The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Virtue Affair”
Somewhere in the French countryside, Napoleon and Illya spy from the bushes as an arms dealer named Voegler (Frank Marth) delivers missile parts to Robespierre (Ronald Long), a politician who claims to be a direct descendent of his namesake, the famed revolutionary leader. Upon the conclusion of the transaction, Illya and Napoleon trail Voegler back to Robespierre’s lavish castle. They’re interrupted by Raoul Dubois, an elderly gentleman who approaches them in a panic and forces them at gunpoint to help him escape from Robespierre.
Armed thugs on motorcycles pursue them. At Raoul’s desperate urging, Ilya and Napoleon drive him to his home, where they’re greeted by his beautiful daughter, Albert (Mala Powers), who is named for Raoul’s idol, Albert Einstein.
Raoul, who has been missing for three months, claims he was kidnapped by Robespierre and, along with other captured scientists, forced to work on a guided missile system. Raoul escaped to warn France of a diabolical threat. Before he can elaborate on the nature of this threat, the armed motorcyclists burst into his living room, kill him, and speed off while Illya and Napoleon stand around and look confused.
Napoleon and Illya head to U.N.C.L.E.’s Paris headquarters, which, like the New York office, features a secret entryway through the back of a tailor shop. This shop, in fact, is a near-duplicate of the New York version, except all the customers wear jaunty berets.
Waverly briefs Napoleon and Illya about Robespierre: As the head of the Virtue party, which advocated a countrywide prohibition of wine and whiskey, he campaigned for President of the French Republic and received a grand total of eighty-four votes. Waverly believes Robespierre will try to kidnap Albert, who, like her father, is a world-class physicist specializing in inertial guidance. Albert has been invited to dinner at Robespierre’s castle; Napoleon offers to pose as her escort to uncover more about Robespierre’s scheme. Meanwhile, Illya will try to get his pretty hands on Voegler’s guided missile system before Voegler delivers it to Robespierre.
That’s a photo of Albert Dubois, which Illya came across in The Journal of Physical Science, which, like most respected scientific periodicals, features full-page headshots of renowned physicists.
Napoleon accompanies Albert to Robespierre’s castle. Napoleon and Robespierre instantly commence with the petty sniping, with Robespierre kicking off a vigorous round of insults by taking potshots at Napoleon’s namesake: “Bonaparte was a drunkard and a libertine! Why should I be proud of him?” Napoleon, who has more than a faint libertine streak running through his veins, takes umbrage at this.
It should be noted that Napoleon spends much of this episode being witty and charming while looking dashingly handsome in a tuxedo.
Left to his own devices while Robespierre talks business with Albert, Napoleon contacts Illya to discuss their plan and/or flirt with him. Napoleon is in a mood to chat, but Illya, who is working to familiarize himself with a newfangled bow-and-arrow set to prepare for an encounter with Voegler, tersely tries to wrap up the call in a hurry. “What’s the matter? You lose your little comforter?” Napoleon taunts.
I have no idea what that comment means, but Illya seems disgruntled and mildly scandalized by it, so I’ve chosen to interpret it as something impolite and likely sexual in nature.
Upon finding a hidden door next to the fireplace, Napoleon sneaks down a flight of stairs into Robespierre’s underground lair, where the captured scientists are industriously working on the rocket. His path is blocked by an armed guard, who is swilling something from a flask. Napoleon dons a terrible accent (Robert Vaughn’s fake French accent continues to be ridiculous and hilarious and wonderful. See also: “The See-Paris-and-Die Affair”) and, adopting Robespierre’s firm teetotaler stance, berates him for drinking on the job. When the guard protests that it’s only cough syrup, Napoleon gives him a capsule which he claims will cure his cough. The guard obligingly snaps the capsule in two, then promptly collapses from the ensuing cloud of knockout gas.
Before Napoleon can get into the laboratory, more armed guards set upon him. They chase him back upstairs, where he’s captured by Robespierre.
Meanwhile, Illya orchestrates a chance meeting with Voegler on Voegler’s private hunting preserve. Illya shows off his weird-looking bow/slingshot hybrid and challenges him to an archery competition. Various gimmicky hijinks ensue as Voegler and Illya attempt to dazzle each other with feats of skill and trickery. Illya wins the challenge by tossing his signet ring in the air and shooting an arrow through it before it hits the ground.
Back at Robespierre’s castle, Robespierre chains Napoleon and Albert up in the usual ungainly and vaguely sexual manner, then reveals his fiendish plan: His missile is designed to scatter radioactive material across Champagne, Bordeaux, and Chablis, which will contaminate the ground for a hundred years, thus crippling the world’s supply of fine wine. He menaces Napoleon with a hot poker to force Albert to help him complete the inertial guidance system, then locks Napoleon up in a cell to ensure her continued cooperation.
