The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Giuoco Piano Affair”
High up in the Andes, a nameless young U.N.C.L.E. agent hides in an alcove and relays a message to headquarters. He’s been spying on power-mad villainess Gervaise Ravel (the fabulous Anne Francis) and her wealthy-but-useless consort Harold Bufferton (John Van Dreelen). While the agent makes his report, Gervaise and Bufferton zip up in a helicopter and fire a rocket launcher at the hillside, burying him in an avalanche.
Back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Mr. Waverly plays a recording of the agent’s final moments for Napoleon. Gervaise’s yacht hasn’t been spotted on open water near the scene of the attack, which indicates she and Bufferton are hiding nearby. Napoleon has a splendid plan for drawing his old foes out into the open: “If I were to show up in the area, they’d try and kill me. Would that help anyone?” “Only Mr. Kuryakin,” Waverly replies. On Napoleon’s look of hurt confusion at the idea that Illya would want him dead, Waverly elaborates: “He’s next in line for a promotion.” Ha! Mr. Waverly’s most delightful character trait is his ongoing casual cruelty toward Napoleon.
Napoleon drops the idea of using himself as bait in favor of a much worse idea: He’s going to use Marion Raven, the young woman who unwittingly found herself in Gervaise’s sights back in “The Quadripartite Affair”, as bait instead. Napoleon, who never passes up a good opportunity to place an innocent civilian in mortal peril, figures Gervaise will go after Marion to use her as leverage against him. Napoleon decides that Illya, who at one point had something vaguely romantic going on with Marion, should be the one to get her on board with his (terrible) plan. As he tells Waverly, with maximum insinuation, “Mr. Kuryakin will have to use all of his persuasive powers to get her for us.” Huh. Does Illya even have persuasive powers? I mean, he’s foxy and charming, that much is true, but it’s hard to picture Illya—icy, aloof, calculating Illya—batting his pretty eyes at anyone to manipulate them into doing his bidding. It’s not in his nature.
At Napoleon’s request, Illya shows up at Marion’s New York apartment to wheedle his ex-fling into needlessly placing herself in grave danger for no good reason. As in “The Quadripartite Affair,” Marion is played by Jill Ireland, David McCallum’s then-wife. I can’t say Marion is my favorite U.N.C.L.E. heroine—her wild shifts into blustery histrionics throughout this episode make me a little dizzy—but Ireland is lovely, and she and Illya do have some pretty great chemistry together.
When Illya arrives at Marion’s pad, a raucous party is in full swing. Fun fact: Every party guest with a featured role in this scene is a member of the U.N.C.L.E. creative staff, including creators Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe, director Richard Donner, and producer Joseph Calvelli. Donner, who would go on to become an A-list film director—Superman, Lethal Weapon, The Goonies, etcetera—owns this episode’s finest moment, in which his character drunkenly staggers through the party in search of gin. Marion tells him the gin is in the milk bottle, whereupon he investigates the refrigerator, then stumbles back over to her, outraged and appalled: “There’s milk in the milk bottle!”
Marion pitches a fit at the idea of being used as bait to lure out Gervaise—as she points out, the last time she crossed paths with Illya and Napoleon, she nearly ended up dead. “They were exciting days,” Illya agrees. Eventually, Illya wins Marion over by, uh, implying that she’s less clever than Gervaise, which is a little confusing. I mean, that’s just a fact—Marion is less clever than Gervaise—but I’m not at all sure why pointing this out makes Marion more inclined to help him.
Back at headquarters, Napoleon explains the situation to Marion: He’s going to accompany her to a resort town high in the Andes, and then they’re going to let Gervaise kidnap her. First, Marion needs to submit to some minor surgery, though Napoleon refuses to tell her why. Marion is, rather understandably, not too happy about this, but Napoleon convinces her it’s necessary for the mission. “Now we’ll take you over to the doctor, and he can start carving you up,” he tells her cheerfully.
I might’ve been too quick to judge Marion earlier. It’s not like Napoleon and Illya aren’t giving her some excellent reasons to fly into histrionics.
Posing as a couple, Napoleon and Marion arrive at the resort town while a raucous Carnival-style festival is underway. They meet up with Illya at their hotel, whereupon Marion throws another fit about being ignored while Illya and Napoleon discuss their strategy. Cut them some slack, Marion. Yeah, being ignored while people discuss things that directly involve you right in front of you sucks, but it’s so very rare to see these two buckling down and taking an assignment seriously. Enjoy it while it lasts.
While Illya slinks around the town, wearing goofy masks and murdering Gervaise’s henchmen, Napoleon and Marion hang out at the festival and patiently wait for Marion to get kidnapped. Napoleon buys a locket for Marion, sticks a tracking device inside it, then calmly leads her into an ambush and abandons her.
Gervaise’s hired goons take Marion high into the mountains to a rustic cabin where Gervaise and Bufferton have been hiding. Gervaise immediately finds and destroys the tracking device. While Illya holes up in a cave in the hills to keep a secret watch over Marion, Napoleon meets with the town’s chief of police, Lieutenant Manuera (James Frawley), and asks for his help in dealing with Gervaise.
