The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Brain-Killer Affair”

At an exclusive social club, Mr. Waverly plays chess with Calvin Farmington (Liam Sullivan), a high-ranking official in the State Department, while Napoleon slouches in a nearby armchair, his nose buried in a newspaper. Despite being a world-class chess player, Farmington makes a series of crippling blunders. Waverly acerbically points out that Farmington has also made several catastrophic decisions at his job lately, causing U.N.C.L.E. to suspect his mental faculties have been compromised.

A waiter at the club overhears their conversation and, acting on the orders of his unseen superiors at THRUSH, slips a deadly neurotoxin into Waverly’s cognac. Waverly drinks it and collapses. Before falling unconscious, he manages to gasp out three names to Napoleon: Farmington, Nikos Korzos, and Nils Bergstrom. Napoleon contacts headquarters and orders Illya to send some agents to the hospital to protect Waverly: If THRUSH was behind the poisoning, they’ll probably try again.

It’s worth pointing out that, when Napoleon called, Illya was napping on a couch at headquarters, jacket off, alone in the room with the pretty agent manning the switchboard. There’s no evidence of impropriety, and after all, Napoleon is the one who tends to romance all the female agents, a habit Illya seems to view with faint disapproval. However: Throughout this episode, Illya doesn’t behave quite like himself. While this episode aired toward the end of the first season, it was only the third episode ever filmed (and only the second to feature Illya), long before the creative staff—and David McCallum—had a firm handle on Illya’s tricky and subtle characterization. We’re seeing a different Illya here: His Russian accent is much thicker, for starters, and he’s markedly more mercenary and sinister, and this episode keeps placing him in sexily compromising situations with attractive women. So it’s entirely possible that, as improbable as it seems on the surface, we’re meant to assume Illya just shagged a fellow agent while on duty.

I know. It’s weird.

Illya meets Napoleon at the hospital, where Mr. Waverly is in critical condition. Waverly’s personal physician hasn’t yet arrived, so the on-duty staff tends to him. The staff consists of creepy Dr. Elmont (David Hurst), creepier Dr. Dabree (the wonderful Elsa Lanchester, the Bride of Frankenstein herself), and sexy Nurse Flostone (Nancy Kovack), all of whom are evil THRUSH agents. Dr. Dabree and Dr. Elmont have a diabolical plan to operate on Waverly’s brain—the same operation they previously performed on Farmington—to make him a docile puppet for THRUSH.

Illya has already researched the names Waverly gasped out upon drinking the poisoned cognac: Nikos Korzos was a wealthy shipping magnate who recently committed suicide after making several uncharacteristically disastrous business decisions. As Napoleon heads out to interview Nils Bergstrom, he orders Illya to interrogate the members of the club’s waitstaff responsible for preparing Waverly’s drink. “I shall see to them,” Illya mutters, accent thicker than clotted blood, in a way that manages to be ominous yet sexy. See? See what I mean about Illya acting all slinky and sinister? It’s sort of fascinating. It’s like McCallum decided to play Illya as a Bond villain. I think I approve, but it’s weird.

That gentleman lurking behind Napoleon’s shoulder there, by the way, is a fellow U.N.C.L.E. agent identified only as Jason, who’s played by former NFL legend / actor / singer / minister / noted needlepoint enthusiast Rosey Grier. This episode aired in 1964; four years after this, Grier will wrestle the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel following the assassination of Grier’s close friend, Robert F. Kennedy. Here he is singing “It’s All Right to Cry” from Free to Be You and Me.

For the previously uninitiated, that was your crash course on the multifaceted Rosey Grier.

Waverly’s own physician, Dr. Tower (Henry Beckman), eventually arrives at the hospital. Napoleon gives him his handgun, above Tower’s protests that he has no idea how to use it, and sternly orders him to stay with Waverly at all times. Because Dr. Tower is totally worthless, he’ll promptly ignore this advice and wander off to take a nap. I am not kidding.

