The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: “The King of Knaves Affair”

Napoleon and Illya hang out in a parked car and watch covertly as a power plant official named Bardington meets with Angel Galley (Jan Merlin), a racketeer who offers him ten thousand dollars in exchange for uranium. Bardington refuses the offer, whereupon Angel whips out a knife and stabs him to death. Napoleon chases after Angel, who is seized by a gaggle of armed men. Napoleon watches as Angel is forced into a car, then notices a blond man keeping a close eye on him.

Back at headquarters, Illya and Napoleon compare notes: A mysterious party has been repeatedly attempting to purchase uranium; fearing a possible nuclear threat, U.N.C.L.E. has been trying to uncover the source of the request. Illya fumes about letting Bardington, their best lead, get murdered in front of them: “We couldn’t look more foolish!” Aw, Illya, baby, don’t worry. As this series progresses, you’ll get used to looking foolish. Apart from being shot in black-and-white, this is a surefire way to tell this episode is from the first season: Illya actually cares when he and Napoleon muck up an assignment.

Here’s another way to tell: Illya’s accent is much thicker, and he’s more adorably enigmatic than in later episodes. The first-season version of Illya is a treasure.

While eavesdropping on the exchange between Angel and Bardington, Napoleon happens to overhear some passing reference to Rome. Seeing as Mr. Waverly is out of the country on another assignment, Napoleon decides he and Illya should jet off to Italy to drink cocktails in a fancy nightclub while looking dashing in tuxedos. If their schedule permits, maybe they’ll investigate the case a little. I have no problem with this plan.

Napoleon and Illya meet with Gemma Lusso (Arlene Martel), a slinky yet competent agent, and Carlo Venerdi (Gregory Morton), the head of U.N.C.L.E.’s office in Rome. Carlo suggests Illya and Napoleon begin their investigation at Casa Trufarre, a swanky nightclub where all of Rome’s most notorious criminals are known to hang out. He assigns them cover identities: “Mr. Solo will have the identity of Buddington Smith of Meadowlark Falls, Idaho, United States, who disappeared at sea last August while attempting to smuggle small arms and ammunition into Southern Rhodesia. Mr. Kuryakin will become Huegel Strickland, PhD, of Bad Gastein, Austria, a researcher in particle physics whose brilliant career was cut short by a radiation accident, which, because of the top-secret nature of his work, has never been made public.”

Wow. These are the most detailed covers Illya and Napoleon will ever have in the history of this series. In later seasons, their covers will become increasingly half-assed—most of the time Napoleon will go undercover as Napoleon Solo, dashing U.N.C.L.E. agent, while Illya will do something weird like, oh, I don’t know, donning a fur suit and pretending to be the Abominable Snowman—so it’s refreshing to see this rare foray into professionalism in counterintelligence.

So Napoleon dusts off his best tuxedo and, in the guise of Buddington Smith, heads for Casa Trufarre, where he feigns drunken buffoonery and hits the dance floor to boogie with a foxy belly dancer. The belly dancer is actually an U.N.C.L.E. receptionist on an undercover assignment, because apparently the European branch of U.N.C.L.E. is less retrograde about letting female agents go out in the field than the North American branch.

Illya arrives shortly thereafter, disguised as brilliant particle physicist Huegel Strickland, PhD, with Gemma posing as his wife. The surrounding tables are all occupied by notorious criminals; the club’s proprietor is Fasik el Pasad (Paul Stevens), the recently-deposed ruler of an unidentified Middle Eastern country. The only unknown guest is a pretty young woman (Diana Millay) who sits at a table all by herself, waiting for a dinner date who never arrives. Illya and Napoleon start talking loudly about uranium, which attracts the attention of several clubgoers, including the young woman.

Napoleon spots the young man who was lurking around the premises when Angel Galley was kidnapped in the opening sequence. Gemma recognizes him on sight as a notorious criminal: “His name is Bobo Barrett. There is no subtlety about him,” she says solemnly. No, I imagine not. When your name is Bobo Barrett, subtlety sort of goes out the window. Upon spotting Napoleon, Bobo hastily leaves the club.

Later, as Napoleon sleeps, the pretty young woman climbs into his hotel room from his balcony, pulls a gun on him, and demands to know where she can find Angel Galley. Napoleon wrestles her gun away, whereupon she dissolves into hysterical sobs. A search of her purse reveals her identity: She’s Ernestine Pepper, a notary public from New Jersey, who is looking to get an affidavit from Angel Galley affirming that his signature on a contested will is valid. Napoleon slips a listening device in Ernestine’s purse and sends her on her way.

Ernestine is pretty much the worst. After a promising start—I can’t hate any woman who holds a pajama-clad Napoleon at gunpoint while snarling, “Mama will shoot!”—she’ll spend the rest of the episode sobbing, dithering, and messing up Napoleon’s assignment. If this episode didn’t also feature the practical and resourceful Gemma, I’d be awfully ticked about its portrayal of women as flighty nitwits.

