disbelievingly): "You're a woman.  Haven't you had your basic training?"

Illya: "We could make one of our daring, resourceful, and nauseatingly punctual escapes . . . if only the door weren't locked."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

"The Ultimate Computer Affair" (ep. 2/3)

This Peter Allan Fields story has a special memory for me.  My seventh grade English teacher hit us with one of those dreaded themes on a Monday in October 1965.  But this one wasn't bad, as themes go: "My Favorite Television Show."  Naturally I didn't have to hesitate even a second, and as  "Ultimate Computer" had just aired, I was able to write up all the details.  My teacher's only quibble: I hadn't explained what "Thrush" was.  Gee, I thought everybody knew that --!

This, the first story filmed in the second season, hits the ground running with a trademark what-the-heck-is-going-on-here teaser, with Illya as a scruffy street performer (he really plays that guitar!) who gets himself hauled off to prison.  From there the story leaps and twists on to a satisfying climax.

The exposition in the first act is well done, cutting from Solo expounding to Sarah in Waverly's office, to the prison in Chacua, the Ultimate Computer, the safeguards around it, and the people involved; then back to New York HQ.  Better to show us than tell us, anytime.

A Thrush operative, disguised as a library guard, scans the entire contents of a valuable book without opening it.   A shame we can't do that yet.  This story seems to contradict Sam Rolfe's original notes in which the Ultimate Computer was already a factor in Thrush's operations.  Here it appears as if automation was a new path for Thrush.  Yes, I know, the Computer looks like a rather simple prop, and we never actually see it do anything.  But the very fact that it's compact and portable, in contrast to our world's room-sized punchcard-munchers of 1965, moves it into the realm of science fiction.  And in its red-lit cage, with that cyclopean eye glowing sullenly at us, it comes off as weirdly malevolent.  "And man shall not worship idols --"

Mr. Waverly's no mug; he knows what's what when he catches Solo and Sarah canoodling.  "Would you get me the Oliver file, Miss, ah, `Sugarpie'?"

Charlie Ruggles, the prison governor, is best known to us now as the leopard "expert" in "Bringing Up Baby" with Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn.  His Callahan is a raffish old goat who does his Thrushly duty, though he hates these newfangled computers -- and enjoys taking Cervantes the computer-worshiper to hell with him when the precious mechanical marvel is  destroyed.  And Judy Carne (later the "Sock-It-To-Me" girl on "Laugh-In") is perfection as officious but cute Innocent "Salty" Oliver.  (Gee, how'd she get that nickname . . .?)

I can't let Roger C. Carmel's performance, with its rattled-off Spanish and accented English, go without a serious tip of the hat.  During the `60s, if you wanted a solid yet flamboyant character actor, he was the man to get -- as Gene Roddenberry & Co. realized when they cast him the next year as Harry Mudd.

Illya really chomps on that cold cigarillo for all he's worth, even after he's abandoned his prisoner disguise.  Speaking of disguises, Solo's Philip Toomey (driving cap/straw fedora, double-breasted vest, bow tie, mustache) seems a bit of a wrong'un, the kind who tries a little too hard to be one of the fellows.  (Not the sort to be a member of any of my clubs, anyway.)  Well done on Solo's part.  Though I wonder, if he's established the character as a bowtie boy, why does he switch to the standard Solo four-in-hand when he goes snooping later?

The famous communicator pens debut here; this may be the pens' field test.  Feodore, the agent-in-place in Chacua, uses the old cigarette-case device.

Clearly, if Salty had known Solo would be killed instead of released, she'd have never agreed to stay with Cervantes.  So the lie he tells her, that both agents will be freed, does double duty: it kicks off the decoy plot, and will (he hopes) bring him "mi corazon."  Of course, sooner or later Callahan would have ordered her killed too; I suspect Cervantes was hoping it would be later.

How does Illya know about Salty?  He was already in the prison when Solo recruited her.  Or did Waverly outline this part of the plan to Illya, offscreen, at the beginning of the mission?

Verdict: With a fast-paced adventure featuring plausible danger and humor kept to the right places, U.N.C.L.E. strides confidently into its new season as the most famous TV show in the world.

Memorable lines:
Solo (to pretty staffer Sarah): "Suppose, my darling, you wanted to build a fortress.  You know, with guards, guns, maximum security . . . very secret, very impregnable . . . where would you put that kind of thing, that fortress?  Hmm?"
Sarah: "I don't know.  I never wanted to be impregnable."

