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

On a London-bound flight from Paris, Illya watches covertly as a fellow passenger, an infamous French assassin named Raymond, is confronted by uniformed airline personnel, who ask him to submit to a search. Raymond shoots them with a gun disguised as a camera, then barricades himself in the airplane lavatory. He detonates some plastic explosives and blasts a hole in the hull that sucks him out of the plane, which seems like an overly-dramatic way to get out of being searched. Upon hearing the commotion, Illya breaks down the lavatory door. This causes the cabin to depressurize; he’s forced to cling to the doorway to avoid following Raymond out into oblivion.

Nice one, Illya, I thought smugly while watching this. We’re two minutes into the episode, and you already almost got yourself killed, to say nothing of endangering the entire plane. Good to see you’re maintaining your usual level of competence.

And then Illya (and Napoleon, for that matter) spends the rest of the episode acting in a thoroughly competent and professional manner. I know! I was totally confused, until I remembered that, after two solid months of recapping nothing but ridiculously goofball episodes from season three, I was back in the idyllic golden days of season one, back when the writers occasionally went to some trouble not to depict our heroes as a pair of handsome mission-botching buffoons.

In London, an international terrorist named Mr. Zed (Ronald Long) meets with his henchmen, who brief him on the death of Raymond. Mr. Zed is delighted by the news. In a few days, he’ll be hosting a summit of top terrorists, assassins, and crime lords at his mansion to discuss the possibility of banding together to consolidate their power. So help me, I love the Man From U.N.C.L.E. universe, where there’s nothing global terrorists like better than getting together for big group meetings and voting on alliances. Raymond was a vocal detractor of Mr. Zed’s ideas; with him out of the way, Mr. Zed believes his sweeping terrorist unity proposal will pass smoothly.

Back in New York, Illya and Napoleon sort through the lethal contents of Raymond’s suitcase (a hairbrush containing a switchblade, a grenade disguised as an electric razor) in search of clues to the location of the upcoming all-terrorist jamboree. The suitcase contents aren’t helpful, but Illya triumphantly produces Raymond’s wallet, which, he informs Napoleon, he’d removed on the plane. Napoleon: “In other words, you picked his pocket.” Illya: “If you prefer such a bourgeois description of an act of pure presence of mind.”

The wallet contains a button from the Hyde Park Debating Club, which Napoleon figures was Raymond’s means of identifying himself to his fellow terrorists and assassins and sundry ne’er-do-wells. Since Raymond used disguises to change his appearance from mission to mission, Napoleon decides to impersonate Raymond and, with the aid of the button, crash the top-secret meeting. To help Napoleon, Mr. Waverly arranges a meeting with a lonely retired U.N.C.L.E. agent named Albert Sully (Psycho’s Martin Balsam), who had some dealings with Raymond during his time as an OSS spy in France during World War II. Waverly thinks Sully might be able to give Napoleon some pointers on how best to impersonate Raymond. However, after being briefed on the situation, Sully refuses to play along, insisting that Napoleon and Illya are too unseasoned and incompetent to handle a job this important on their own. Oh, you’ve seen the show, Sully? Sully makes a counteroffer: He’ll impersonate Raymond himself. Caught in a hard place, Mr. Waverly reluctantly agrees (it is implied, though never outright stated, that Sully was a very bad spy during his time at U.N.C.L.E. You’re in some mighty good company, Sully).

So Sully dons a wig and a fake mustache to pose as Raymond and jets off to London, with Napoleon and Illya serving as his somewhat grumpy chaperones. During the long transatlantic flight, while Illya dozes, Napoleon and Sully hang out in the airplane’s lounge area and play cat’s cradle to kill time. This is fascinating! I’m genuinely asking here: Did adults play cat’s cradle in the sixties? Because I’ve only ever known it as a game for small kids, and seeing Napoleon and Sully playing it here while dressed in their nice suits seems wildly incongruous, like seeing them playing hopscotch down the plane’s aisle.

During the game, Napoleon slips a pin containing a tracking device into the cuff of Sully’s trousers. When he returns to his seat, Illya, who from all appearances looks sound asleep, asks him why he bothered. “The better to find him with, my dear,” Napoleon replies. Aw, look at Napoleon and Illya, being all alert and competent and sneaky and good at their jobs! This does my heart proud.

