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

We now live in a world without Robert Vaughn, and it’s a mighty cold and unglamorous place. Don your best tuxedo and/or sparkly cocktail gown, pour yourself a stiff martini, and help me celebrate his iconic and irreplaceable magic.

In Manhattan, THRUSH goons transport bullets and hand grenades hidden inside vacuum cleaners to their secret headquarters in a repair shop. Napoleon slinks into the store, where the counterman is arguing with an irate customer. At the sight of Napoleon, the counterman whips out a gun, whereupon Napoleon calmly shoots him with a tranquilizer dart. Being an anarchic sort at heart, he then opens the register drawer and encourages the customer to steal herself a refund. He bursts into the back room and confronts the THRUSH goons, who jump into a van and make a break for it; Illya, who is loitering in the alley, fires a rocket launcher and takes out the van.

Local THRUSH boss Vincent Carver (the impossibly smooth Ray Danton) enters the shop. Upon spotting Napoleon, he poses as a customer, plants a bomb in a vacuum cleaner while Napoleon’s back is turned, and hightails it out of the store one step ahead of the blast.

At U.N.C.L.E. headquarters, Napoleon nurses a broken arm sustained in the explosion and discusses the mission with Mr. Waverly and Illya: Under Vincent Carver’s supervision, THRUSH is in the process of moving all their Western Hemisphere surveillance records to their European office. Waverly puts Illya in charge of locating and intercepting THRUSH’s valuable files before they leave New York. Due to Napoleon’s semi-incapacitating injury, Waverly sidelines him with some inessential busywork: supervising the remodeling work being done on some U.N.C.L.E.-owned brownstone apartments adjoining headquarters. Napoleon seems somewhat less than thrilled by this, and who could blame him? He’s a dashing and reckless secret agent! He should be out in the field, flirting with his partner and hopelessly botching missions while wearing nice suits and delivering witty one-liners, not overseeing the installation of air conditioners.

At a fancy discotheque owned by Carver, sexy go-go dancers frug and wriggle around and hop up and down in cages. A representative from THRUSH Central named Mr. Oakes (The Young and the Restless star Eric Braeden, here billed under his birth name, Hans Gudegast) shakes his head disdainfully at all this nonsense, then meets with Carver to discuss the transportation of the files. Concerned that the raid on the vacuum cleaner shop means U.N.C.L.E. is closing in on them, Carver and Oakes scheme to extensively wiretap one of the apartments in the brownstone, in the hopes of eavesdropping on Mr. Waverly’s private conversations.

Carver and Oakes break into the apartment, which is being rented by a struggling young actress named Sandy Wyler (Judi West), and install an array of listening devices behind the wall shared with U.N.C.L.E. headquarters. This is actually one of THRUSH’s better plans; I live in a New York City rowhouse, and I share my bedroom wall with the building next door, and I assure you, even without listening devices, I can hear every damn thing that goes on there. When they’re caught in the act by an U.N.C.L.E. agent, Carver murders him and walls up his corpse right next to the listening devices inside poor Sandy’s bedroom. “If nothing else, we’re neat,” Carver tells Oakes cheerfully.

Sandy has been kicking up a fuss about a looming rent increase (it’s never stated outright, but I assume U.N.C.L.E. is spiking up rent to drive tenants away in order to gain full control of the building, which is both despicable and sensible), so Waverly sends Napoleon over to the brownstone to placate her. Sandy tries to convince Napoleon to let her have the apartment for free: “There are a lot of people who’ve been very kind to me. There’s a fellow who does my dry-cleaning for free. And Mr. Sweeney hasn’t asked me to pay my delicatessen bill in eighteen months, and I’m sure you’re every bit as kind as they are.” Sandy is being an entitled twerp, but then Napoleon responds by urging her to give up her career and get married so she can have some man financially support her, so they’re pretty much equally odious in this scene. It all balances out.