Capt. Cervantes: "Up at dawn to watch the sunrise, plenty of hard work, and the fresh air.  Breakfast, of course, is Continental style.  Oh, yes.  If you try to escape we will sever the tendons behind your knees. . . .  We expect that over the course of the next, ah, seven years, our relationship will develop into a warm and lasting friendship."

Salty: "Grown men thrashing around like power-mad juveniles!  What kind of television do you people watch, anyway?"

Cervantes (re: Solo's queasy look after Cervantes has coldly shot one of his own men): "Well, after all, how do you think I got to be captain?"

Solo: "A Thrush doesn't change his feathers just to please a lady."

Illya: "I'm sunburned, blistered, grimy, and very, very hungry."
Solo: "I'm glad I don't have to take you out in public anywhere."

"Alexander the Greater Affair, Part II" (ep. 2/2)

As it should be, Part II is more exciting than Part I.  The opening scene, with Farrell of Budget Control complaining to Waverly about the costs Solo and Illya are running up, is a classic example of how U.N.C.L.E. differed from anything else in the spy genre in the Sixties.  Imagine M hearing complaints from the Ministry of Defense that Agent 007 was straining the budget.  No; only MfU could get away with that.  The scene also explains neatly how Solo, Illya, and Tracy got to Minos in the first place, and how they get away again: they flew a Command `copter!

The escape in the throne room is neatly done (though it was a darn good thing Mr. Parviz neglected to take a couple of turns around Solo's ankles while roping him to the altar).  It harkens back to the cliffhangers in the old Saturday afternoon movie serials that writer Dean Hargrove no doubt grew up on.  Nice touch, that the end of the rope is still burning as Solo loops it around the marble statue.

It's nice to see how proactive Tracey "Eye on the Main Chance" Alexander is -- that our heroes don't have to maneuver her into helping them; she's all for it.  Of course, a million bucks is a great motivator.  More important, we see Waverly dismiss the unethical idea of maneuvering her into putting herself in danger.

I like that charcoal brown sportcoat Solo wears at HQ in Act I.   It's probably the same coat, with the same dark brown slacks, we saw in black-and-white several times in Season One.  His office is a lot better equipped, computer- and monitor-wise, than the last time we saw it, in "Never-Never."

The names of Alexander's Asian conspirators and of the Prince -- Bon Phouma, Man-Phang, and Phanong -- echo such famous names of our world's mid-Sixties as Prince Souvanna Phouma of Laos.

"One Spy Too Many" contains a post-coital scene between a wolfish Alexander and Princess Nicole that was cut for the broadcast version.  This works better than merely hearing Nicole off screen as Alexander leaves.  Come to think of it, a definitive version of OSTM could be spliced together, retaining this scene, plus the one in the film where Parviz picks up a roaring Alexander at the quarry, but also including the rescue of Alexander's parents.   (And deleting all the Maude Waverly interludes, please. As much as I love watching Yvonne Craig, those bits, and the "explanation" at the end of the film, aren't needed.)

Watch me blink in disbelief as Mr. Parviz gets his toenails painted (!) at the Grecian Urn, while watching the girls on closed-circuit television.  So that's how he relaxes.  Interesting detail: He uses a cordless remote, just as we have today, to control the TV set.  Did such remotes even exist in our world then?

Cal Bolder's Ingo is very articulate, not the muscle-bound dummy a lesser writer would have given us (and who would have been played by Richard Kiel or Ted Cassidy).  I'm not sure I believe that the 175 or 200 pounds Solo loads on the bench press machine would keep him trapped for long, though.

The entire sequence with Illya being pursued by the farm machines, ducking into the mudhole, being wrapped up in bandages, etc., makes me wince at the thought of getting that filthy.   I picture David reading the script, and shaking his head: "You wanted to be an actor. . . ."

During Solo's struggle with Kavon, he at one point is closer to Kavon's silenced pistol than Kavon is.  Why not grab it?  (Picture for the Illya fangirls!)

Alexander's decoy ploy is clever, designed to give him just enough time to murder the president.  I wonder when Tracey could have written her message in lipstick on the window of the limo without being observed by Alexander or Parviz, though.

I'm surprised at the Washington Command office.  They didn't post anybody outside the embassy to head off Alexander, and didn't take away the keys to his Imperial.  Poor tactics!  Heads are gonna roll, baby!