Upon arriving in London, Sully ditches the tracking device and slips a Customs agent a note hinting that Illya and Napoleon are carrying contraband. Sure enough, Napoleon’s suitcase contains several bottles of illicit booze, which Sully planted to cause a distraction. While Napoleon and Illya are detained at the airport, Sully slips off on his own.

No matter, though—as soon as they’ve explained the matter to the satisfaction of the Customs authorities, Illya reveals that he planted a second tracking pin in Sully’s hat, along with a bug so they can listen in on his conversations. Cheered by this news, Napoleon seizes the opportunity to flirt with his partner more broadly than usual. “You are a sly Russian. Someday when you grow up, you should make someone a marvelous secret agent,” he purrs. Illya growls at him to stop being ridiculous, though he looks secretly pleased. These two. I love these two. In terms of snappy banter, they’ve brought their A-game this episode.

They eavesdrop as Sully heads to a pub and meets with an old flame, a former wartime courier named Bryn Watson (Barbara Shelley). While Illya and Napoleon listen in horror, Sully confesses to Bryn that he desperately needs her help: Contrary to everything he told Waverly, he’s never met Raymond. He’s hoping Bryn, who had many encounters with Raymond during the war, can help him bluff his way through his impersonation.

Napoleon and Illya barge into the pub to confront Sully about his web of lies. Napoleon asks Bryn to help him pose as Raymond instead; out of loyalty to Sully, she refuses. The spirited reconciliation between Sully and Bryn starts to drag a little—not that it really matters, because Martin Balsam and Barbara Shelley are both lively and charming enough to keep it aloft—so midway through this scene, the camera follows Illya as he wanders over to the bar, orders a Guinness, and tosses it back. No particular reason; the director just apparently figured viewers would rather see Illya chug a beer than watch a pair of nice middle-aged former spies reminisce about their wartime romance. The director was probably right.

Stuck with Sully, Napoleon and Illya accompany him to the Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park. Sully hovers around the crowd while wearing Raymond’s button on his lapel, hoping to attract the attention of Raymond’s evil cronies. Sure enough, one of the cronies, who is posing as a frothing-at-the-mouth Hyde Park soapbox orator, slips Sully a message to head to a strip club in Soho. Sully is also spotted by one of Mr. Zed’s henchmen, who alerts his boss. Horrified to discover Raymond apparently survived the incident on the plane, Mr. Zed orders his henchman to kill him. As the henchman approaches Sully from behind, knife raised, Illya and Napoleon slither up alongside him, wrestle the knife away, and discreetly stab him to death in the middle of the crowd.

Wow. Wow! Ice-cold, guys. It’s so rare and startling to see these two genuinely acting like spies, i.e. lethal and brutal and resourceful. It’s like watching a totally different show! After murdering the henchmen, Napoleon and Illya start drunkenly singing at the top of their lungs while staggering through the crowd, dragging the corpse between them. They abandon the corpse on a park bench, then round up Sully and Bryn and beat a hasty retreat, with more of Mr. Zed’s thugs in hot pursuit.

They hop on a passing city bus. One of the henchmen boards the bus right behind them and shoots Napoleon in the shoulder; Bryn, who is a force to be reckoned with, beats the snot out of the henchman and throws him out the open door. Illya wants to stay behind with his wounded partner, but Napoleon orders him to head to the strip club with Bryn and Sully.

The strip club, alas, is disappointingly tame. Most of the customers are in fancy evening dress (though, as Illya wryly notes, a significant percentage are wearing dark glasses indoors), and the dancers remain demurely fully clothed for the duration of their routines. A stripper comes out in a grass skirt and performs a hula dance while simultaneously: a) fending off the advances of a horde of drunken sailors, and b) spelling out the location of the big meeting in sign language to Sully. Girl can multitask.

One of Raymond’s ex-lovers, the Baroness de Francasio (Eve McVeagh), approaches Sully and, mistaking him for Raymond, sits down at their table to chat about old times. She also seizes the opportunity to flirt shamelessly with Illya, because the Baroness has eyes.

