The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Fiddlesticks Affair”

I’m still making my way through season one of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It’s still a freaking delightful show. This worked out pretty well last week, so let’s take another in-depth look at an episode, shall we?

At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Napoleon and Illya prepare for a new mission by trying to break into a vault. Their attempt is unsuccessful, a fact that is trumpeted loudly by a smug fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent, who seems delighted at the opportunity to take these two spotlight-grabbing show ponies down a notch or two. Illya: “Having been successfully captured and killed on our own dress rehearsal, heaven knows the depths we shall sink to on the real thing.” Then he gloomily misquotes a little Tennyson and slinks off in defeat. Illya, you are a strange but glorious creature.

On a plane en route to a small island in the Caribbean, Napoleon and Illya sip cocktails and exchange snappy banter while discussing the mission at hand: They’re going to break into a vault hidden beneath a casino managed by one Anton Korbel (Ken Murray), a member of the dreaded terrorist organization T.H.R.U.S.H. By destroying the millions of dollars contained in the vault, U.N.C.L.E. can effectively dismantle T.H.R.U.S.H.’s operations in the western hemisphere. To pull this off, they’ll need to recruit a couple of civilians: a professional thief to help them avoid the many electronic traps surrounding the vault, and a beautiful woman to cause a diversion in the casino while the break-in takes place. Seasoned viewers will not be shocked to learn that Napoleon immediately pulls rank on Illya (“Senior officer by two years!”) and calls dibs on finding, seducing, and recruiting a suitable woman.

At the casino, Illya poses as Jorgenson, a boozy, boorish, lecherous jewelry dealer from the Netherlands; Napoleon poses as Napoleon Solo, secret agent and famed lothario. As a spy, Napoleon has many strengths—his ability to woo comely lasses whilst sipping champagne and looking dashing in a tux is unparalleled—but “versatility” might not be one of them. He sets about seducing and corrupting a callow young Midwesterner named Susan (Marlyn Mason, adorable), who is downright enthusiastic about being seduced and corrupted. When Illya, in his guise as a boozy letch, makes an unwanted advance on Susan, Napoleon comes to the rescue and chases him off. Napoleon: “I feel rather like the U.S. Cavalry. You know, quite heroic.” Modesty, thy name is Napoleon Solo.

Check out Napoleon’s expression—part horror, part disgust, part pity, part existential despair—when naïve, unworldly Susan places her drink order: She’d like a Scotch and cola, thank you very much. This is the look of a man shaken to the fundamental core of his being. I don’t know who won the Best Actor Emmy in 1965, but let me tell you, whoever it was, Robert Vaughn was robbed.

Illya, meanwhile, manages to attract the attention of Marcel Rudolph (Dan O’Herlihy), noted thief, electronics whiz, and general ne’er-do-well. Rudolph sneaks into Illya’s hotel room at night to rob him of his jewels; Illya turns the tables and blackmails Rudolph into helping him break into the vault. Really, I can’t think of any reason why this whole scene shouldn’t take place on Illya’s bed.

Napoleon and Illya meet for a clandestine tête-à-tête to compare notes on their mission. They banter about Napoleon’s seduction of Susan in a way that manages to be both barbed and flirtatious. Illya: “Susan is such a nice name.” Napoleon: “That’s so terribly crude of you, Illya. I mean, drinking and carrying on like that. I was actually rather embarrassed for you.” Illya: “You’re so dashing.” They have an odd dynamic, these two. Between Napoleon’s tendency to flirt with anyone within winking distance and Illya’s ability to inject a jolt of freeform polysexual chemistry into everything he does, simple scenes between them can turn complicated very fast.

Meanwhile, Rudolph runs off and blabs to Anton Korbel about U.N.C.L.E.’s plot to rob the vault. Rudolph, it seems, has been angling to join T.H.R.U.S.H. for some time now; Korbel orders him to play along with Illya and Napoleon while feeding him information about their schemes.

With Susan now wholly on board with Team U.N.C.L.E., Napoleon sets her part of the plan in motion. He arranges for her to win a huge chunk of cash in the casino, which she then deposits in Korbel’s vault, along with a specially-rigged hundred-dollar bill that (somehow) electronically transmits the vault combination to Napoleon and Illya. The technical gadgets at U.N.C.L.E.’s disposal are wondrous and magical, and it’s really best not to think too closely about any of them.