Sandy complains about a funny smell coming from her newly-renovated bedroom. Napoleon, who knows the stench of a fresh corpse when he sniffs it, does some investigating and notices a man’s shoestring sticking out of the wall.

Napoleon takes Sandy to headquarters, where Illya dons his dark glasses and does his finest Bad Cop impression to interrogate her about the dead U.N.C.L.E. agent in her wall. Something to consider: Illya has trotted out his Bad Cop act in enough episodes now that there’s a very real possibility he genuinely is the Bad Cop to Napoleon’s Good Cop.

Convinced of Sandy’s innocence, Napoleon gets one of his customarily terrible ideas, of the sort that always involve placing untrained civilians in mortal danger. He sabotages the listening devices in Sandy’s wall, thus putting her in THRUSH’s crosshairs. To get Sandy out of her apartment long enough for THRUSH to check on their devices, Carver offers her a gig as a go-go dancer at his discotheque.

And then there’s an unnecessary but very welcome scene in which Illya and Napoleon sit far too close to each other in the front seat of a car while discussing nothing in particular. I swear, years before Moonlighting, decades before The X-Files, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was the original will-they-or-won’t-they show.

Napoleon slinks into Sandy’s apartment while a pair of THRUSH goons are mucking about in her wall. He’s ambushed from behind by Mr. Oakes. Surprised, Napoleon drops his gun in a bucket of paint; normally I’d mock him for this bit of grotesque incompetence, but: a) he does have a broken arm, and b) even working with one arm, he manages to knock out the THRUSH goons and toss Mr. Oakes to his death out of a window, so everything considered, he’s doing quite a bit better than usual.

Illya pairs his dark glasses with his best turtleneck and goes undercover as a sultry string bassist in a groovy jazz quartet at Carver’s club. During a break from go-go dancing, Sandy fills him in on everything she’s learned while working at the club—she’s discovered a secret room in the basement where THRUSH is keeping the files. She also tells him that Carver, who is a world-class letch, has invited her back to his office after the club closes. “I don’t think I have to tell you what he has in mind,” Sandy says, justifiably worried. “Don’t worry. I’ll try and help you to break your date,” Illya reassures her.

Spoiler alert: Illya will do no such thing. As this storyline plays out, not a single thought will pass through his beautiful head about saving poor Sandy from the grabby hands of her evil boss. Illya is, at times, something of a monster.

Furious at being replaced by Sandy as the lead go-go dancer, Carver’s girlfriend/ accomplice Farina (Evelyn Ward, David Cassidy’s mom) gets well and truly plastered at the club. Dig her little tower of empty shot glasses.

Concerned that Farina’s inebriation might lead her to be indiscreet about THRUSH’s secrets, Carver orders the club’s garrulous emcee, Tiger Ed (Harvey Lembeck), to lure her to her death. Upon spotting Tiger Ed leading Farina out of the club, Illya contacts Napoleon. Nice to see Illya being concerned about the safety of women. You know who he’s not concerned about? Sandy, who is trapped with a bathrobe-clad Carver in his office, fending off his aggressive advances by throwing a vase of flowers at him.

Upon learning of Mr. Oakes’ death, Carver realizes Sandy is working for U.N.C.L.E. He captures both Sandy and Illya and ties them up in the basement, along with dozens of boxes filled with 45 LPs. Because THRUSH is a deliriously self-amusing organization, their top-secret records are stored on… records. Impractical and inconvenient, sure, but I think I approve.

Tiger Ed takes Farina to an abandoned lumber warehouse, straps her to a conveyor belt, and fires up the band saw. “Baby, you can’t do this to me,” Farina drunkenly pleads. “For one thing, it’s too hokey!” 

Napoleon arrives in time to clobber Tiger Ed unconscious and rescue Farina from being sawed in twain. In return, Farina smuggles Napoleon into the club through the back entrance. She betrays him, though, and next thing you know, Napoleon is tied up with Illya and Sandy while Carver gloats about how he’s going to burn the whole place down.

