The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Super-Colossal Affair”

Ah, “The Super-Colossal Affair”. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. purists tend to loathe this episode, pointing to it as emblematic of everything that caused the show’s steep ratings decline in season three. It’s goofy, they say, overstuffed with slapstick comedy that often veers into the surreal. It’s ludicrous and silly. It’s too campy, they say.

They are correct. All of those things are true about this episode. And yet, I kind of like it. I may even love it, just a little.

Mind you, I’m not willing to stick my neck out to defend it from its many detractors. I’m not crazy. I have eyes; I can see that it’s a ridiculous mess. Even still, I’d much rather be subjected to good-natured nonsensical shenanigans than the unrelenting humorless tedium that defined season four, no question. Here’s my bold statement for the day: “The Super-Colossal Affair” is better than every single season four episode.

This episode was written by Stanford Sherman, who, as with fellow third-season scribe Stanley Ralph Ross, was a staff writer on the 1966 live-action Batman series. (During his tenure at U.N.C.L.E., Sherman also brought us the similarly ridiculous-yet-endearing “Suburbia Affair”, bless his camp-loving heart.) Yes, “The Super-Colossal Affair” plays like a Batman episode, and yes, that’s entirely wrong for U.N.C.L.E. It’s still better than season four. No comparison, really.

In Sicily, Illya and Napoleon hide in the bushes outside a villa and spy on a meeting of high-ranking members of a prominent crime family. Illya, Man of a Thousand Faces, has donned a bushy fake beard and glasses and is posing as a humble winemaker; Napoleon has donned a nice suit and is posing as a handsome and dashing secret agent. Inside the villa, fearsome crime lord Uncle Giuliano (J. Carrol Naish) berates his nephew, Frank Cariago (Bernard Fein), for losing control of the family’s business interests in Las Vegas.

One of Giuliano’s goons spots Illya and chases after him. Illya hops on a Vespa and zips away from the villa, shedding his disguise along the way. Upon reuniting with Napoleon, he hands him his fake beard, which Napoleon uses as a wig to disguise himself as an old peasant woman to slip past the goons. If this screenshot of our two heroes making their escape in a horse-drawn carriage doesn’t make you feel warmly toward this episode, I have no hope for you.

You know what I like about this episode? As stupid as it gets—and fasten your seatbelts, we’re headed for some formidable stupidity ahead—Robert Vaughn and David McCallum appear to be having a blast together. Even when the story goes off the rails, their ridiculous charm and chemistry keep it endlessly watchable. If they’re having fun, I’m having fun.

Figuring Uncle Giuliano is planning something big to regain power in Las Vegas, Napoleon and Illya head to Beverly Hills, where they keep watch over Cariago’s mansion. Fetchingly disguised as a pool boy, Illya plants listening devices around the landscape while Napoleon eavesdrops from a surveillance van parked on the street. Illya encounters Cariago’s ditzy mistress, bikini-clad aspiring starlet Ginger LaVeer (when Illya introduces himself as the pool repairman, she exclaims in horror, “Is the pool broken?”), who flirts shamelessly with him while Napoleon listens in bemusement.

Ginger is played by Carol Wayne, who rose to fame in the seventies as a regular on The Tonight Show before her short, unhappy life ended in tragedy and possible foul play. She’s adorable as Ginger, who is well-intentioned but clueless, brimming over with malapropisms and unintended double entendres. Even cool, collected, ultra-sophisticated Illya looks a little dazed after tangling with Ginger.

Illya beats a hasty retreat when Cariago returns sooner than expected (“I hope the pool gets broken again soon!” Ginger calls after him in farewell), then joins Napoleon in the van. They eavesdrop while Ginger tries to persuade Cariago to get her a part in a big new film. Cariago is beastly to her, which leads her to exclaim, “Even the pool repairman was nicer to me than you are!” From the surveillance van, Napoleon turns to Illya, bemused: “How much nicer?”