In the action sequence when Solo leaps from the Jag to the plane, Vaughn and director Sargent keep it from looking easy.  I hate flying in planes, much less the idea of leaving one in flight, so I have no idea, but would it be humanly possible to squirm into a parachute pack while in free fall, as Solo does?  And could the plane have reached a high enough altitude that he'd have time to do that?

Verdict: A slam-bang season opener, with high energy, notably exciting music including the cool new theme arrangement, and a great turn by Torn as Alexander the (would-be) Greater.

Memorable lines:
Alexander (to Mr. Kavon): "I shouldn't have any trouble using [the generals'] country as my personal power base.  From there I can subvert all of Asia. . . .  Where the devil did I put the keys to my sports car?"

Parviz: "How did you get out of your tomb?"
Tracey (beckons him closer. In a confidential voice): "Well, you see, there was this lamp, and we rubbed it three times --"

Ingo (clapping Solo on the shoulders): "I know what your problem is!"
Solo (uneasily): "Is it that easy to tell?"

Illya (mummified): "Well, I suppose I'll just have to find myself a new tailor."

Wedding Guest (re: the bride's scream as she no doubt discovers Mr. Parviz's staring corpse next to her in the car): "I knew it wouldn't last."

Monday, January 25, 2010

"Alexander the Greater Affair, Part I" (ep. 2/1)

Hola!  Wow!

Pardon the exclamations.  It's a reflection of how I excited I was at age 12 (having just passed through the chaos of Hurricane Betsy in September 1965) when the new season of U.N.C.L.E. premiered.

This, Dean Hargrove’s third script and the show’s first two-parter and color episode, is fast-moving, bouncing from New York to Athens, from Alexander’s estate to his rock quarry, and then to a tomb in Minos.  It sports intriguing set pieces like the living chess game and the wild cliffhanger at the end.  To me, however, the color adds life to the sets, but detracts from the plausibility overall by giving the story an almost comic-book aspect.

Alexander’s twin notions, that of conquering the world a la Alexander of Macedon, and also wanting to violate the Ten Commandments, don’t seem to be related.   Alexander wasn’t Jewish (though Alexander was, and is, highly thought of in the Jewish world).  You could say, “Well, Alexander has a goal -- world domination -- and a hobby -- violating the Decalogue.”  But Alex tells us the two plans are part of one whole for him; the second isn’t just a pastime.

That said, the Commandment business provides a good mystery thread.  We don’t see Alexander break all 10.  We see 8 when he steals the will gas, 7 (adultery) and 10 (coveting your neighbor’s wife) are implied with Princess Nicole, and 5 is done, shockingly, when we see how he has dishonored his parents.  In the scene with Tracey in his den, he burns something before a colorful idol, which bears the number 2 above it: With this he’s breaking “Thou shalt make no graven images,” and “Thou shalt have no god before me.”  We can presume Alexander has given false witness plenty of times in his business and private life.  Killing would bring it up to 8.  If he manages to take the name of the Lord God in vain and does it on a Saturday or Sunday, he’s done.

His theft of the will gas from the Army isn’t very convincing (though the machinations of Mr. Parviz, in the footage for “One Spy Too Many,” at least take the Army’s security responses into account).  Even in those long-gone pre-Homeland Security days, wouldn’t they have searched Alexander’s briefcase?  How was he going to explain an oxygen mask and three silvery pressurized canisters -- tell them he had asthma?  Much better if the site had been an independent laboratory, with much lower security.  The Army could have sent along an observer, perhaps a young Army Intelligence officer, who suspects Alexander.  When his superiors say there’s no proof, he goes to U.N.C.L.E.  In Waverly’s office, he could tell them about the theft and show pictures he’d shot with a microcamera, and then we’d be off to the races.

In Tracey’s attorney’s office, Solo handles his gun as if it were a toy or an afterthought.  Worse than that, the script has him draw it at Alexander’s party and twist the flash arrestor into the nose of the unarmed Prince.  Horribly unprofessional.  If nothing else, it would tend to promote an image of U.N.C.L.E. agents as thugs.

David Sheiner’s Mr. Parviz is scary.  You get the impression that he is tightly wrapped, too tightly, and if things get beyond him, like a deep-sea fish brought to the surface, he’ll explode.

Except for Squire Partridge, Alexander is the first antagonist to have been married.  At least I don’t think any of them mentioned a spouse or ex-spouse.  Hard to imagine Capt. Shark having a wife back home in Boca Raton or Vancouver.

