The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The Love Affair”

Illya waits at the airport for the arrival of a flight carrying Dr. Margaret Armindel, a renowned physicist from M.I.T., whom U.N.C.L.E. suspects has been recruited by THRUSH for her iconoclastic work in the field of nuclear propulsion. She’s whisked off the plane on a gurney, having suffered a massive fatal heart attack in the air. Illya bats his pretty eyes at a flight attendant and sweet-talks her into giving him Dr. Armindel’s personal effects, which include strips of microfilm containing photos of her research.

At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Illya and Napoleon are briefed by Mr. Waverly on their new assignment. Over the past few years, several high-profile scientists have mysteriously vanished; U.N.C.L.E. suspects they’ve been either kidnapped or bribed by THRUSH to work on their latest nefarious project, a nuclear-powered spaceship designed by missing Polish scientist Dr. Janos Hradny. Among Dr. Armindel’s possessions is a ticket to see a popular revivalist preacher known as Brother Love. Waverly instructs a female U.N.C.L.E. employee, Sarah Johnson, to pose as Dr. Arundel and attend the revivalist meeting to see if THRUSH approaches her.

Sarah Johnson, by the way, pops up in a small handful of early episodes; according to U.N.C.L.E. lore, her official position is Napoleon’s secretary, though here she seems more like a full-fledged field agent. She’s played by Leigh Chapman, who later made a name for herself as a writer of action films and television shows, including The Mod Squad, Mission: Impossible, and Walker, Texas Ranger. Competent and smart, Sarah is a welcome presence on this show.

Napoleon and Sarah arrive at the revivalist meeting, where Brother Love (Green Acres star Eddie Albert) is preaching eternal salvation. Dr. Armindel’s seat is occupied by a young woman, so Napoleon decides to find out what she’s doing there. When Sarah protests that Napoleon is hijacking her assignment, Napoleon smugly brushes her off: “She’s a girl, I’m a boy, and that’s the best reason I can think of for striking up a conversation.” Then he sails down the aisle to flirt with the pretty stranger, while Sarah slinks to the back of the auditorium in defeat, no doubt thinking dark thoughts about the difficulties inherent in being a female employee of a patriarchy-entrenched organization like U.N.C.L.E. Sarah isn’t around for many more episodes after this one, so it’s probably logical to assume she defected to THRUSH, lured over to the dark side by their lack of a glass ceiling and their stellar track record for employing brainy women in high-powered positions.

Anyway, while Sarah sits in the back and glowers, Napoleon slips into the empty seat beside the young woman. The woman, a Hunter College student named Pearl Rolfe (Maggie Pierce), tells Napoleon she’s attending the revivalist meeting as research for a term paper; she stole Dr. Arundel’s assigned seat to get a better view of the stage. Napoleon pokes her legs and flirts with her and tries very, very hard to get into her tights, all in the name of duty. Pearl seems to dig him, but seriously, back when I was a college student, I would’ve been super creeped out if a thirtysomething dude had plopped into the seat next to me at a ticketed event and started poking my legs with his fingers.

After the meeting, Pearl agrees to go out for coffee with Napoleon. First, though, Napoleon has a clandestine consultation with Sarah at a bank of pay phones. Sarah, who seems weary and long-suffering about the amount of crap she has to put up with from Napoleon (though she does refer to him as “Papa Bear”, which suggests a, ah, certain level of familiarity between them), agrees to head back to the office and run an identity check on Pearl to confirm her story. “It’ll take me about two hours,” Sarah says, her tone dripping with icy contempt. “Can you keep her interested that long?” Napoleon gives a hilarious little snort of disgust and skips off to get lucky with Pearl.

Alas, he’s too late—while he was verbally jousting with Sarah, one of Brother Love’s robed acolytes kidnapped Pearl. While Napoleon looks around the auditorium for her, Brother Love walks up behind him and whacks him over the head with a pistol, knocking him unconscious.

Bravo, Napoleon! This is one of those rare episodes in which Illya is considerably more competent than his partner. Granted, that’s probably only by default, because Illya is MIA for great stretches of the action. Nevertheless, Napoleon does not shine.

Back at headquarters, Sarah, who is the only U.N.C.L.E. agent who seems to be getting any quality work done in this episode, informs Waverly, Illya, and a wounded and grumpy Napoleon of her discoveries: All of the missing scientists disappeared after attending one of Brother Love’s revivalist meetings. Brother Love is to be the guest of honor at a swanky fundraising party at a mansion out on Long Island; Waverly orders Napoleon to go to the party and look for Pearl.

So Illya and Napoleon park outside the mansion, whereupon we receive this marvelous exchange of dialogue:

NAPOLEON: It’s a pretty expensive party, I’d say.
ILLYA: (gloomily) Suddenly I feel very Russian.
NAPOLEON: That’s just your proletariat blood.
ILLYA: There’s no difference between those people and me!
NAPOLEON: Depends on whether you’re speaking physically, financially, or psychologically.
ILLYA: And what makes you so superior? You don’t rate exactly yourself with Dun & Bradstreet.
NAPOLEON: Yes, but I have that elegant air of decadence.

