The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Summit-Five Affair”

As an exercise in masochism, all this month I’ll be looking at episodes from U.N.C.L.E.’s dismal fourth and final season. First up: the utterly ridiculous season premiere.

Napoleon visits the Berlin headquarters of U.N.C.L.E.’s Northeast division to inspect the security system in advance of Summit-Five, a meeting of U.N.C.L.E.’s five division chiefs. He’s led around the building by the snooty chief enforcement agent, Strothers (Lloyd Bochner, making his second appearance on this show after “The See-Paris-And-Die Affair”), and a communications expert named Newman (Don Chastain). When an alarm goes off, Newman realizes the building’s security has been grievously compromised*. He barricades himself inside the office of the absent division chief and places an emergency call to Mr. Waverly in New York. The call is cut off; when Napoleon breaks down the office door, he discovers Newman’s freshly-murdered corpse.

*We will never find out how security was compromised, or why the alarm sparked such a panic in Newman. This is business as usual for season four. If you’re the type of person who gets vexed by things like loose plot threads or a lack of internal logic, this season is guaranteed to drive you batty.

Back in New York, Mr. Waverly briefs Illya on the situation: Newman was almost certainly killed by a THRUSH mole deeply embedded in the Berlin office. THRUSH is presumably trying to discover the location of Summit-Five to murder all of U.N.C.L.E.’s top leaders in one fell swoop. Since Waverly has no faith in Napoleon’s ability to find the mole and plug the leak before the summit, he sends Illya to Berlin to tackle the problem.

Meet Lisa Rogers (Barbara Moore), Mr. Waverly’s assistant and this season’s new addition to the regular cast. Lisa doesn’t bring much to the table apart from good looks, poorly-concealed contempt for her job, and the ability to work the hell out of a turtleneck, but honestly, the same can be said about Illya for much of this relentlessly mediocre season, so I shan’t bust Lisa’s chops too much.

There are a ton of really bizarrely framed shots in this episode. Somewhere along the line, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. decided to get artsy, and while I’m usually a big supporter of pretentious nonsense, I’m having a tough time sorting out the logic behind this. For instance, in this shot, I’m not at all sure why the camera needed to be focused squarely on Mr. Waverly’s ass:

And shots like this make me want to take the director of photography out for a stiff margarita and a comforting shoulder to cry on. This is a transparent call for help.

In Berlin, division chief Harry Beldon (Albert Dekker) returns to U.N.C.L.E. headquarters following a mission in Helsinki. Dressed in a long fur coat and adorable matching cap, he tumbles out of a limousine filled with cheerful champagne-swilling floozies.

Illya, Napoleon, Strothers, and Beldon’s near-sighted assistant Helga (Susanne Cramer) peer out of Beldon’s office windows and dourly observe the spectacle of his arrival. Illya sniffs that Beldon is “…everything a cautious, unobtrusive, successful secret agent shouldn’t be.”

This is a partial list of disguises Illya has donned over the course of the series:
2. Chinese rickshaw driver.
3. Motorcycle-riding Native American youth.
4. Mongolian warlord.
5. The Abominable Snowman.

Cautious. Unobtrusive. Successful. Glass houses, Illya. Glass houses.

In his office, which is furnished with all manner of gaudy and exotic knickknacks, Beldon cavorts around in a fur-lined bathrobe paired with flip-flops and a distressing lack of pants while forcing Illya to fetch him brandy. Beldon proclaims that the THRUSH mole must be one of the three agents who were in the vicinity of his office at the time of Newman’s murder: Helga, Strothers, or Napoleon. Then he strips off his bathrobe and, while Illya and Napoleon look moderately scandalized by his behavior, wanders naked into his personal mid-office sauna. Beldon is a one-man party.

In an attempt to uncover the traitor, Illya secretly monitors Strothers, while Napoleon shadows Helga. After Helga climbs into the backseat of a car with an unidentified sinister man, Napoleon impersonates a chauffeur and drives them around town while secretly relaying information about their movements to Illya, Strothers, and Beldon. More bizarre camera work ensues.

Napoleon drives Helga and the unidentified man to a harbor, where the man reveals to Napoleon that he’s been aware of his identity all along. Acting upon inside information fed to him by another double agent inside U.N.C.L.E., he’s used Napoleon to lead Beldon, Illya, and Strothers into an ambush.

THRUSH goons open fire on Illya and the others. During the resulting skirmish, the car containing Helga and her THRUSH accomplice explodes into a blazing fireball. Beldon examines Helga’s charred corpse. “Poor Helga, not that she was ever beautiful,” he observes sadly. Well, sure. After your trusted aide-turned-enemy spy dies a horrible death in the act of betraying you, your very first response should be to evaluate her overall bangability. Crap like this is probably what drove Helga to join THRUSH in the first place, Beldon. A key to a safe deposit box is found on Helga’s body; inside the box, Illya and Napoleon find a copy of Napoleon’s official file, complete with notes about the time and date of Summit-Five, suggesting that—wait for it—Napoleon is the mole.

Napoleon insists he’s been framed, but Strothers hauls him off to interrogate the stuffing out of him. A very long and very goofy sequence ensues, in which Strothers bombards Napoleon with bright lights and spins him in circles and yells at him a lot. It’s repetitive and tedious and leaden, and it goes on for a loooooooooooong time. However, it does provide Robert Vaughn with an unbroken seven-minute stretch of pure, uncut scenery chewing, and it culminates gloriously with Napoleon clinging to Strothers’ leg while sobbing brokenly and begging to be allowed to see Illya, so all is forgiven.

Shine on, Robert Vaughn. You are one of American television’s greatest living treasures.