“Tranquilizer mist” (in OSTM, “aphrodisiac mist”) set up to spray in Alexander’s boudoir?  Creepy.  Something tells me, if he lived today, he’d have directed one of his chemical companies to develop a proprietary version of roofies.

We see Solo pointedly inspect Mr. Kavon’s limp, from which he concludes that the man’s shuffle means he might have been in prison.  To me it seems more like a limp than a shuffle.  And then Solo tells us that he jammed the firing pin in Kavon’s “revolver” (it’s actually an automatic).  Hard to swallow that, even for him -- for most of the scene his hands are full of flashlight and gun!  Better if Kavon simply reaches into his pocket to find no gun, and Solo draws the little pistol from his pocket and says, “I took the opportunity to relieve you of this.”

My other objection to the cliffhanger scene, and the script as a whole, is that it gives Illya nothing to do.  It’s Solo who checkmates Alexander, recognizes the mineral composition of the tablets, and explains the numbers as relating to the Ten Commandments.  Solo-phile though I be, I think it's silly to have Illya along and yet only let him be Tonto to Solo’s Lone Ranger.

Verdict: Despite plot holes and inconsistencies, it provides our heroes with an appropriately larger-than-life villain and larger-than-life obstacles.  (I imagine Solo murmuring, “They never told us about razor pendulums in Survival School --“)
Memorable lines:
Solo (Gun in hand, slamming open the door to Tracey’s attorney’s office):  “I have an appointment.”

Solo:  “I’m with the U.N.C.L.E.”
Tracey (apologetically):  “Oh, my favorite charity.”

Tracey (gushing over Illya):  “You’re not . . . Count Kuryakin, by any chance? . . .  You must be thirsty after that long flight in from . . . the Balkans, isn’t it?”
Illya:  “From America.  I own a chain of radio stations in Oklahoma.”

Illya (as Solo tumbles into the throne room):  “I see you found your way here safely.”
Solo:  “I couldn’t miss it.  It was the only temple on the block.”

Mr. Kavon (as he and Alexander depart for Washington):  “And you know how awkward it is to get space without a reservation.”

Mr. Parviz (re: the razor pendulum):  “It’s a new steel process.  I get 15 to 20 times more use out of each one of these blades.”

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Summing Up: Season One

To me (and I suspect, most fans), Season One is the overall best in terms of story values, detail, continuity, and excitement.  Under the tutelage of Sam Rolfe, the series told exciting stories in a fast-paced visual way new to episodic network TV.  Indeed, until the advent of "Star Trek," MfU gave us the widest variety of vivid stories ever seen in a series with continuing characters, and told against a wholly created background to boot.  Just look:

- An assassination plot that wasn't
- An attempt to revive Der Fuehrer
- A battle with a modern-day Antony and Cleopatra
- A pirate preparing for the end of the world
- Two different stories about switched identities
- A scheme to smash a new von Ribbentrop
- A high-tech safecracking
- An artifact from the past, turned out by accident to infect the present
- Intrigue in a night-shrouded Balkan nation
- A story about lost love, and another about loyalties
- A fall down a deadly rabbit hole
- A female Walter Mitty who actually gets to live her dream of spy excitement

And now, my coveted Silver Cigarette Case Communicator Awards.  Feel free to join in with your own winners:

Best Overall:  "Project Strigas" and "Fiddlesticks" (tie)
Best Performances by Robert Vaughn:  "Double" and "Dove"
Best Performances by David McCallum:  "Bow-Wow" (of course) and "Hong Kong Shilling"
Most Original Innocent: Chris Larson in "Finny Foot"
Most Original Villain:  Captain Shark
Most Effective Villain:  Brother Love
Most Delightful Stories: "Mad, Mad Tea Party" and "Never-Never" (a coincidence that both involve U.N.C.L.E. HQ and its personnel?  I think not)
A for Atmosphere:  "Dove" and "Yellow Scarf"

And the Tarnished Medals go to:

Dullest:  "King of Knaves"
Silliest:  "Girls of Navarone"

Onward to Season Two!

"The Odd Man Affair" (ep. 1/29)

Here we are at the end of the first season, which has given us some of the 1960s' best hours of TV.  It seems odd to us now, but the season doesn't end with a cliffhanger (that tradition, I think, began with the "Who Shot J.R." storyline on "Dallas" in the 1980s).  Instead we finish with a spy story from the writer of "Deadly Games" and "Mad, Mad Tea Party," featuring one of the most interesting Innocents -- at least in part because he's not really innocent.