Aw, these two are wonderful. I love it when Illya goes full-tilt Soviet, and when Napoleon acknowledges his own intoxicating brand of sophisticated sleaziness.

While Illya sulks in the car, Napoleon mingles at the party. He’s ambushed by a society columnist named Magda (Tracey Roberts), who snaps photos of him and peppers him with questions: “Who are you? Where are you from? What do you do? Are you rich, or famous?” “Just put me down for a little of everything,” Napoleon tells her cheerfully before swiping her camera, casually yanking out her film, and strolling off.

He accosts Brother Love and demands to see Pearl. Brother Love’s acolytes bring out a visibly terrified Pearl, who insists she sought refuge with Brother Love of her own free will. Flabbergasted by this development, Napoleon tries to leave the party, but is lured into a trap by Magda.

So Brother Love and his acolytes hustle Napoleon into the backseat of a car and drive off. Brother Love announces his intention to kill him; Napoleon manages to convince him he’s Dr. Armindel’s lab partner, sent as a last-minute replacement when she suddenly fell ill. His story fails to explain why he was at the party demanding to see Pearl, but Brother Love shrugs and decides to believe him.

Illya trails behind their car at a safe distance. Brother Love spots him and hurls a grenade at him, causing him to crash. Because this is a first-season episode, back when Illya was unequivocally second banana to Napoleon, back when he used to routinely disappear halfway through assignments, this is the last we’ll see of him until the final scene.

Then we get a vaguely unnecessary interlude in which Mr. Waverly bawls out Sarah for returning late from her lunch break because she’d stopped by the hospital to check on poor wounded Illya. Yet again, we're reminded that Mr. Waverly is, on occasion, kind of a dick.

Convinced Napoleon is an ally, Brother Love flies him to his compound in Los Angeles. Left to his own devices, Napoleon sneaks around the premises and finds Dr. Hradny (Robert H. Harris), the scientist recruited by Brother Love to work on the nuclear spaceship, which apparently is just sitting there, right smack in the middle of the laboratory.

This isn’t an especially notable episode. There’s nothing precisely wrong with it, and to give the creative staff credit, they’re trying to add hints of sleaze to the otherwise straightforward proceedings—in the shot below, that’s Magda, the gossip columnist, giving Brother Love a massage while they spy on Napoleon via hidden camera—but honestly? It’s pretty flat.

Ah, well. As this show progressed over the seasons, it got much better at shoehorning in tawdry, sensationalistic shenanigans. If this were an episode from, say, late in season two, Illya would be chained up in the compound somewhere, shirt off, getting worked over by a sexy THRUSH villainess with a bullwhip and/or cattle prod. But this is season one, so all we’re getting is a profoundly un-erotic massage combined with some mildly voyeuristic behavior. Disappointing.

Napoleon and Dr. Hradny stage an escape from the compound. They stop by Pearl’s prison cell and try to rescue her, only to find that Brother Love has laid a trap. Instead of finding Pearl, Napoleon is ambushed by Magda, who whips out a squirt gun and sprays him in the face with some kind of chemical. Napoleon collapses in an unconscious heap. He awakens to find himself bound with wire and locked in the cell with Pearl and Dr. Hradny. Brother Love taunts Napoleon for a while, then promises to give his captives a painless death—he’s going to flee in a helicopter with Dr. Hradny’s research after setting explosives to blow up the compound and everyone in it. I don’t mean to quibble, and I do understand that Brother Love doesn’t seem to be a textbook sadist, but by what standard of measurement does getting blown to pieces constitute a painless death?

Thinking fast, Napoleon whips out some explosive material hidden in the heel of his shoe, which, he explains to Pearl and Dr. Hradny, he can use to set himself free. “The explosion will melt the wires on my wrists,” he assures them. It probably won’t do the skin on his wrists any good, either, but desperate times call for desperate measures, so I guess I understand his reasoning. He blasts through the wires and frees himself.

He unties Pearl and Dr. Hradny, then hides Brother Love’s bomb in a box containing Dr. Hradny’s research. He and Pearl don robes and, posing as acolytes, load the box onto Brother Love’s helicopter as he prepares to leave the compound. Because murdering your enemy is no fun unless you get to taunt him a little first, Napoleon and Pearl make sure to drop the hoods of their robes and blithely wave at Brother Love while the helicopter lifts off, just before it explodes in a ball of fire.

His mission a rousing success, Napoleon flies back to New York. At the airport, he makes out with Pearl for a while, and then he spots Illya, injured but steadfast, waiting for him at the arrivals gate. They compare injuries—Illya has a broken arm and a banged-up forehead (“It always hurts when you break up a love affair,” Illya quips weakly), while Napoleon has indeed managed to badly burn himself from melting the wires around his wrists.