Napoleon visits the last-known address for Nils Bergstrom, which turns out to be a shabby artist’s studio in a run-down building. He meets Nils’s sister, Cecille (Yvonne Craig, TV’s Batgirl), who is struggling to make ends meet by restoring department-store mannequins. Snappish and surly, Cecille refuses to let Napoleon see her brother, who has been in a mysterious near-catatonic state for four years, until Napoleon offers her a cash bribe. Many of Napoleon’s scenes in this episode will take place in this studio, which gives Robert Vaughn the opportunity to do all kinds of strange and vaguely pervy things to mannequins.

Napoleon Solo, mannequin fetishist.

Napoleon contacts Illya, who has found the freshly-murdered corpse of the waiter who poisoned Waverly. Yeah, Illya is still being strange and slinky and sinister. I am mesmerized by this version of Illya.

Napoleon heads back to Cecille’s studio, accompanied by Mr. Gabhail Samoy (Abraham Sofaer), a top U.N.C.L.E. leader from Calcutta, who has taken charge of the New York office in Waverly’s absence. Samoy examines Nils, who occasionally comes out of catatonia just long enough to try to hit Napoleon over the head with a sledgehammer. While Napoleon does more weird stuff with mannequin parts, Samoy deduces that Farmington, Korzos, and Nils are all victims of THRUSH brain experiments.

Stop it, Napoleon. Just… don’t.

Dr. Dabree charges into Waverly’s hospital room and incapacitates Jason by shooting him with a paralyzing drug. She then injects a barely-conscious Waverly with truth serum and interrogates him about the top-secret inner workings of U.N.C.L.E.

Back at the club, Napoleon grills Farmington, who mentions that Dr. Elmont operated on a cyst on his neck shortly before the difficulties with his mental processes began. Napoleon contacts Illya, who confirms that the late Mikos Korzos was also one of Dr. Elmont’s patients. “Korzos’s secretary has been most helpful,” Illya purrs to Napoleon. Yeah, so evidently Illya just shagged Korzos’s secretary for information. That’s the implication there. At this point, I’m feeling pretty certain THRUSH kidnapped the real Illya and replaced him with a slutty evil doppelgänger. Some enterprising fanfiction author needs to jump on that idea, pronto.

There’s no clear connection between Nils and Dr. Elmont, so Illya shaves Nils’s head, searching for some sign of a prior brain operation. Cecille objects mightily to this cavalier treatment of her poor invalid brother, so Napoleon throws more money at her to keep her quiet.

While Dr. Elmont’s name draws a blank, Cecille mentions that her brother was one of Dr. Dabree’s patients. Napoleon offers Cecille a cool grand if she helps him lay a trap for Dabree. Cecille is reluctant, so Napoleon starts putting the moves on her; it’s a little off-putting, because, despite being a grown woman, Cecille acts like an obnoxious kid.

Here’s Cecille’s list of ways to spend the thousand dollars. Shampaine? Shampaine? Lord, Napoleon, no. Don’t romantically pursue a woman who can’t spell champagne.  It’ll never work. You are an effortlessly sophisticated and well-heeled scoundrel. You have standards, man.

While Napoleon gropes mannequins and dithers around with Cecille, Illya races over to the clinic to confront Dr. Dabree. He’s ambushed by THRUSH goons, who shoot him with the same paralyzing drug used on Jason. The drug freezes Illya into a rather decorative statue.

At Napoleon’s urging, Cecille calls Dr. Dabree and informs her that Nils is coming out of his catatonic state. In a panic, Dabree sends THRUSH goons over to the studio. Napoleon plans a trap for them, but Nils regains his senses long enough to sneak up behind him and whack him over the head with a sledgehammer. While Napoleon lies in a useless heap, the goons kidnap Cecille and Nils.