We open with an exciting sequence on the plane.  (Strange, but of the last five episodes, four have featured Illya on his own in the opener.)  The sequence gives us a glimpse of a vanished time when you didn't hate flying, because it was comfortable and pleasant.  When Raymond shoots the flight captain and the passenger screams, that should be enough for Illya to spring up; but he doesn't move until Raymond has seized the stewardess.  And oddly, the explosion blasts only outward and not into the passenger compartment . . . but this sets up the delightful shock of Illya nearly being sucked into space.

Mr. Zed, who seems to be into nuclear explosion porn, is played by Ronald Long, whom I recall from one of Stan Freberg's live Sunsweet prune commercials of this time period.  ("They're still rather badly wrinkled, you know." "Today the Pits -- Tomorrow, the Wrinkles!  Sunsweet Marches On!")

This is one story that could have used a few more scenes.  Albert Sully's apartment, with its stacks of newspapers and its TV with rabbit ears, perfectly suggests the dull lonely life of its occupant, as played by Tony winner Martin Balsam.  Yet I still wish we'd had a scene in Waverly's car on the way to Sully's, in which Waverly fills Solo and Illya in on Sully's background.  We gather, eventually, that he'd done assassin work for the OSS, and had been a Command field agent before his Inactive Files desk job.  But the summing-up given us at the end by Solo and Illya ("Men like Sully are only really alive," etc.) comes so late that Sully's determination to continue as Raymond seems strangely quixotic until we get that explanation.

The story also foreshadows today's world of terrorism.  Of course there were fascist and Communist terror organizations then; see "The Day of the Jackal."  And Waverly mentions that Raymond's group (far-righters, I suppose, if they were so opposed to alliance with the "far left"?) used plastic explosive "very successfully in their campaign to bring down the government of France."  Does this mean they were successful in spreading terror, or successful in toppling the ruling clique in France?

Yeah, I Had to Look It Up Dept:. Sully's book, "La Chartreuse de Parme" ("The Charterhouse of Parma") is an 1839 novel by Stendhal.  There's an in-joke with it: According to Wikipedia, the novel's early section is largely focused on the young hero's quixotic effort to join Napoleon when he returns to France in 1815.

Doesn't cat's cradle seem an odd game for two grown men to play?  Why not cards?

Clever of Sully to realize that Solo stuck him with a homing pin . . . and cleverer of Illya to put in a backup.  But why would it take fifteen minutes for Solo and Illya to explain to the customs agent?  A flash of the ID cards and a quick explanation should have done it in less than five.  And isn't "nine-seven degrees" slightly south of east, not west?

Why, too, does Mr. Wye (note how manfully I'm resisting making puns here) give Sully-as-Raymond the pointer to the nightclub, which will lead him to the meeting?  If he thinks the fellow with the blue button is Raymond, the last thing Zed would want Wye to do is steer him to the meeting!  Of course, Raymond was supposed to be dead, so Wye must have assumed this was someone else (though, oddly, Ecks recognizes "Raymond").  And how does Miss Watson know who Wye is?  Does she still skirt the fringes of extremist groups in between compiling quarterly accounting reports?

Illya seems very concerned for Solo when Wye shoots him on the bus.

Illya in trench coat and glasses prefigures Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in "The Ipcress File" and other films.

Verdict: Less a story about Solo and Illya's mission and more about the Innocent, Albert Sully, it's a fast-moving spy tale, the black-and-white photography echoing 1940s films.  (But why the title? Could Albert be considered to be an "odd" man?)

Memorable lines:
Illya: "When Raymond was getting on the plane, I took the precaution of removing his wallet."
Solo: "In other words, you picked his pocket."
Illya: "If you prefer such a bourgeois description of an act of pure presence of mind."

Solo: "Don't play Uriah Heep, Sully.  It really doesn't become you."

Illya: "I have a hunch someone packed a peck of pickled peppers in our bag."

Illya (as Sully pops the homing pin into the customs agent's jacket):  "It's like playing the game of Pin the Tail to the Donkey."
Solo (wryly): "Donkeys."

Solo (to Illya): "You are a sly Russian.  Someday when you grow up you should make someone a marvelous secret agent."

Illya (at the Soho nightclub): "Remarkable, the number of people who find it necessary to protect their eyes in such a dimly-lit room."

