The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair”
Ah, “The Hong Kong Shilling Affair”: Proof positive that even Season One could churn out the occasional terrible episode.
We open in Hong Kong, where Illya, barefoot and dressed as a Chinese rickshaw driver, a conical hat pulled down over his face to hide his blond hair and blue eyes, crouches outside a waterfront bar called the Smiling Fish and keeps a careful watch over boats arriving at the harbor. A Western businessman hops in for a ride; Illya dons a ghastly Chinese accent and replies, “So sorry, rickshaw not free now. Honorable gentleman try someplace else.”
Ugh. Yeah. I mean… Yeah. On several other occasions, I’ve discussed this show’s cheerily dated and cringe-worthy approach to foreign cultures, particularly when it comes to the many disguises of Illya Kuryakin, Man of a Thousand Faces, so I’m going to move right along, though I’ll quickly note that this episode will get much worse. Consider bailing out now if you’re not feeling up to dealing with this sort of thing.
A small boat arrives at the harbor. The passengers, a shady courier named Max (Joseph V. Perry) and his beautiful cheongsam-clad companion, Heavenly Cortelle (Karen Sharpe), climb onto the shore. Max passes a few coins in payment to the boat’s pilot, a young Asian woman who is carrying a purse embroidered with a dragonfly.
Napoleon, who is keeping a watch over the harbor from the balcony of a nearby building, takes a few moments to ogle Heavenly, then contacts Illya to compare notes on the arrival of the couple. Illya complains to his partner that his bare feet are getting cold. Napoleon: “Your suffering distresses me, but not very much.” This is the single best line of this episode. That’s it. That was the high point. There’s no need to watch any further; it’s all over. Go home.
In a lavish mansion belonging to a corrupt toy manufacturer named Cleveland (Gavin MacLeod, Captain Stubing on The Love Boat), a coterie of villains have assembled at the behest of a reclusive contraband dealer named Apricot to bid upon stolen bits of American military intelligence and weaponry. In Cleveland’s living room is a statue of a Japanese armored warrior, which Apricot uses as her avatar so she can participate in the auction remotely, communicating to the group via a transmitter inside the statue. Apricot announces that a valuable auction item has arrived in Hong Kong and will soon be delivered to her. The starting bid for the unidentified item will be one million dollars.
Max and Heavenly, who are transporting the valuable item in question, enter the Smiling Fish bar. They’re greeted by a hulking thug named Merry, who is played by Richard Kiel, the seven-foot-plus actor who built a career out of playing tall, lurking heavies; he’s probably best known as Jaws in The Spy Who Loved Me. Merry and Max attempt to negotiate for the item, but soon resort to fisticuffs.
A dashing young former Marine named Bernie (handsome Route 66 star Glenn Corbett) wanders into the bar while Max and Merry are bashing each other over the heads with chairs. While Bernie and Heavenly bat their pretty eyes at each other and fall madly in love at first sight, Merry whips out a knife, stabs Max in the gut, and saunters off.
Heavenly frantically searches through Max’s pockets for the item. Max gasps out, “After all the things I’ve done, I get killed for a pine tree shilling,” then mutters something about a dragonfly before dying.
Heavenly and Bernie flee from the bar, whereupon they find themselves ambushed by Illya and Napoleon. Heavenly bolts to safety, but Napoleon and Illya apprehend Bernie.
They haul him into U.N.C.L.E.’s Hong Kong headquarters, where he tells them all about Max’s murder and last words. Napoleon, who knows everything, explains that a pine tree shilling is a rare seventeenth-century American coin: valuable, but certainly not worth the millions Apricot is expecting to get for it. Illya and Napoleon can’t be bothered to do their own assignment—i.e. find the shilling and figure out why it’s so important—so they offer Bernie a thousand dollars to tackle the dangerous part of their job for them. Bernie, who is anxious for a chance to run into Heavenly again, agrees to pose as Max’s business partner and offer to sell the shilling to Apricot.
So Bernie goes to the Dragon’s Tooth, a fancy club and known hangout of Apricot, where he encounters Heavenly and tells her he has the pine tree shilling in his possession. Let’s stop here for a moment and discuss Heavenly, who is the strangest and most tedious character in this strange and tedious episode. “Heavenly Cortelle” is not an Asian name, and Karen Sharpe is not an Asian actor, but nonetheless, I highly suspect this character is supposed to be Chinese. Heavenly speaks stiffly and slowly and entirely without contractions (there are some very, very odd line deliveries in this episode, all of which come from Heavenly), and her eyeliner is flicked up at the ends to give a hint of a slant, and then there’s the cheongsam… Draw your own conclusions. In any case, Heavenly is bloody awful.
Meanwhile, back at U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Napoleon eavesdrops on Bernie’s conversation with Heavenly via a hidden transmitter while Illya plays mahjong with Jasmine, an agent from the Hong Kong office. Jasmine is played by prolific Chinese-born actress Irene Tsu; she gets very little to do here, but she’s lovely and smart and charming. Hey, you know one quick change that would’ve vastly improved this episode? Casting Irene Tsu as Heavenly.
After the meeting with Heavenly, Bernie disobeys Napoleon’s orders and heads back to the Smiling Fish, for some never-clarified reason. He’s ambushed by Merry, who ties him up in a fishnet and dangles him from the ceiling and threatens to kill him unless he surrenders the shilling. While handsome and dashing, Bernie is an unlovable shmuck, so I really can’t be bothered to care overmuch about his fate.
