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.