"The Girls of Nazarone Affair" (ep. 1/28)

The title of the 27th episode filmed is apparently a pun on the 1961 Gregory Peck WWII thriller "The Guns of Navarone."  Otherwise why such an unusual name for the "lady race-car driver"?  How the pun connects to the story I don't know, since there are no German soldiers, anti-aircraft guns, or impregnable fortresses to be seen -- and the "girls" of the story are Dr. Egret's, not Nazarone's.  It's a lightweight story with some oddly silly moments, but fun.

The first act is quite solid, however.  Our heroes do good detective work examining Lavinia's hotel room for traces of Dr. Kellwin.  "Methylated cobrox" may not exist in our world, but it should.  Cobra venom dissolved in methyl alcohol, maybe?  It just sounds evil.

It's never stated, but was Dr. Kellwin himself the "something heavy" that Solo theorizes was raised from the balcony?  Isn't that a roundabout way to get your hostage out to your car?  And the gardenia vendor was paid off, then killed -- because he saw this?  Some unanswered questions here.

Part of the fun is that Solo and Illya really have to work at the case, having to tramp to garage after garage to track down the solenoid clue.  And they both look rather rumpled and weary, as anybody would after hitting fifteen garages in an afternoon.

Their scheme to retrieve the formula from Thrush is quite clever.  Naturally Dr. Egret wouldn't want a competitor in the market!  But if I were her, I'd suspect Solo and Illya's setup dialogue.  She probably had them sized up as U.N.C.L.E. agents, and would know they wouldn't discuss such matters where there could be microphones.

Transports of Delight: Nazarone's sports car looks like the famed AC Cobra roadster, one of the fastest cars of its time ("Hey, Little Cobra, don't you know you're gonna shut 'em down. . . .").  Mme. Streigau's elegant sedan is a top-of-the-line Mercedes 300SE “fintail," nicknamed that even at the time; Mercedes was aping, however mildly, the fins on American cars.  Very appropriate car for the Riviera.  And Lavinia's new car is the famous Jaguar E-Type or XKE (". . . there were plenty of Sting Rays and XKEs. . . .").  Were they as fast as an AC Cobra, though?  In the driving scenes, both cars look like they've been fired from colossal slingshots.

It occurs to me that even if the resurrection formula didn't work in the long run, Thrush could have sold it on the international black market as a short-term revenue-generating -- and deadly -- swindle.

The silly moments are confined, mostly, to the "fight" scenes between Solo and Nazarone ("You're not being very feminine!") and the girls at the clinic/garage.  Only Nazarone is shown to have super-strength, and both Solo and Illya outweigh the clinic girls and are masters of unarmed combat as well.  Was this supposed to be a startling role-reversal? Or to show how even our heroes would be handicapped by ingrained chivalry?

Solo's "What's up, doc?" to Dr. Baurel makes me wince every time I watch it.  Surely a man with such a gift for sarcasm and drollery as U.N.C.L.E.'s Chief Enforcement Agent could come up with something better than to quote Bugs Bunny?  (I suspect the line is there to round out the routine where he totes the flotation pad in front of him as concealment, which comes straight out of Warner's old cartoons, too.)

Why the squabble at the end?  I mean, Solo, after having reported the loss of the serum to Waverly, is understandably upset with Illya when he finds Illya has concealed the fact that the serum is a failure.   But why does Illya do this in the first place?  Some of the raillery between them (in Fields's scripts especially) is irritating.

Verdict: Not one of the gems of the first season, though it sustains its energy all the way through.

Memorable lines:
Lavinia (to Solo, holding up the Do Not Disturb sign): "Do glance at it from time to time.  Flash cards still work with children of all ages."

Solo (to Nazarone, re: Illya): "Tovarisch, here, always thinks he knows -- "

Nazarone (to Solo, at the clinic): "Signor, I neither know you nor like your face."
(How dare she not like Napoleon's face!  Da noive of some people!)

Solo (to Nazarone): "I am seeking to find out why you are not a mite more chilly than you are. . . .   Seems to me the last time I saw you, you were rather well-ventilated.  By a number of bullets."

Solo (to Baurel, clearing his throat after Nazarone chokes him without breaking a sweat): "What seems to be your patient's trouble?  Malnutrition, loss of energy, vitamin deficiency, or --?"

Illya (dourly, about Lavinia): "Bored, lonesome, and doggedly determined to enjoy every minute of it."

Lavinia (to Illya): "Oh, good.  One of you learned how to knock on a door."

Illya (about Nazarone and her supercar): "How do you suggest I stop that female rocket?"
Solo: "I don't know, maybe you should show her your legs!"