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

After the overheated, tawdry shenanigans of the last episode, let’s cool things down with this brisk and breezy offering from the first season. In this episode, which was directed by Richard Donner, the man behind The Goonies and Ladyhawke and the entire Lethal Weapon series, everything’s on a smaller scale: The fate of the world isn’t at stake, no one dies, THRUSH isn’t mentioned, and nobody gets tied up and worked over with a cattle prod. No, not even Illya.

In the tiny fake country of Terbuf on the Balkan Coast, a man named Emil (Jacques Abuchon) flees for his life from the sinister Lieutenant Fest (Michael Forest). A lovely young woman named Clara (Madlyn Rhue) stashes Emil in a haystack, then promises to help smuggle him out of the country.

(Sidebar: In keeping with the standards of the time, the word “gypsy” is used throughout this episode to describe Emil and his kinsmen, who are nomadic Eastern Europeans. It’s not meant as a pejorative—Emil and his comrades are consistently depicted as courageous and heroic—but because it’s now 2015, not 1964, and there’s more awareness of the long history of malicious usage of the word, I’m going to use “Roma” throughout instead.)

In Rome, confirmed bachelors Napoleon and Illya take a vacation together. This is only the fourteenth episode of the series; five episodes after this, in “The Secret Scepter Affair”, they’ll go on vacation together again. They’re hanging out at the Colosseum, searching for the perfect veal parmigiana while engaging in their usual sparkling banter, when they suddenly find themselves surrounded by a menacing band of Roma. Illya, who knows everything about everybody at all times, immediately pinpoints their exact tribe: They’re Raslian, from the Albanian border, identifiable by their unique signet rings, which are emblazoned with the two-headed eagle of Shqiperia.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. closed captions, which frequently misspell “yacht” as “yatch” and, as I’ve noted before, often decide that Napoleon’s last name should be “Zorro”, somehow manage to nail “Shqiperia”.

Just as the Roma are closing in, Clara pops up out of nowhere and ushers Napoleon and Illya into a nearby shop. Clara, it seems, is one of Napoleon’s ex-girlfriends. Of course she is. What with the vast numbers of women we’ve seen Napoleon date, it only makes sense that he’s going to occasionally stumble across an ex or two. Clara explains her situation: She and her new husband Stefan own a sheep farm in Terbuf. The economy of Terbuf is largely dependent upon foreign aid, which is mostly going into the coffers of the head of the secret police, Colonel Morisco. Local Roma leader Emil found papers proving Morisco’s corruption, but he’s been unable to get them out of the country and into the hands of the proper authorities. With the aid of the Roma, Clara’s been trying to contact Napoleon to ask for his help smuggling Emil and the papers to safety.

While Clara and Napoleon bat their lashes and moon over each other, Illya stands in the background, forgotten by both, frowning to himself while shooting them some pretty formidable stink-eye. Roughly 80% of my screengrabs from this episode are just shots of Illya hovering behind Clara and Napoleon with his brow creased adorably in mounting vexation. This is the look of a man who knows his carefree Roman holiday just got ruined:

This is the look of a man who knows he’s going to spend the next few days bailing his love-besotted partner out of hopeless peril:

You want more? I’ve got dozens of ‘em.

Back at their luxurious home in Terbuf, Clara squabbles with her husband, Stefan (Kurt Kreuger), who doesn’t want her to get mixed up in Emil’s troubles. Stefan wears a double-breasted blazer and a natty ascot, so we automatically know he’s a tosser. A double-breasted blazer paired with an ascot is tried-and-true television shorthand for “wealthy and oblivious pompous ass”. See also: Howell, Thurston III.

Upon hearing that Clara has contacted Napoleon, Stefan scampers off to tattle to Colonel Morisco (played by Alan Caillou, the writer of this episode, who, fun fact, is also a former British spy). Stefan offers to gain Napoleon’s trust, then hand Emil and his documents over to Morisco. Morisco has a better idea: He throws Stefan in jail and arranges to have his sleazeball aide, the oily and lecherous Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen), take his place at Clara’s side.