Ginger has an idea: She wants Cariago to bail out a faltering big-budget production, which is in danger of being shut down due to lack of funds, in exchange for giving her a starring role. The film, which is an allegory for the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, features a climactic scene in which Las Vegas is destroyed with an atomic bomb. Seeing a chance to get back into Uncle Giuliano’s good graces by dropping a real bomb on Las Vegas and wiping out their competitors, Cariago agrees to Ginger’s plan. While hammering out the details, he spots one of the listening devices Illya planted in the yard and figures it means Uncle Giuliano is keeping tabs on him. “That cute pool repairman was from Uncle!” Cariago growls. This episode is chock full of terrible uncle/U.N.C.L.E. puns. I’m probably too easily amused, but I laughed every time.

Posing as a pair of reporters from Screen Bits magazine, Illya and Napoleon visit the movie set, where the beleaguered director, Sheldon Veblen (Shelley Berman), is trying to inject life into a scene set in a casino. “We’re shooting the modern version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story, not a travelogue about Passaic, New Jersey!” Veblen snarls at his actors. “You’re in the sin capital of the world! A cauldron of corruption! A kettle of calumny!” “A kettle of what?” Napoleon asks Illya. “Calumny,” Illya coolly replies. “Odd,” Napoleon mutters under his breath, eyes narrowed, his tone filled with dark suspicion.

It’s funny! This is a stupid-ass episode, and the plot is sheer nonsense, but I swear, it’s funny! Just to lift it into extra-ridiculous territory, Robert Vaughn dons a brassy, old-timey-newsreel-narrator accent for his portrayal of Napoleon-going-undercover-as-a-reporter. It’s weird and preposterous and wonderful all at once.

Just as the troubled production is about to be shut down by the studio, Cariago arrives and offers to dump money into the budget. Newly-appointed leading lady Ginger walks onto the set and happily identifies Illya as the pool boy (“Did you have to be so nice to her?” Napoleon mutters to his partner). Their cover blown, Illya and Napoleon are immediately surrounded by Cariago and his armed goons. After a whole slew of U.N.C.L.E.-related puns (“You were sent by Uncle!”), Cariago orders his men to treat Illya and Napoleon, whom he assumes are emissaries from Uncle Giuliano, as members of the family.

Next thing you know, Illya and Napoleon are lounging around on the set, swilling champagne and eating canapes and pretty much ignoring their assignment. Illya flirts with Ginger to try to worm information about the film’s climax—the destruction of Las Vegas—out of her.

Not to be outdone, Napoleon flirts with Veblen to try to worm information about the film’s climax out of him.

After chatting with Uncle Giuliano, Cariago discovers Illya and Napoleon are a pair of impostors. Attractive and charming impostors, sure, but impostors nonetheless. A messy brawl ensues, which spills onto the set of the film.

Improbable bondage time! Cariago dangles Napoleon and Illya in chains from the ceiling of an unoccupied soundstage. He drops Illya into a vat of wet cement, keeping Napoleon alive to interrogate him later.

Left unattended, Napoleon manages to work himself free, then sets about rescuing Illya. Even though the cement has solidified, Illya has managed to stay alive by breathing through a conveniently-placed straw. Napoleon painstakingly chisels him out of the vat. Not to get too pedantic about this ridiculous little episode, but wet cement is a dangerously caustic material. Even assuming he somehow doesn’t suffocate, Illya’s dinky little breathing straw isn’t going to do much to protect him from full-body burns, blisters, lesions, and necrotic skin ulcers.

Uncle Giuliano supplies Cariago with a genuine bomb, which they substitute for Veblen’s prop bomb. Ginger discovers they’re planning on dropping a real bomb on Vegas and alerts Illya and Napoleon, who manage to climb into Giuliano’s plane just as it leaves the airport. Fisticuffs ensue, one preposterous thing leads to another, and… well, the bomb bay doors open, and Illya tumbles out of the plane and plummets toward the Las Vegas skyline while straddling the atomic bomb, Dr. Strangelove-style. Yes, I do agree, this episode has fully gone off the rails. I won’t try to defend anything that happens from here on out. We’re in dangerously loopy and stupid territory here.