At Voegler’s villa, new buddies Illya and Voegler drink a toast to Illya’s shooting prowess. Voegler casually asks, “By the way, did you get that new bow from U.N.C.L.E.?” Taken off guard, Illya nonetheless plays it cool: “U.N.C.L.E.? What’s that?” Voegler triumphantly points out Illya’s mistake: “Any other man would have said ‘Who’s that?’” Oh, good show, Voegler! Pat yourself on the back. Illya walked right into that one. Voegler cuffs Illya’s hands behind him and paints a gigantic target on the back of his white turtleneck, then gives him a head start before charging after him with a bow and arrow.
Illya runs for his life. Granted, it can’t be easy to sprint with bound hands across uneven ground, but he spends a ridiculous amount of time falling on his face, then getting lucky when Voegler’s arrows fail to hit him.
Finally, Illya wriggles around and contorts his body until his hands are cuffed in front of him, which is one of those nifty tricks you can only pull off if you’re a petite, limber little thing like Illya. With his hands still cuffed, he knocks out Voegler’s henchman, then kills Voegler with the henchman’s discarded bow.
Free at last, Illya raids Voegler’s study and finds the inertial guidance system. Before he can leave with it, two of Robespierre’s henchmen arrive, ready to deliver it to their boss. Thinking fast, Illya poses as an engineer and insists on accompanying them.
At the castle, Robespierre takes Illya down into the laboratory to instruct the scientists on how to install the guidance system in the rocket. Along the way, they pass Napoleon’s prison cell, so Illya takes a quick break from the mission to sling caustic insults at his captive partner: “You can see he’s the stupid sort, the way the eyes are set close together.”
Illya then strolls off, leaving Napoleon feeling: a) reassured his partner knows he’s in trouble, and b) newly neurotic about the distance between his eyes. Nobody can wound Napoleon to the core like Illya can. Nobody.
Illya dons a lab coat and an adorable pair of wire-rimmed glasses and gives the captured scientists an impromptu lecture on the operation of the inertial guidance system. Even though Illya has his doctorate from Cambridge in, ahem, quantum physics, he’s a complete disaster at this. An adorable complete disaster.
The captured scientists look less than enchanted with his adorability.
As Illya tries to bluff his way through the demonstration, Robespierre hears about Voegler’s death and orders Illya captured and executed for murder. Illya threatens to smash the guidance system to smithereens unless he’s allowed to go free; Robespierre counters by threatening to kill Napoleon. Illya surrenders himself to protect his partner.
So Illya is led off to a guillotine, which Robespierre, being a French Revolution buff, just happens to have set up in his courtyard.
Upon hearing of Illya’s looming execution, Napoleon hooks a wire from the light socket to his cell bars and spills water on the ground, then tricks his jailer into turning on the light and grabbing the bars. Nicely done, Napoleon! This is kind of a quiet, mild-natured little episode, but Napoleon and Illya are both in top form, and their spywork is… I’m not going to go so far as to claim it’s good, exactly, but it’s certainly less criminally incompetent than usual.
(I mean, Napoleon and Illya did kick off this episode by getting carjacked by an elderly physicist, then stood around and gaped as he was gunned down by motorcyclists, but I still maintain that, by their usual standards, this mission is going pretty smoothly.)
Napoleon breaks free from his cell and arrives at the guillotine in time to shoot up the place and kill Illya’s would-be executioner. He leaves Illya chained and kneeling at the guillotine, and, with Albert in tow, heads off after Robespierre to stop him from launching his now-completed missile.
While searching through all the rooms of Robespierre’s enormous castle, Albert frets that they’ll never find him in time to stop the missile. Napoleon grimly replies, “We’ve got to. I want my children to drink champagne!” This might be the finest line of dialogue in all of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Napoleon and Albert burst into the control room, but it’s too late—Robespierre has already launched the missile. Robespierre taunts them at gunpoint; knowing of Robespierre’s exaggerated sense of gallantry toward women, Albert ignores his threats of violence and hits the abort switch. The missile explodes harmlessly in mid-air, thus saving France’s noble vineyards.
Having rescued the world’s future supply of fine wine, Napoleon and Albert bring a picnic lunch of champagne, bread, and cheese out to Illya, who is still chained to the guillotine. Of seeing Illya chained on his knees, Napoleon quips, “I’d sort of gotten used to seeing you that way.” Well! Someone’s feeling frisky. I’m going to repeat an observation I made about “The Adriatic Express Affair”, because it seems equally apropos here and, indeed, could be the mantra for the series as a whole: It’s not that I think Illya and Napoleon are shagging each other on the sly, it’s just that some scenes make a whole lot more sense if you assume they’re shagging each other on the sly.
Then Illya casually uses the guillotine to slice the baguette, while Napoleon looks like he’s trying very hard not to think about all the blood and spinal fluid and viscera probably still lingering on the blade from Robespierre’s prior victims.
This episode was written by prolific pulp sci-fi/mystery author Henry Slesar, who, fun fact, is credited with having coined the term “coffee break” during his early employment as a Madison Avenue copywriter. Slesar also wrote over a hundred scripts for various TV programs, including several for U.N.C.L.E.; while none of his U.N.C.L.E. episodes reach the level of all-time classic, they uniformly feature a solid understanding of the characters, a knack for sparkling banter, and a light touch with the material. This one is no exception.