Sully bluffs his way through the conversation as best he can, though he makes a critical error by lighting a cigarette—as Bryn tells him belatedly, the real Raymond was allergic to tobacco. To prevent the Baroness from telling anyone Sully is an imposter, Illya and Bryn start a brawl. Illya loudly accuses the Baroness of being his cheating wife (“What about our children?”); Bryn rips off the Baroness’ dress to prevent her from leaving, then tackles her around the waist and flogs her with her purse. Bryn! Bryn is wonderful. I would’ve been wholly in support of Bryn getting her own spinoff, centering around the adventures of a retired middle-aged lady spy who keeps effortlessly beating the crap out of miscreants.

With the Baroness in police custody, Illya, Sully, and Bryn head for the top-secret meeting at the home of Mr. Zed. Thanks to Bryn’s invaluable assistance, Sully is able to maintain his successful impersonation of Raymond. Mr. Zed secretly laces Sully’s Hyde Park Debating Society button with high-powered explosives; Illya, having witnessed this, takes Sully aside to warn him. Because they’re under constant surveillance, they maintain an elaborate cheerful façade, pantomiming smiles and broad laughter while discussing how Zed is totally going to murder them.

Look at Illya, being super-sneaky while doing all this excellent spy work! I swear, I can’t remember the last time I saw an episode where he was this competent. This episode is a goddamned unicorn.

While Illya and Bryn loiter in the foyer, the meeting takes place in the drawing room. The faux orator from Hyde Park recognizes Bryn and tries to kill her, so Bryn—yep, you guessed it—beats the crap out of him.

In the drawing room, Mr. Zed detonates the explosives hidden in Sully’s lapel pin. Sully, however, has already managed to slip the pin onto Mr. Zed’s jacket, so now Zed is dead instead. The meeting erupts into chaos; Sully, still posing as Raymond, convinces all the assembled terrorists Zed was a traitor in their midst. Illya and Bryn prepare to leave, but Sully insists upon remaining behind—as long as he maintains his cover as Raymond, he’ll be able to feed U.N.C.L.E. a steady stream of intelligence about the terrorists.

Later, Illya and a wounded Napoleon visit Bryn at the pub, where they all commiserate about how Sully is an idiot for willingly staying in such a volatile and dangerous situation. Bryn throws them some backhanded compliments by claiming they’re both exactly like Sully, then offers to beat the pants off of them in a friendly game of darts. Napoleon and Illya are smart enough not to take her up on the offer.

Absolutely charming. After so many weeks swimming through the hazardous, chum-infested waters of Season Three, I’d almost forgotten episodes like this existed.


This is an absolutely wonderful episode. I think Bryn is pretty much my favourite female character from the entire four seasons. If she joined Uncle they'd beat Thrush in a jiffy. And dear Illya, pointing out all the be-sunglassed folks, while sitting there in his own sunglasses. He is on top of his game in this episode, though.
DKoren said…
Haven't had as much time to comment later, but I still look forward to these UNCLE reviews so much! They're one of the highlights of the week, from the crazy insane later episodes, to ones like this, that just sound fantastic. Don't stop! Bryn! I have to see this one just to see her in action, cuz wow! Love her already! And hey, Napoleon gets shot? That actually seems to happen rarely on this show (as opposed to some tv shows where the leads are regularly pumped full of lead and suffer no ill effects from ep to ep).
Illesdan said…
I remember this episode; it's an absolute treasure. Y'know, I didn't find the cat's cradle thing out of place until you mentioned it. I grew up with adults doing childish things like that, so it just kinda seemed... Normal? C'mon, it's Robert Vaughn; we know he isn't normal.