Following Ernestine’s example, an unnamed goon tries to break into Napoleon’s hotel room. He’s stopped by Illya, who scuffles with him for a while before dropping him off the balcony. Illya saunters into Napoleon’s room, where Napoleon is comparing notes on the assignment with Gemma, then calmly announces that he just dropped some random dude to his death before sauntering out. Because Illya used to drift through the first season like an enigmatic and unpredictable breeze, this is the last we’ll see of him until the closing moments of the episode.

Napoleon trails Ernestine around for a while, then gets himself kidnapped by a bunch of goons, who take him to an old prison owned by Fasik el Pasad, who has been recruiting ne’er-do-wells to form an army to invade his former country. Believing that Napoleon is noted arms dealer Buddington, Fasik reveals his plan: He wants Napoleon to flood the market in his former country with sabotaged weapons, which will hinder attempts to mount a resistance when Fasik invades.

Oh, the attempted uranium deal from the opening sequence? It’s a red herring. Fasik has no interest in developing nuclear weapons—he’s just been searching for criminals ruthless and mercenary enough to willingly hand uranium over to a hostile foreign power in exchange for cash. Fasik’s plan is surprisingly intricate, really. I’m not at all sure it’s a good plan, but points for complexity.

While Fasik tries to confirm Napoleon’s identity, he tosses him in a prison cell with a surly Angel Galley, who, like Napoleon, has been kidnapped by Fasik’s goons and forced to join his army. Napoleon tries to chat with Angel, but Angel is having none of it: “Look, in two minutes, we’ve got a terror tactics drill, and a multiple-choice test on court etiquette. So be quiet!”

Then there’s a homoerotic shirtless fighting sequence (possibly the aforementioned “terror tactics drill”), as Fasik tries to decide whether Napoleon is worthy of serving in his army.

Finally convinced of Napoleon’s bona fides, Fasik gives him a snazzy uniform and asks for one final display of loyalty: Kill Ernestine Pepper, whom Fasik’s goons have kidnapped.

Instead, Napoleon grabs Ernestine and makes a break for it. He urges Ernestine to head back to the hotel and find Illya, then poses a distraction by climbing up into the rafters and posing in a fetching manner, where he’s recaptured by Fasik’s goons.

Before Fasik can kill Napoleon, Illya invades the prison, accompanied by Ernestine, Gemma, and a slew of U.N.C.L.E. agents. Fasik is overthrown, and Ernestine finally gets the damn affidavit signed by Angel Galley, whom she appears to be sort of dating even though he’s a murderer, because Ernestine is the worst. Napoleon flirts with Ernestine for a while, and then he flirts with Gemma for a while, and then he exchanges some sparkling banter with Illya.

Not a standout episode—holy hell, the plot bogs down when Fasik starts explaining his labyrinthine plan in waaaaaaay too much detail—but I’m happy any time Napoleon and Illya don tuxes and swill champagne at fancy nightclubs.


DKoren said…
Hah! This is the only UNCLE episode I've seen (prior to your reviews) because my beloved nobody's-heard-of-him Fletcher Fist plays a guard in this ep. I seem to recall very little of the plot, but that viewing was quite a few ago now. I do love Arlene Martel, and Jan Merlin is always amusing!
Clem Robins said…
i can still remember watching this when it first aired, and wondering how it could be that Napoleon Solo lost the wrestling match.
This is another scrappy episode that I find it hard to bother with, perhaps because Illya disappears halfway through. Yes, Ernestine is dreadful, but for some reason I find Arlene Martel unpalatable too. I usually think she's great. But Illya as a grumpy German PhD with a mysterious radiation injury is gold.
Morgan Richter said…
Jan Merlin is fun. I'd forgotten many of the details of this one when I went to rewatch it last week with an eye toward recapping it, and for the first half, I was really excited -- I thought this was an overlooked gem! And then the second half peters out into long speeches and an overly convoluted plot, and it really doesn't help that Illya vanishes for such a long stretch. But the scene in the nightclub, with Napoleon feigning drunken buffoonery and Illya posing as the scientist... that whole sequence is golden.
vintagehoarder said…
This episode is worth watching, if only for Napoleon’s scene on the dance floor! And I really appreciate all the trouble Napoleon and Illya took to create their covers. In later seasons they would just breeze into THRUSH facilities, introduce themselves by name, and hope they didn't chance upon one of those THRUSH agents who carried around their photographs in their wallet!
M'lady said…
Someone should put napoleon dancing on a loop and add some funky music. It's both amusing and hypnotic.
It's a shame there's so little of illya.
Also someone give that Gemma a promotion, finally a competent uncle agent.

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