Anyway, as much crap as I give season four (and it deserves it, oh, it deserves it), this episode contains one of the most brilliant and charming scenes in the history of this brilliant and charming series: Napoleon, having confessed under duress to being a THRUSH spy, is locked up in a cell; Illya, who refuses to even consider the possibility of his partner’s guilt, visits him. Realizing the cell is bugged, they put on an amazing pantomime for the benefit of potential eavesdroppers, in which they snarl abuse at each other and fake a vigorous physical altercation (in the interest of verisimilitude, Napoleon hauls off and punches Illya in the face), all while Illya casually retrieves the lock-picking tools he keeps stashed in his back molar and breaks his partner out of the cell. It is, in all seriousness, a flat-out wonderful scene.

Illya and Napoleon head to Helga’s apartment in search of clues as to the identity of the real mole. They find Beldon there, hanging out with a couple of corpses—THRUSH infiltrators whom he had no choice but to kill, he assures them. Also in the apartment is Helga, alive and well, having faked her death in the explosion.

Back in Beldon’s office, Helga insists she was lured into a life of evil by her lover, Strothers. Even though Strothers vehemently denies Helga’s allegations, he’s taken into custody. Satisfied that the mole has been caught, Illya contacts Mr. Waverly and gives him the all-clear to proceed with the summit as scheduled.

But wait! As soon as he learns the time and location of the summit, Beldon exposes himself to Illya and Napoleon as the real traitor within U.N.C.L.E. At the summit, he’s going to have Waverly and the other division heads murdered, leaving all of U.N.C.L.E. in the hands of THRUSH.

…I keep feeling like there must be hidden messages embedded in the staging and camera work of this episode, because it’s all just so weird.

Having revealed his fiendish plan, Beldon locks Illya and Napoleon in his sauna and tries to kill them with poison gas. Or maybe he’s just trying to open all their pores with a therapeutic blast of steam heat; it’s not entirely clear what’s going on, which is all too typical for this episode. Illya whips out his handy back-molar lock picks again and frees them.

Meanwhile, Mr. Waverly, Beldon, and the other three U.N.C.L.E. division chiefs arrive at a remote location. Before Summit-Five can commence, a horde of THRUSH goons storm the place and, acting on Beldon’s orders, round everyone up at gunpoint.

Napoleon and Illya commandeer a helicopter (Napoleon, who has the perfect outfit for every task, somehow scrounges up an adorable white jumpsuit and black turtleneck to wear while piloting it). They soar off to the summit location. “I’ll put it down behind the hill,” Napoleon says. “Can you put it down quietly?” Illya asks, whereupon Napoleon throws him his most withering look.

Before Beldon can give the order to have the Waverly and the other unit leaders killed, Napoleon and Illya (who managed to sneak up on the summit without anyone noticing, so apparently Napoleon could, in fact, set the helicopter down quietly) arrive and attack. In the resulting skirmish, Illya goes mano-a-mano against Beldon, who whips out a hand grenade and blows himself up.

The summit is saved! Back in New York, Waverly informs Napoleon and Illya that Strothers, despite being pretty much the only agent in the entire Berlin office who didn’t ultimately turn out to be an enemy spy, is getting booted out of U.N.C.L.E. all the same (presumably for being so badly compromised on this assignment, though why the same criteria isn’t applied to Napoleon—who, after all, actually confessed to being a THRUSH spy—is a mystery). Of Strothers, Napoleon says, “He did have one indispensable value.” Illya finishes his thought: “Yes, quite unlike Beldon, he was reassuringly unlikeable.” And the episode ends with Napoleon and Illya having a hearty chuckle about how some innocent dude they didn’t like very much got fired for doing his job.

Season Four, you’re off to a downright strange start. And it’s all downhill from here.


Hamlette said…
So, the great thing about falling waaaaaaay behind on my blog-reading is that when I catch up, I get to read one of your MFU reviews every day for like a week. And oh man, this one is priceless! I have a cold right now, and I kept trying not to laugh aloud, because it makes me cough, but sometimes I just couldn't stop the giggles. Especially over Illya's history of outre disguises. Love it. Thank you!
Morgan Richter said…
Illya's disguises! Each one more inappropriate and misguided than the last! Sure, we'll have our pale, blond-haired blue-eyed Scottish leading man go undercover as a Mongolian warlord, no problem! It just gets more and more absurd as the series goes on, culminating in season three where he does indeed dress up as the Abominable Snowman, for no particular reason.

I hope your cold feels better!
Anonymous said…
the sudden thoughtfulness of the director of photography reminds me of this one video game commercial anime i followed in high school. eventually the games started to sell poorly and the writing was on the wall for the anime... suddenly, there were all these ridiculously fast-paced, well-animated fight scenes in the lead animation director's episodes. i always wondered if he did it as a resume-building exercise, so maybe this director of photography is thinking along the same lines.
Hamlette said…
Somehow, I found The Abominable Snowman to be much easier to believe than a motorcycle-riding Native American youth. Did he wear a wig? I'm really struggling to picture that one...
Morgan Richter said…
Anonymous -- you might be on to something with that! This episode has the same director of photography as in earlier seasons, so I have no other explanation as to why, after eighty or so episodes, he just suddenly decided to get really weird with the cinematography. Maybe he saw the writing on the wall and knew he'd better start building his portfolio...

Hamlette: Oh, yes. Illya wore a wig to go undercover in a Native American tribe. It is... well, it's not terribly convincing. I imagine I'll get to recapping the episode at some point, but to tide you over, there's a gallery of images from it here (you have to scroll way, way down to the bottom of the page). Breathtaking, right?
Hamlette said…
Oh my. I have no words. ::Blink, blink::

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