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

In Greenwich Village, a villainous THRUSH agent named Buuder (Joe Mantell) harangues a struggling artist, Jay France (Kelton Garwood), who custom-designed a fabric print with a secret THRUSH code embedded in it. The print, which was supposed to be exclusive to THRUSH, popped up in a photograph in a fashion magazine on a dress worn by a model. Under duress, France admits he gave some of the fabric to a friend, a fabric cutter and aspiring designer named Jerry, who works for a struggling design company named Agnes Sue. Buuder and his henchman stab France to death with a pair of scissors, then set his studio on fire. Illya and Napoleon, who are are canvasing the neighborhood in search of France, arrive at the studio just as it explodes into flames. Always two steps behind the plot, gentlemen. You’re off to a good start.

In Mr. Waverly’s office, Illya and Napoleon examine the magazine photo and brainstorm ways to find the dress before it falls back into THRUSH’s hands. Illya flips through the accompanying article and notes that it doesn’t credit either the dress designer or the model in the photograph. “Well, that stops us cold,” Napoleon mutters. Oh, for crying out loud. Do your job, Napoleon! Call the magazine and ask them about the photo. Surely they’d have a release form on file from the model, at the very least.

Instead, Napoleon and Illya abandon the photo lead entirely, because they are worthless. Beautiful and charming, but worthless. Instead, they scrutinize the pair of scissors used to kill Jay France and notice they’re etched with the name of Agnes Sue. They head to the Agnes Sue showroom in the garment district, which turns out to be run by two nice elderly fellows (George Tobias and Ned Glass), both of whom are named Harry. Napoleon adopts a bizarre accent (…I think he thinks he’s doing a Queens mobster accent, but as a Queens resident, I can tell you it’s the weirdest damn thing I’ve ever heard) and introduces Illya and himself as fashion buyers. “Kuryakin. Is that a Japanese name?” one of the Harrys asks. Deciding to run with this bit of whimsy, Illya bows deeply and responds, “Hai.”

This is a terrible episode, of course, but I do appreciate the way it occasionally drifts into full-on madness.

Napoleon and Illya insist they’re interested in buying the dress shown in the magazine photo. The Harrys are wholly unfamiliar with the dress in question, but gamely search their racks for it anyway. Left to their own devices, Napoleon asks Illya, “Have you ever seen a blond Japanese?” Illya buries his head in his hands in mortification.

Anyway, while the Harrys search for the dress, their decadent and globe-trotting fit model, a stunning brunette named Ramona, staggers into the showroom, late and unrepentant after a weekend in the Caribbean. Ramona is played by Cher(!), who looks like a million bucks, and who brings a weird sense of dissolute glamour to this episode. Ramona heads into the back of the shop to chat with Jerry, Agnes Sue’s sweetly dim cutter, who is played by—wait for it—Sonny Bono. And because U.N.C.L.E. was obviously hell-bent on wringing every drop of Sonny & Cher-centric goodness out of this episode, “I Got You Babe” plays at a dialogue-smothering volume throughout this scene. With the THRUSH fabric given to him by Jay France, Jerry made the dress modeled by Ramona in the magazine photo. Jerry is madly in love with Ramona, who is barely aware he exists.

While Napoleon and Illya hunt in vain for the dress, Buuder and his armed henchmen burst into the shop, looking to retrieve the print. Unable to find it, they pile up all the dresses and douse them in acid. While all this goes on, Napoleon and Illya stand around and wordlessly make suggestive gestures at each other. 

Upon mutual silent agreement, Napoleon and Illya launch an attack against the THRUSH goons. It goes about as well as their usual plans, i.e. Illya ends up spraying Napoleon with caustic acid and has to let the goons escape while he rushes to attend to his injured partner.

Jerry assures the Harrys that Ramona has the dress safely in her possession. Thanks to the magazine photo, the dress is in hot demand—every major department store in New York is looking to stock it.

Hot take: From certain angles, Sonny Bono, famed genial doofus and future Republican congressman, bears a weird resemblance to national treasure Lin-Manuel Miranda, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient and known liberal firebrand.

(Lin-Manuel Miranda: “YOU TAKE THAT BACK, RICHTER!” Apologies, Lin. Once you see it, there’s no going back.)

U.N.C.L.E.’s examination of the fabric in the photo reveals Buuder’s signature. While Napoleon makes plans to visit Agnes Sue to look for the dress again, Mr. Waverly orders Illya to head over to a fabric shop owned by Buuder to investigate the new lead. Illya plans to pose as a buyer again, but Napoleon slyly convinces Waverly to order Illya to pose as a fashion designer. This earns him murderous glowers from Illya accompanied by some zany music stings on the soundtrack, so we know something wacky just happened. “You think you can do a convincing job as a fashion designer, Mr. Kuryakin?” Waverly asks Illya, who is shooting flames from his eyes. “I’m sorry I’m going to miss that one,” Napoleon purrs in satisfaction.

I mean… I probably don’t need to dissect this one for y’all in too much detail, but it’s 1967, and therefore “Illya poses as fashion designer!” is a gay joke. Not an especially hilarious one, but not one meant with much malice, either. Speed ahead to the terrible 1983 Man From U.N.C.L.E. reunion movie, in which Illya, long retired from U.N.C.L.E., has a successful new career as a fashion designer, and all of a sudden this becomes a lame throwaway joke with a pretty decent payoff, sixteen years later.