Napoleon takes control of the plane. Uncle Giuliano confesses that he wasn’t able to find a real atomic bomb; instead, the bomb is filled with enough concentrated skunk spray to render all of Las Vegas uninhabitable. Which… I don’t know. I like Vegas, but it’s a major party city located in the middle of a baking-hot desert. Every time I’ve visited, it’s mostly smelled like armpits and vomit, so I’m not sure everyone’s going to be scared off by a little skunk odor.

Meanwhile, Mr. Waverly wanders around a Las Vegas casino, playing slot machines and chatting up cranky old ladies. There’s no point to his scenes, other than to pad out this plot-light episode to its full running length. Fair enough.

While plummeting toward the earth, Illya unscrews the nose of the bomb and releases all of the skunk spray. As the now-empty bomb falls harmlessly onto the city, he parachutes to safety.

Back in Hollywood, a tuxedo-clad Napoleon escorts Ginger and Veblen to the film’s gala premiere. He excuses himself, then uses his communicator to call Illya (“Come in, little flower,” he says. “Little flower” officially joins “pussycat” on my list of Napoleon’s best pet names for his partner). Illya is stuck in a laboratory at headquarters, getting all of the skunk stench scrubbed off of him. “The lab says I’ll be out of here in a week,” he reports glumly.

Monstrously inane, yet kind of wonderful. Witness the magic of U.N.C.L.E.


FuchsiaRose said…
The screenshot of our two heroes making their escape in a horse-drawn carriage made me cry with laughter! A crazy episode, but worth it for a glimpse of Illya's biceps in the pool boy getup. I've been a fan of UNCLE since my early teens (I'm now mid-thirties) and discovering your reviews has been a joy. I agree that although often silly, season three can be wonderfully funny, my favourites The Hula Doll Affair and The Off Broadway Affair are both ridiculous, but what's wrong with a bit of tongue in cheek every once in a while. Please keep them coming!
Morgan Richter said…
FuschiaRose, I'm a big fan of Illya's whole pool boy look, nice biceps and all. Hula Doll and Off Broadway are both good ones -- silly, yes, but they have genuinely funny moments. Glad you're enjoying the reviews!
villanelle said…
"...the egg-cooker repairman?"

I'm with you, I kind of love this goofy episode. I can't go so far as to say it's better than ALL of season four -- I love The Summit-Five Affair too much for that -- but "Little Flower," Waverly randomly hitting the slots, and Napoleon gently brushing concrete dust out of Illya's hair WITH A HAMMER? Yes to all of that. And Shelley Berman's character is hilarious.
Morgan Richter said…
The egg-cooker repairman! Genius. It's such a goofy episode, and yet it's *funny* (and yeah, Shelley Berman is perfect in it). All of the stupid little details are sort of great. Though I do have a soft spot for Summit-Five...
vintagehoarder said…
Are you sure that Illya was dropped in a vat of cement? I thought it was plaster of Paris (which would make a bit more sense in a movie studio!)

Also - Illya was still trying to get rid of the smell of skunk when the movie premiered? Either that was one quickie movie, or the odor lingered for months. Poor Illya!
Morgan Richter said…
It's probably plaster of Paris (which, yeah, would be more likely in a studio) -- my brain probably went to cement because of the mobsters (cement shoes, etc). Makes no difference, though -- Illya would be dead anyway, because plaster of Paris is caustic and dangerous as all hell. (I find that linked story absolutely terrifying.)
vintagehoarder said…
I've decided to headcanon this particular episode as a fever dream Illya was having as he lay recovering from injuries in medical. It's the only way to make sense of something that makes no sense! Either that, or as you said of "The Pop Art Affair", Illya is a cyborg or an alien, which would explains how he escaped unharmed.
Morgan Richter said…
vintagehoarder, your fever dream theory makes far, far more sense than anything else in the episode (in a similar way, I always assume the terrible Man From UNCLE reunion movie is nothing more than a hallucination Illya had after drinking too much slivovitz, because nothing about it makes any sense).

Or, yeah, Illya is a cyborg. It's always possible.

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