Illya and Napoleon arrive at the Smiling Fish and hurl gas bombs around in time to save Bernie from being gutted by Merry. Back at headquarters, Napoleon pays Bernie his grand and sends him on his way, then makes a plan to break into Cleveland’s mansion. Illya warns him about possible attack geese—“They’re not called the watchdogs of the east for nothing!”—then makes his point by honking loudly and repeatedly. Napoleon looks sad and bewildered by this, like it’s dawned on him that he’s mired in a very tedious mission, where nothing about the assignment quite makes sense, and now his steadfast and loyal partner is making a bad situation worse by inexplicably quacking at him.
So Napoleon breaks into Cleveland’s mansion by, uh, piling plastic explosives around the doorknob and blowing it open. There are indeed geese inside the mansion; they honk at him and cause a ruckus, but by the time you’ve blasted the door open to get inside, maintaining a stealth approach during a burglary is probably a lost cause anyway. Bernie, who continues to be a twit, trails Napoleon into the mansion and insists on helping. Napoleon is monstrously displeased with his interference.
After kicking Bernie out, Napoleon is captured by Merry, whereupon he’s bound and gagged and delivered to Cleveland, who reassembles his coterie of miscreants for an impromptu auction. Assuming Napoleon is Max’s partner, Cleveland offers to sell him to the highest bidder, who may then try to torture the location of the coin out of him: “I offer you one body ready for interrogation.” This moderately kinky plot twist serves to briefly heighten my interest in this dud of an episode.
Apricot, speaking again through the statue, announces that a Mongolian warlord is on his way to Cleveland’s mansion, anxious to bid on the coin: “His name is Toqtamish Kipchak. He’s traveling as Jeremiah Krim, and he will identify himself to you with the password, The tundra is fertile.” Sometimes this show is so giddily ridiculous that it’s the most delightful thing on earth, like a glass of champagne garnished with gumdrops and Pixy Stix, and then sometimes it’s just plain ridiculous.
Bernie, who’s been lurking outside the mansion, calls the police and anonymously reports the evil shenanigans going on inside. When the cops arrive, Cleveland urges Merry to smuggle Napoleon out through a secret exit. Merry, carrying a bound and groggy Napoleon, runs into Bernie and beats him unconscious. To avoid detection by the police, he dumps both Bernie and Napoleon into a dumpster, which is picked up and emptied into a passing garbage truck.
The truck dumps its cargo into the harbor. Bernie and Napoleon are saved from drowning by Heavenly, who dives into the water and pulls them to safety. Heavenly and Bernie proclaim their love each other and smooch energetically while a still bound-and-gagged Napoleon watches from the sideline, wondering how he ever got so badly sidelined on his own show. Bernie decides to work for Heavenly instead of for U.N.C.L.E. and runs off, leaving Napoleon behind.
So Illya and Napoleon kidnap Toqtamish Kipchak, aka Jeremiah Krim, at the airport, whereupon Illya takes his place and shows up at Cleveland’s mansion for the shilling auction disguised as a Mongolian warlord.
I am sooooo close to giving up on this episode, you won’t even believe it.
The makeup and heavy prosthetics used to disguise Illya as Kipchak look decently convincing, actually, even though David McCallum’s ability to speak while wearing the makeup was obviously impaired and thus all of Illya’s dialogue is overdubbed (poorly overdubbed: Illya-as-Kipchak’s lines have a weird electronic echo, like listening to a radio transmission from a great distance). Anyway, Illya amuses himself at the auction by hurling misogynistic insults at the evil Madame Claudile (Lilyan Chauvin): “This is no place for a woman! … Among my people, when a woman dares oppose Kipchak, I have her flogged and dragged behind the wild horses.” Madame Claudile, who might be this sorry-ass episode’s unsung heroine, responds to this crap with weary, eye-rolling disdain.
Cleveland finally explains the importance of the shilling (just FYI, all of the assembled villains have been sitting around bidding millions of dollars for this shilling despite having no idea why it’s so valuable; they’ve all been taking Cleveland at his word that it’s worth it, which totally seems like reasonable behavior for a gaggle of global terrorists and corrupt world leaders): It’s made of a super-strong metal impervious to damage, which is used in the nosecones of American long-range missiles.
Anyway, while all this is going on, Cleveland spots Heavenly and Bernie hanging out on his rooftop, spying on the action. He smashes through the skylight and sends them tumbling into the living room, whereupon they’re captured by Merry. Apricot, wearing a mask to disguise her face, pops up and announces that Illya is an imposter, which gives Illya the perfect opportunity to dramatically rip off his prosthetic mask, Scooby-Doo-style.
Through a series of events that make precious little sense and are too ridiculous to recap, everyone travels from Cleveland’s mansion to the Smiling Fish, where Napoleon shows up with the police in tow. Illya notices that Apricot is carrying a purse embroidered with a dragonfly and realizes the importance of Max’s dying words: To keep the shilling hidden, Max gave it to Apricot, who was disguised as the boat pilot who ferried Heavenly and Max across the harbor. The police arrest Cleveland, Apricot, and Merry, whereupon Heavenly reveals herself to be an undercover police lieutenant. While Illya and Napoleon look relieved that this long and tiresome episode is finally coming to a close, Heavenly and Bernie make out behind the bar; they remain out of sight of the camera the entire time, because, as it turns out, poor Glenn Abbott injured himself badly while filming the stunt where Bernie falls through the skylight and ended up in the hospital; a stand-in was used for the remainder of the episode.
Well! That was pretty relentlessly ungood! A rare misstep from the glory days of Season One, where the stellar episodes far outnumber the clunkers.