Jerry visits Ramona at her Bohemian apartment to ask for the dress back; Ramona, who can’t remember where she left it, sends him away empty-handed. “The Beat Goes On” plays loudly in the background the whole time, because someone on the creative staff was clearly very worried that not every single viewer would realize that, ZOMG!!, Sonny & Cher are guest-starring on U.N.C.L.E.

Illya disguises himself as a fashion designer, which seems to involve wearing a fancier turtleneck than usual, and visits Buuder, who recognizes him instantly. Buuder knocks him out, swaddles him in fabric, and hangs him upside down from a clothing rack. Every once in a while, a henchman gives him a whack with a stick, for no particular reason. THRUSH, man. They’re weird and unspeakably kinky.

Illya breaks free and beats the ever-loving crap out of the henchman, then calls Napoleon. Napoleon is flirting with Ramona at her apartment (“You could be the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess,” Napoleon murmurs huskily; Ramona checks her schedule and replies that she could probably pencil him in for a quickie on Sunday afternoon), which means he’s conveniently on hand when a drycleaner drops off the dress in question. Illya arrives at Ramona’s apartment to reunite with his partner. Upon meeting Illya, Ramona immediately jumps to some carefully-worded conclusions about his relationship with Napoleon (“What are you two, some kind of a team?”) and obliquely suggests a threesome. “Come back Sunday and bring your friend!” she cheerfully tells Napoleon. “There go our Sundays,” Napoleon mutters to Illya.

This episode is kind of a doozy, isn’t it? I don’t know if I like it—it’s fundamentally pretty silly and repetitive—but in many ways, not least of how it very casually raises the possibility of a Cher-Robert Vaughn-David McCallum ménage à trois, I have to respect it.

Before Illya and Napoleon can leave the apartment, they’re detained by Jerry and the Harrys, who have somehow decided U.N.C.L.E. is in league with the bad guys. The Harrys take off with the dress, leaving a shotgun-toting Jerry behind to guard Illya and Napoleon. Illya hurriedly whispers a plan to his partner.

You know, sometimes you get an episode where there’s a faint whiff of homoeroticism about the Napoleon-Illya dynamic, and then sometimes you get an episode in which the homoeroticism leaps out and clunks you over the head.

Buuder and his henchmen burst into Agnes Sue to look for the dress again, because this episode is nothing if not wildly repetitive. They torture the Harrys for a while, and then Jerry and Ramona and Illya and Napoleon show up and start throwing punches. At one point, Illya does a showy gymnastics flip over a clothing rack. “Where did you learn that?” Napoleon asks his partner, flabbergasted. The University of Georgia, Illya informs him, specifying that he means the one in  Ukraine, and while I’m not at all sure how this tallies with his previously-established degrees from the Sorbonne and Cambridge, I’m just delighted that, for once in a blue moon, the writers remembered that Illya is supposed to be a Soviet.

And it all ends with the THRUSH code safely in U.N.C.L.E. hands, with the Harrys rolling in money from the success of the dress, and with Illya and Napoleon blatantly lying to Ramona about how Jerry is an undercover spy in order to fool her into going out with him.

Really, really weird stuff. Gadzooks, season three liked drifting into random chaos. This episode is clearly no damn good, but in some ways, it’s sort of fascinating.


Hamlette said…
One of my favorite bits of the recent movie is the one where Illya suddenly busts out this weird random knowledge of women's fashion, and Solo tries helplessly to keep up only to be firmly trounced by Illya's withering, "It doesn't have to match." Knowing that he had to pose as a fashion designer in the series, and then became one per a reunion movie, makes me laugh even more over that scene now.
Morgan Richter said…
Ah, that's right, I'd forgotten about that bit in the remake! There's a long and distinguished history in UNCLE of Illya being highly involved with women's fashions.
I love this ridiculous episode in so many ways, except the creepy Sonny Bono. Cher is beautiful and so are Illya and Napoleon. Apparently David McCallum added the 'in the Ukraine' to the script. I love this episode for its unashamed 1960s feel,for all the slash hints,and for Illya's withering impatience with the phone operator. Your summary is brilliant, as always.
I love this ridiculous episode in so many ways, except the creepy Sonny Bono. Cher is beautiful and so are Illya and Napoleon. Apparently David McCallum added the 'in the Ukraine' to the script. I love this episode for its unashamed 1960s feel,for all the slash hints,and for Illya's withering impatience with the phone operator. Your summary is brilliant, as always.
I love this ridiculous episode in so many ways, except the creepy Sonny Bono. Cher is beautiful and so are Illya and Napoleon. Apparently David McCallum added the 'in the Ukraine' to the script. I love this episode for its unashamed 1960s feel,for all the slash hints,and for Illya's withering impatience with the phone operator. Your summary is brilliant, as always.
vintagehoarder said…
Illya also posed as "Kuryakin of Paris" in "The Deadly Decoy Affair", so his connection with fashion goes back to the first season.
montereysnow said…
I have read that Sonny and Cher were big U.N.C.L.E. fans and requested to be on the show. This episode is the result, adding credence to the old adage, be careful what you wish for.

Some things in this episode make me cringe, but oh yes, it is authentic 1960's, and that is great fun.

Blaring Sonny and Cher songs during the episode seems silly and out of place now, but unless you were watching the Monkees, shows didn't throw in pop songs constantly like they do now. We probably thought this was cool in 1966.

It is interesting that the characters created for Sonny and Cher in this episode are very similar to what they brought to their 1970's variety show. Cher was the beautiful, aloof one always putting down Sonny and Sonny was the scrappy little doofus.

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