Then he kills time loitering in a courtyard café, drinking wine while looking effortlessly handsome and debonair. He’s joined by the always-genteel Bufferton, who offers to take him to Gervaise’s yacht to negotiate for Marion’s release. Unruffled at the prospect of walking into a trap, Napoleon agrees to this.
So Napoleon is escorted at gunpoint to Gervaise’s yacht. As with Marion’s apartment, there’s a huge party in full swing. Gervaise may be a wanted fugitive, but the lady knows how to have a good time in exile. Napoleon meets with her in her quarters. Oh, man, she’s dressed to slay, in a ruffled and beribboned gown roughly the size of a barn paired with an enormous feathered headpiece. My mild antipathy toward Marion is more than balanced out by my fierce love of Anne Francis’s Gervaise.
Gervaise pours Napoleon a gin cocktail and settles in for a chat. She knows U.N.C.L.E. has the entire area surrounded while actively hunting for her, so she’s willing to release Marion unharmed if Napoleon helps her escape. Napoleon and Gervaise talk in tortured chess metaphors for a while: Napoleon insists their current situation is analogous to a variation on the Giouco Piano opening, in which the bishop lures the opposing queen out too early in the game. Per Napoleon, Gervaise is the queen, who has made her move—kidnapping Marion—too early and too rashly, and is now unprotected. Gervaise calls his bluff, claiming he wouldn’t want to endanger Marion by threatening her. Napoleon assures her he has that covered: “My white knight has gone to the rescue of the queen.” “You don’t have a white knight,” she replies. Oh, Gervaise. I lost a little bit of respect for you right there for not knowing about Napoleon’s turtleneck-wearing Russian-accented white knight.
Napoleon claims the yacht is surrounded by Lieutenant Manuera’s forces. Gervaise and Napoleon reenter the party, whereupon Gervaise slips away while he’s getting grabbed and smooched by some random guest. As Napoleon searches the party for Gervaise, one of her henchmen wanders up behind him and knocks him out with a karate chop to the neck. While Napoleon lies unconscious on the deck, the party rages on all around him.
Gervaise heads back to the hut in the hills, where Bufferton has been guarding a captive Marion. Bufferton rambles on to Marion about how his love of Gervaise has led him to use his fabulous riches to finance her evil schemes and will almost certainly lead to his ruin. Marion points out that Gervaise is almost certainly using him for his money; Bufferton agrees, but claims he’ll have proof Gervaise really does love him if she sheds tears at his death.* Realizing Napoleon has had Marion under surveillance this whole time, Gervaise bursts into the hut with a doctor in tow, who removes a tracking device surgically embedded under the skin of Marion’s arm.
*Sidebar: If you watch enough Man From U.N.C.L.E., you start getting a feel for the quirks and peccadilloes of the various staff writers. Case in point: The peerless Peter Allan Fields gave us three, count ‘em, three episodes featuring weaponized tuning forks. This particular episode was scripted by former British spy Alan Caillou, whose U.N.C.L.E. episodes tend to feature men foolishly and tragically in love with cold, unworthy women. Hence, Bufferton and Gervaise. See also: Napoleon’s love of Clara in “The Terbuf Affair.” Here’s another weird quirk of Caillou’s scripts: Between Marion Raven in this episode and “The Quadripartite Affair”, Lisa Donato in “The Re-Collectors Affair”, and Ursula Baldwin in “The Bow-Wow Affair”, Caillou is perhaps the only U.N.C.L.E. writer to consistently depict Illya as a heterosexual Lothario with a robust sex life.
Napoleon wakes up on the yacht and finds Lieutenant Manuera watching over him. Manuera pulls a gun and tells Napoleon his loyalties have been bought with Bufferton’s massive wealth. Figuring Gervaise probably means to kill them both, Napoleon pushes Manuera overboard and jumps into the water after him, mere moments before a bomb on the yacht explodes. Shocked, Manuera once again pledges loyalty to Napoleon.
As Gervaise tries to move Marion to a more secure location, Illya pops up out of his nearby hiding place, shoots Bufferton, and hustles Marion to safety. While Gervaise sobs openly, Bufferton dies.
Gervaise’s hired goons pursue Illya and Marion through the hills. Napoleon arrives and holds the attackers at bay while Illya and Marion stumble down the mountain into town, where they collapse in exhaustion.
They’re surrounded by Gervaise and her goons. Before Gervaise can kill them, Napoleon and Lieutenant Manuera pop up to arrest her.
Manuera attempts to pull yet another double-cross, which fails to surprise Napoleon. Instead, he simply rallies all of the town’s non-corrupt police officers, who rush in and arrest Manuera and Gervaise. As Gervaise is led off, Napoleon manages to sneak in another handful of chess references.
Back in New York, Napoleon and Illya escort Marion back to her apartment only to find that, four days later, the party is still going strong.
Upset about the “whirling mess of plots and schemes” that Napoleon subjected her to, Marion accuses him of being a bad influence on poor, naïve Illya and boots him out of the party. Shrugging, Napoleon heads out the door with a slinky blonde lady, leaving Illya behind to canoodle with Marion.
A sloppy and imperfect episode (no matter how many times I watch it, Napoleon's idea to drag Marion into this mess is never going to make sense to me), but it's worth watching just for Anne Francis at her diabolical best. Plus, it has enough freewheeling party scenes to keep things lively.