A strangely toothless episode, with not much to distinguish it save for a snippet of sparkling banter between Illya and Napoleon and some good work from the intrepid and long-suffering Sarah Johnson. It’s not terrible, but the script needed to be wittier or, failing that, sleazier. Either would be an improvement.


Illesdan said…
I guess they were still trying to see how many boundaries they could push before someone brought out the banhammer. I wasn't particularly fond of Pearl; but since I've only seen this episode once, I can't recall why I didn't like her. I think by this point in the series I was irked by anyone and anything that interfered with the Illya/Napoleon dynamic for too great a time.

That being said, it's not a bad episode. It does feel like we're killing time until a better story comes along, but it does have some cute moments and a good performance from Sarah Johnson to redeem it somewhat. Too bad she wasn't in the later episodes; they needed her help. I could totally see defecting to THRUSH after how Napoleon acted in this outing, not stellar behavior on his part.

Morgan Richter said…
Illesdan, I'm with you. I didn't care much for Pearl, just because she's a tremendously underwritten character; other than being somewhat amenable to Napoleon's flirting, she doesn't have much substance to her. (She's a sociology major at Hunter who is attending a revivalist meeting for a term paper... that's it). Even still, there's nothing really wrong with this episode. It's just a little underwhelming, with very little of this show's signature quirkiness. Could be any mid-sixties spy drama.
This episode is underwhelming, and I do have problems with the ones where they shove Illya out the door halfway through. But they do have that wonderful banter, at least. I can't quite pinpoint why it's underwhelming either. It just is. Sigh...
Morgan Richter said…
Aconitum -- apart from that one marvelous exchange between Illya and Napoleon, there's nothing uniquely UNCLE about the episode. I feel the same way about a small handful of other season one episodes, where it just seems like they're trying to make a straightforward and rather dull spy drama. The show is much better when it gets a little looser and goofier (er, without descending into the flat-out farce that so often derailed season three). "Underwhelming" is the right word for it.
Clem Robins said…
Morgan, i suggest you watch this one again. what makes it wonderful is Eddie Albert's sanctimonious preacherman character. Albert was hilarious. the hypocrite evangelist has been a mainstay of fiction since Elmer Gantry, but Albert walks away with the whole episode.

i'm trying to guess your age. i'm surprised that someone who didn't grow up with the show appreciates it as much as you seem to.

Morgan Richter said…
Thanks for commenting, Clem. I'll take another look at the episode at some point. Eddie Albert was a marvelous actor; I always loved him in Roman Holliday and too many other films to count, though I didn't quite warm to him here as Brother Love.

I'm in my forties. Didn't grow up with the show, but it has aged wonderfully; I was just commenting to someone else that Napoleon and Illya still seem like very fresh, original, interesting characters.
Clem Robins said…
it's very pleasant to see someone as young as yourself enjoying this stuff. i tried, in vain, to interest my wife in it. i always figured you had to have been born sometime between 1945 and 1955 to get it, which puts me as just barely old enough. although by that standard, the Beatles were too old, and reportedly they were huge fans.

you might want to give the fourth season another try. a couple of episodes, anyway. Anthony Spinner was given an impossible task, to lure back the viewers they chased away with the third season. the two parter "The Prince of Darkness" had its moments, including some impressive production in the second half.

my pick of 'em all is the first year's Dove Affair. looking forward to seeing what you have to say about it.

thanks, Morgan.

Clem Robins said…
one more thing.

part of the first year's charm is exactly what you object to about Love not being Uncle. they were figuring it all out, and didn't really know what they were after till the end of the first season. once they had the formula down, they stopped exploring.

so year one had 28 little films, all quite different from each other, and many of them pretty good. there was a sense of wonder about the whole thing, which i think was gone by season two.

and Vaughn lost a lot of his charm. he had a pleasantness and a humility in the first year. by year two, he was a Big Star, and he knew it.
Morgan Richter said…
You're right -- Prince of Darkness is far and away the best of the fourth season, Clem. That one was written by Dean Hargrove, who was the only staff writer from the early seasons to survive all the way to the end of the show; Hargrove wrote a lot of my all-time favorite episodes, like the Never-Never Affair and Children's Day Affair.

The first season had just an amazing stretch of great episodes. There were a few clunkers in the mix, but overall, the quality of the writing and acting was very, very high for a weekly television series.
Anonymous said…
Hi Ms.Morgan,
I just found your blog and am having a great time reading your reviews of The Man From Uncle. I'm 22 years old and adore this show so much! It's great to see other people who also love Uncle, and other classic shows/music/movies/style like I do. I don't know anyone my age who does, and it's pretty lonely fangirling alone.
Oh well, Illya and Napoleon warm my lonely heart when I watch them being their awesome selves.
Anyway, thanks for your funny, great reviews!

Morgan Richter said…
Hi, Paige! Thanks for commenting -- I'm glad you're enjoying the reviews! Like you, I adore the show, and I adore Napoleon and Illya. The quality of the show varies wildly from episode to episode, but those two almost always make it all worthwhile.

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