Napoleon slips his broken arm out of his cast and frees Illya and Sandy. While the basement of the club goes up in flames, Napoleon, Illya, and Sandy flee upstairs. As Mr. Waverly leads a team of agents on a raid of the club, Napoleon and Illya take Carver into custody. The mission is something less than a smash success: The THRUSH files, which Illya was assigned to retrieve, have all been destroyed in the fire. Napoleon blithely explains to Waverly that at least the records are no longer in THRUSH’s possession; Waverly, who has learned to accept what small victories he can when dealing with his charming but flagrantly inept top agents, looks weary and sad, but lets the matter drop.

Back at headquarters, Illya gears up for his next assignment. Napoleon, still officially sidelined due to his injury, can’t bear to see Illya have any fun without him, so he skips off to Prague with him in flagrant violation of Waverly’s orders. And all is right with the world.


vintagehoarder said…
Much as I love our two inept spies, I think I love the weird stuff THRUSH does nearly as well. Guns in a Vacuum repair shop! Corporate records on 45 rpm discs! Honestly, sometimes I think they should have done a spinoff series called "The Man from THRUSH".

(Since Robert Vaughn died I've been watching him in Hustle, where he basically plays... an older Napoleon Solo!)
montereysnow said…
As I recall, this is not the first time Napoleon has sat right next to Illya in a car.
I grew up in this era when most cars still had front bench seats. The only people I remember sitting right next to each other were love struck teenage couples. This was usually done to accommodate roving teenage boy hands, so to see Illya and Napoleon together like this really makes you wonder.

It must have been intentional. Surely the writers knew that guys did not sit together in cars like this.
The start of this episode, weapons-stuffed vacuum cleaners, Illya loitering in a built up area with a rocket launcher - just sounds like a dream.

This is one of those episodes I should really like but too many things make me uneasy. Tiger Ed, poor alcoholic Farina, Sandy's annoying voice, the lecherous Thrush man, and even Illya's bass playing, which I should love (I watch DMcC blithely playing an extremely complicated Bach prelude in The Outer Limits every night) but just seems incompetent. But there are things to be loved, and the cuddling up in the car is one of them. Also to be loved, in general, is that quote that floats about wherein Robert Vaughn says that in Napoleon he was essentially playing himself. That does my heart good. We've lost far too much this week. I think I would like to spend the rest of my days looking at Napoleon and Illya getting friendly in cars and David McCallum playing the piano, because even if his politics freak me way out, he is too beautiful to turn away from.

Oh, back to the episode, Napoleon wrestling his arm out of that cast and then trotting around for the rest of the episode with his hand casually stuffed in the waistband of his trousers is just wonderful. And is it this episode where Illya tongues the arm of his glasses so beautifully that I made a gif of it? Illya's bad cop routine is a sight to see. Illya in his tinted glasses is a sight to see. No wonder Napoleon likes to hang around with him so much.
I've just gone back and re-watched this episode, and there are moments of tenderness, just looks, really, between the pair of them which are just stunning to behold. Maybe I'm reading things into it, but they are such a couple. And it was this episode where Illya tongues his glasses arm so delightfully. I can forgive him almost anything as long as he's around those glasses.
Morgan Richter said…
Vintagehoarder -- Oh, Hustle is fun! It's almost like watching Vaughn play a combination of Napoleon and Mr. Waverly. And yeah, I'm a bit of a THRUSH groupie. I love their terribly improbable schemes.

montereysnow -- I think my favorite bit with Napoleon and Illya cuddling in a car would either be in Pop Art, where Illya changes his soaking-wet clothes while bantering with Napoleon, or maybe Deep Six, where Napoleon actually begins touching Illya's hair while Illya is driving. Absolutely has to be intentional.

Aconitum -- It's not an especially good episode, for all the reasons you name. But the tiny little moments with Illya and Napoleon make it mostly worthwhile.

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