Coerced into cooperating with this scheme, Clara picks Napoleon up at the train station and introduces Vicek as Stefan to Napoleon. Napoleon heads off to search for Emil. Left alone with his ersatz spouse, Major Vicek criticizes Clara’s lukewarm commitment to their charade: “I need a much better performance from you, my dear wife.” It’s a bad situation for Clara, obviously, and Vicek’s a slithery louse, but I’m inclined to agree with him: Clara is a dud. Later on in the series, Madlyn Rhue will turn in a spirited performance as an Eva Peron-esque ruler in “The Fiery Angel Affair”, but here, she’s dour and listless, which makes Napoleon’s lovesick infatuation with her a little bewildering.

On the plus side, Clara’s relative mediocrity does have the effect of making Illya’s wordless “we’re putting ourselves in this much danger for her?” expressions even more wonderful.

While wandering around town, Napoleon discovers he’s being tailed by Lieutenant Fest. Napoleon knocks him unconscious and strips him of his pants, which he then weighs down with rocks and sinks in the harbor. I suppose that’s one way to get someone to stop following you. (Undaunted, Fest rallies by ordering one of his subordinates to give him his pants.)

At the harbor, Napoleon meets up with Illya, who arrives in Terbuf by boat in the guise of a Bulgarian fisherman. A tiny, adorable, turtleneck-clad Bulgarian fisherman. If this show’s vast and varied licensed merchandise didn’t include an official Bulgarian Fisherman Illya Poseable Action Figure, complete with jaunty cap and removable wool coat, someone in the marketing department dropped the ball. Illya, who seems to share my opinion of Clara’s dubious merits, grills his partner: “There’s a look on your face that wasn’t there before. What has she been saying to you?” Napoleon starts to whine that he doesn’t like Clara’s husband very much, but Illya, brusque and unsentimental as always, firmly steers his attention back to the mission at hand. Because the Roma are notoriously suspicious of strangers, Illya agrees to head over to Café Flora, a known Roma hangout, and lay some groundwork for Napoleon. “It’s a handicap, isn’t it, being so obviously American?” Illya wryly observes.

Illya, who is going full-tilt Slavic on this assignment, sails into Café Flora and dramatically proclaims to a skeptical crowd that he’s one of their brethren. He proves his bona fides by chugging slivovitz straight from the bottle, showing off his fancy eagle-of-Shqiperia charm bracelet (bought expressly for this purpose at a marketplace in Rome), and reciting an impressive passel of lies about his own distinguished Roma lineage. He announces that his American friend Napoleon will arrive at the café shortly in search of Emil, then swans out in triumph to cheers of approval from his newfound comrades.

As soon as he’s out the door, everyone in the café agrees that he’s an enemy spy.

Outside the café, Illya is waylaid by members of Morisco’s secret police, who demand to see his papers, then steal his knife and cigarette case. Illya calmly and politely asks for his possessions back—after all, the case is actually his vital U.N.C.L.E. communicator—then beats the ever-loving crap out of them when they fail to comply. Illya is firing on all cylinders this episode.

Napoleon pops up at Café Flora, expecting a friendly reception after Illya’s visit. Instead, the café’s owner, Kranik (George Margo), knocks him out and dumps him in a locked cellar.

Illya blithely blasts his way into the cellar via explosives hidden inside his adorable cap. Illya’s never-ending supply of hidden explosives is one of this show’s small joys. Money clips! Tie tacks! Back molars! Anywhere explosives can be stashed on the human body, Illya has stashed them. When Kranik and Emil return to the cellar to check on Napoleon, they find the barred window blasted open and Illya and Napoleon hanging out on the stairs, swilling slivovitz and devouring all their food. These two are horrible houseguests, but they’re cute enough and charming enough to make up for it.

A tremendous amount of drinking goes on in this episode.

Anyway, Napoleon and Illya manage to convince Kranik and Emil of their good intentions. In the morning, they’re going to try to smuggle Emil and his valuable papers out of the country via a fishing boat to Italy. Because the café is under surveillance by the secret police, Napoleon wants Emil to hide at Clara’s house before catching the boat. Kranik heads out and delivers a message for Clara to expect Emil’s arrival at nightfall.

A half-Roma member of the secret police slips down into the cellar to warn Emil that Stefan is being held in the jail. Alarmed, Napoleon orders Illya to rescue Stefan, then scurries off to protect Clara. Emil is disgusted by Napoleon’s single-minded infatuation with her. “We’ll allow my friend the luxury of an occasional weakness,” Illya tells him wearily.