Napoleon and Illya finalize their plan based on all the intel they’ve managed to glean about the vault. The vault is located in a lair surrounded by deadly traps on one side and an active minefield on the other. It’s also protected by a time lock, which is only unlocked between midnight and 12:15 each night. With Rudolph’s help, Napoleon will evade the traps, enter the vault, and disarm all the mines surrounding it by 12:02; at 12:03, Illya will drill his way into the vault from the minefield side to create a way for Napoleon to escape after destroying all the money in the vault. If Napoleon fails to disarm the mines before Illya starts drilling, the mines will explode, killing Illya. Or, as Napoleon cheerfully puts it while raising his glass and toasting the prospect of Illya’s looming grisly death, “I will hear a very loud noise, and you will be scattered all over the Caribbean.”

With Rudolph trying to sabotage him at every turn, Napoleon makes his way toward the vault. He successfully evades an onslaught of traps—hidden cameras! electrified floors! electrified railings! temperature-sensitive rooms!—but gets stuck in a small chamber that will only unlock after a seven-minute delay. This means Napoleon will arrive at the vault too late to disarm the landmines before Illya starts drilling. Trapped, Napoleon glumly waits for the explosion signaling the death of his partner.

No explosion is forthcoming, because it takes more than seven minutes for Illya Kuryakin, elite secret agent and one of U.N.C.L.E.’s shining stars, to light his damn blowtorch.

Meanwhile, up in the casino, Susan creates a distraction to keep Korbel away from his nightly visit to the vault. After losing a pile of money at the tables, she becomes hysterical, pulls a gun, and threatens to kill herself.

This distraction works about as well as you’d think—within minutes, Korbel apprehends her and manhandles into his office, where he interrogates her about her connection to U.N.C.L.E. You know, this really was a terribly dangerous and risky task for an untrained civilian like Susan. We’ve seen that U.N.C.L.E. has no shortage of competent female agents who could’ve handled this assignment with aplomb; maybe Napoleon and Illya should’ve called for backup instead of placing Susan in mortal peril?

Nah. Crazy talk! That’s not the U.N.C.L.E. way. If “Placing Innocent Civilians In Mortal Peril” isn’t U.N.C.L.E.’s official motto, it probably should be.

Anyway, Napoleon finally manages to make it into the vault and deactivate the minefield, but Korbel, alerted to the presence of intruders, drains the room of all oxygen. Napoleon passes out in a heap. Illya finally gets his damn blowtorch lit and drills into the vault in time to resuscitate Napoleon (and, as an afterthought, Rudolph). Napoleon and Illya lob a few bombs inside the vault and climb out to safety before the whole thing blows. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are both in lean, mean, fighting shape… but, oh man, they suck at climbing. Every time they have to climb in or out of something, it ends up looking unbelievably awkward and graceless and strained. It’s the weirdest damn thing.

Illya and Napoleon swoop in and rescue Susan from Korbel’s clutches, then take a moment to gloat about the destroyed millions of dollars before swanning off in triumph. On the plane back to New York, Susan sulks about reaching the end of her foray into a life of intrigue: “Aren’t I just as sneaky and slimy and rotten as you and Napoleon?” she asks Illya. “Yes. You are. You are also thoroughly depraved,” he informs her solemnly. This is music to her ears.

Adorable. It doesn’t get much better than this. Love this show.


DKoren said…
Loving these reviews! Can't wait to watch this show myself now, although Netflix doesn't have it right now. Hmph.

No explosion is forthcoming, because it takes more than seven minutes for Illya Kuryakin, elite secret agent and one of U.N.C.L.E.’s shining stars, to light his damn blowtorch.

For some reason, that made me laugh particularly loudly. It's not the funniest part of the review, but it just tickled me.
Morgan Richter said…
It is a glorious, amazing show. I wish Netflix would stream it. We bought season one streaming on Amazon and are getting the Netflix disks mailed for season two.

Yeah, Illya wasn't blown to pieces, because their ridiculously convoluted plan didn't work, because he couldn't get his blowtorch lit. This is pretty typical for them! Saved by their own ineptitude! I tell you, it's wonderful.
Hamlette said…
Watched this one tonight, and "The Mad, MAD Tea Party Affair," and oh my goodness, this show is priceless. Could Illya and Solo be cuter? Nope. Not even if they tried.
Morgan Richter said…
It's an adorable episode, Hamlette, as is Mad Mad Tea Party (which is very high on my list to review). Illya and Solo are just amazing together. I love their snappy banter.

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