Morgan Richter said…
It's an adorable episode. It slipped under my radar a bit during my first complete pass through the series -- I remembered enjoying it, but nothing stood out in my brain. Revisiting it now, especially after spending two months doing nothing but hit-or-miss season three episodes, really made it stand out as an exceptional installment. Bryn is just wonderful, and Illya and Napoleon are especially sparkling and fun to watch.
Clem Robins said…
am i the only one who is stunned by the cabin-depressurization shot in the beginning of this opus? it is far more believable, and scary, than the similar sequence at the end of "Goldfinger", which came out about the same time. i've wondered how they got the shot. even tried to contact Joe Sargent and ask him exactly how he got the effect.
Morgan Richter said…
Clem: I looked at the depressurization shot frame-by-frame on DVD. Very cleverly done! The scene in the lavatory consists of four shots:

1: Illya bursts into the lavatory after kicking down the door. McCallum grips both sides of the door frame and hops up with his right foot onto the sink, while almost simultaneously leaning backwards and sticking his left leg straight out, writhing around to make it look like he's struggling to avoid being sucked out of the room. Papers blow across him, presumably from a fan placed out of sight to his right. Very tricky! I assume they had bars placed on the outside of the door frame for McCallum to grip.

2. We see the hole in the plane, with a painted black wall to look like the night sky beyond it, with papers being blown through the hole.

3. A closer shot of Illya. McCallum's right leg is still on the sink.

4. Another shot of Illya. As the pressure stabilizes, McCallum hops off of the sink and lowers his left leg.

Really, really smoothly done, with great camera work, sound effects, and a good physical performance from McCallum.
Clem Robins said…
i dunno if blundering across your blog has been good or bad for me. but it's had me watching these old films again, after i'd gotten pretty sick of 'em.

also enjoyed your writings about Miami Vice.

you read comics ever? i've been a fixture in the industry since 1977. if you've followed Hellboy, or any of the DC/Vertigo books, you've seen my work.
Clem Robins said…
i just watched it again. are you sure there isn't some kind of rocking set with a camera mounted, so that it could swivel sharply, leaving McCallum to hang on for dear life against the force of gravity? and then gently be rocked back, enabling him to make contact with the floor?

however Sargent got the sequence, it's very impressive, especially for 1965 television.
Clem Robins said…
this episode, and "The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair", are two high water marks of the show. both were written by the same guy, Dick Nelson. Morgan, maybe you might care to comment on the art of the teleplay. when Uncle had decent scripts, it was terrific. producers oversee teleplays. with Sam Rolfe's departure, the teleplays no longer had charm. this particular specimen is about as charming as it ever got, which was very very.

in general, Uncle disappoints me. but this particular sample is absolutely terrific. and yeah, Barbara Shelley carries the show on her back, along with the wonderful Martin Balsam. the weekly "innocents", usually women, were mostly clowns. Shelley's Bryn is a marvelous exception.

and that last scene, with the darts, you could hang on your wall.

this is a primo example of why millions of boomers couldn't get enough of this show.
Morgan Richter said…
Clem, that's very cool about your career. I'm sure I've seen your work at some point -- I read a lot of Vertigo in the early/mid-nineties (Hellblazer, Sandman, Kid Eternity, the Death limited series... my sister worked in a comic book store in 1993).

I wish Dick Nelson had stayed with UNCLE past season one; he had an excellent track record for scripts. My hands-down favorite UNCLE writer was Peter Allan Fields, but Nelson is on the shortlist. (One of my screenwriting professors was a season three staff writer; unfortunately, every single episode he wrote for the show is pretty relentlessly terrible. He was also a staff writer for Batman, which probably explains a lot about season three).

It's always possible the stage tilted, but I'm pretty sure it was fixed in place. If you look at that first shot when Illya bursts into the lavatory frame by frame, in the lower right of the doorway, underneath McCallum's left leg, there are a few frames where you can see the edge of some kind of gurney, which is supporting McCallum's weight when he leans all the way back. It even rolls with him when he moves. It's hard to spot at first, but once you see it, you won't be able to un-see it. As near as I can piece it together, McCallum opened the door, gripped the door frame, hopped up and got one foot on the sink, and as he leaned backward, a gurney was rolled into place behind him to make sure he could lean all the way back, like he was being sucked into the room, without risking falling onto the ground. It's very, very cleverly done.
Clem Robins said…
pretty likely you've seen my work. i did 100 issues of Hellblazer, from 1994 through 2003. a few issues of Kid Eternity. Todd Klein had all the Moore and Gaiman books, like Death.

you never read Preacher or 100 Bullets or Transmetropolitan? they were quite popular. AMC's made a series out of Preacher.

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