With the aid of his new Roma buddies, Illya breaks Stefan out of jail. All goes smoothly, except Stefan promptly gives Illya the slip and runs off into the night. When Napoleon returns to Clara’s house, he finds Vicek-as-Stefan there, which leads him to finally—finally!—suspect he’s been dealing with an imposter. Napoleon’s not always the swiftest spy on U.N.C.L.E.’s payroll, but give him time. Eventually, he’ll reach the right conclusion. Usually. Sometimes.

Napoleon sneaks into Clara’s bedroom to confront her about the deception. The real Stefan returns to the house, only to be shot by Vicek, who then arrests Clara and Napoleon for treason.

At daybreak, the fishing boat is ready to take Emil and his valuable papers to Italy. Illya refuses to leave the country without his partner, and Emil refuses to leave without Illya, so they charge off to search for Napoleon. They ambush Major Vicek, who tells them that Napoleon and Clara are scheduled to be executed by firing squad.

Sure enough, Napoleon and Clara are bound to posts in the prison yard, while Lieutenant Fest prepares to give the order to shoot. Clara gives Napoleon one final look, filled with unspoken love and longing. “Napoleon, I’m sorry,” she says. “You’re not half as sorry as I am,” he replies, because Napoleon is sometimes an asshole.

Shots ring out! Clara collapses to the ground, sobbing hysterically. Napoleon blinks in confusion, stunned to find himself still alive. That’s because Lieutenant Fest, the merry prankster, had loaded all the guns with blanks, just to scare the bejeebus out of his prisoners.

Is now a good time to point out that evil Lieutenant Fest is smoking hot? I feel like that’s information everybody really should know.

Anyway, before Fest can get around to shooting Clara and Napoleon for real, Illya comes roaring into the prison, dressed in Major Vicek’s uniform, which is roughly eighty sizes too large for him. He doesn’t exactly inspire shock and awe, but Lieutenant Fest accepts him as a heretofore unseen superior and readily hands his prisoners over to him.

Illya whisks Clara and Napoleon, who are now handcuffed together, into his stolen jeep. They speed away from the jail. The secret police catch on to the ruse and chase after them; Illya drops down on their pursuers from a tree, knocks them out, and steals their pants, which he proudly displays to Napoleon.

There’s a delightful motif of unnecessary pants-stealing that runs throughout this episode.

They all safely make it to their boat in the harbor, where Stefan, wounded but alive, is already on board. Napoleon, Illya, Emil, and Clara pile in and set sail for Italy. Napoleon, still handcuffed to Clara, watches in sadness as Clara fusses over her injured husband. Illya observes his partner with self-satisfied amusement, tinged maybe with the faintest hint of sympathy. Mostly just self-satisfied amusement, though.

He assures Napoleon they’ll be able to break the chain when they reach Italy. “There’s no rush,” Napoleon tells him glumly. “It’s really not holding anything together.”

A fine episode. Nothing too flashy, but Napoleon and Illya were in fine form. Have a bottle of slivovitz on me, boys; you’ve earned it.


Hamlette said…
And when I got to this part:

As soon as he’s out the door, everyone in the café agrees that he’s an enemy spy.

I completely lost it. This is too perfect and hilarious! I love whoever wrote this episode.

(Also, did you say Albert Paulsen? Oooh! Combat! guest star!)

Also, I love Illya's never-ending supply of hidden explosives. Reminds me of Hardy Boy Pockets, which are so magically voluminous and well-stocked.

And what IS with all the pants-stealing?
Morgan Richter said…
It's an adorable episode. I love all the bizarre pants-stealing that goes on. Illya and Napoleon are very much like the Hardy Boys at times...
Laika said…
I have to say, I really did laugh at the way the boys chugged slivovitz like it was beer. That stuff is as strong as whisky or vodka... chugging it like that on the job as a spy is inadvisable. I wonder if they were just using the name as local flavour and no one involved really knew what it is?
Amused said…
This episode is a real sentimental favourite. Illya gets plenty of opportunities to showcase his sheer gorgeous cute appeal. Napoleon and Illya show genuine affection for, if never to, each other. And Napoleon's genuine LIKing for women gets showcased too.

Your review is an absolute treat.

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