In the hospital, Dabree and Elmont prepare to scramble Waverly’s brain with their special electronic device. Napoleon arrives at last and rouses Illya out of paralysis with smelling salts. Even though Waverly is being held on an upper level of the hospital, Illya and Napoleon decide to do a stealth approach via the basement. They concoct some ridiculously elaborate plan, which involves Napoleon dangling from his belt beneath the elevator while Illya charges up the stairs and shoots everyone in sight.

It’s a stupid plan, but it works, more or less. Dr. Dabree tussles with Napoleon in the elevator shaft and plummets to her presumed death, then Napoleon manages to rescue Waverly, Cecille, and Nils before Elmont can use his brain-scrambling device on them. Meanwhile, Illya slinks around the hospital while acting gloriously strange and causing evil nurses to dissolve into puddles of hormones with a single smoldering glance.

Later, a recovering Mr. Waverly plays chess with Mr. Samoy, while Illya maintains a vigilant guard over his hospital room. Waverly cheerfully notes that all the information he gave THRUSH in his drugged state was false. On a less cheerful note, it seems Dr. Dabree’s body was never found at the bottom of the elevator shaft.

Meanwhile, Nurse Flostone tends to a badly wounded Dr. Dabree aboard a private jet. Dr. Dabree swears revenge on Napoleon for ruining her plan: “I shall make Mr. Solo pay his pound of flesh,” she vows.

Cut to a tuxedo-clad Napoleon, who is dining at a fancy nightclub with Cecille. He flinches visibly; Cecille asks him what’s wrong. Napoleon: “If I were inclined toward superstition, I’d swear someone just stepped on my grave.”

As delightful as it would’ve been to have Elsa Lanchester return to wreak terrible vengeance on Napoleon, ‘twas not to be—Dr. Dabree, like the slinky, slutty, sinister alternate version of Illya, will never be heard from again. A pity.


vintagehoarder said…
I'd pay good money for a slutty, slinky, sinister Illya. Do you think THRUSH has a couple of spares lying around?
Napoleon in the studio with the mannequins gives the episode a wonderful and weird edge, that sliver of the unheimlich. The Uncle woman at the start is darning Illya's sock, while it's on his foot, which I think raises more questions than it answers. I like slutty Illya, but I prefer him to be slutty with Napoleon.
Illesdan said…
I love the B&W episodes, because they are just bonkers. While they knew what they wanted out of the Solo character, (a skirt-chasing fun-loving less boozy version of James Bond); they were very opaque with Illya. His persona is variations of everywhere to fit whatever mood the script called for, which makes the character come off as a manic depressive type. I think in the hands of lesser actors and writers, this would have been a glaring flaw, but in U.N.C.L.E., it strangely works. I wish that praise extended to the later seasons, but they are a different animal altogether.

Cecille made me cringe; I found little likable about the character other than he devotion to her brother. I honestly found the mannequin-repair job kinda... creepy. I was a little disappointed this didn't go down a more Norman Bates road, since the setup is so glaringly there.

As for the fanfiction -- Yes, someone should do something with that... Yes....
Morgan Richter said…
I am all about slinky, slutty Illya. Vintagehoarder, I would imagine THRUSH keeps an Illya doppelganger or two on hand at all times. You know, just because.

Aconitum -- great merciful Zeus, she IS darning Illya's sock (while he's wearing it), isn't she? I completely missed that, and that's a game-changer (but still very, very weird).

Illesdan, yeah, Illya's characterization was all over the place in the first season, but McCallum really made it work, just because Illya's so weird and mysterious anyway. Cecille is... not my favorite. Cute, but not especially likeable.

Slinky, slutty, evil Illya. It's a whole fanfiction subgenre waiting to happen.
Hamlette said…
I think that Illya's slutty evil doppelgänger needs his own spin-off.

Also, the decorative Illya statue made me laugh aloud, startling children and husband and causing them all to look at me quite askance. It was worth it.
Morgan Richter said…
Hamlette, if Illya's slutty evil doppelgänger had a spin-off, I would watch every single episode.

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