In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and in anticipation of the forthcoming big screen version of the classic television series, Cinema Retro will be offering periodic reviews of individual episodes of the show, which aired between September 1964 and January 1968. The episodes will be chosen at random and not presented in any specific order, thus offering analysis of telecasts from the four seasons. Reviews will be written by U.N.C.L.E. scholars and long-time devotees of the series.
By Lee Pfeiffer
"The Virtue Affair"
Air date: December 3, 1965
Director: Jud Taylor
Writer: Henry Slaser
Although most U.N.C.L.E fans tend to favor the series' premiere season (when it was telecast in B&W), I've always been partial to the second season, which began in September 1965. That's when I first experienced the show, through a ringing endorsement of my older brother, who said, "It's like a TV version of James Bond." For a nine year old boy who was enjoying the 007-inspired spy craze of the mid-1960s, that was all I had to hear. I quickly became hooked on the show and my enthusiasm for it has never diminished, although I hereby admit that my expertise relating to the series is not nearly on par with some of the writers who will be contributing reviews to future columns.
"The Virtue Affair" is a strong episode from the second season; one that fully illustrates the show's penchant for mixing thrills and humor. This time around, Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) are dispatched to France by U.N.C.L.E. chief Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) to thwart some goings-on involving the development of a secret missile system. The episode begins with Solo and Illya spotting a missile launch device being smuggled through the countryside by some mystery men. They follow the van in hopes of locating the ultimate destination for the device but they are, in essence, carjacked by a desperate old man who forces them at gunpoint to rescue him from some pursuers on motorbikes. The man turns out to be Raoul Dubois (Marcel Hillaire), one of the world's most acknowledged experts in missile guidance technology. He has Solo and Illya take him to the home of his daughter Albert (named after Einstein), who- in true U.N.C.L.E. style- turns out to be a stunning beauty played by Marla Powers. Turns out that Albert is also a recognized expert in her father's field of engineering. Raoul tells the agents that he had been duped into joining a missile technology program thinking it was being run by the French government. He found out too late that it was a private venture with nefarious purposes and that he and other engineers were being held captive and forced to develop the system that will allow a deadly missile to be launched. Before he can identify the mastermind behind the plan, two motorcycles crash through the living room door and their riders succeed in assassinating Raoul in front of the hapless Solo and Illya. (A refreshing aspect of the series is the occasionally inability of its protagonists to avoid making costly mistakes.) Waverly informs the men that the likely evil genius they are seeking is a man named Jacques Robespierre (Ronald Long), a rich eccentric who claims lineage to the legendary madman of the French Revolution. Waverly explains that Robespierre is a walking paradox: a committed pacifist who is eager to bring back an era of social graces even if he has to engage in genocide to do so. He once ran for the presidency of France on a platform of outlawing the sale of wine. Not surprisingly, Waverly says, he only garnered 84 votes in a nation that is fanatical in its love of the grape. Waverly suspects that Robespierre intends to achieve through violence what he could not achieve at the ballot box: a takeover of the French government and the establishment of an arch conservative regime that will use violence to enforce Robespierre's peculiar code of morality.
Solo and Albert arrange to get invitations to Robespierre's mansion but he sees through them immediately and they are imprisoned. Albert is given a choice: reveal the code that will enable the launch of a missile that will destroy the vineyard regions of France or witness Solo's execution. She relents and Robespierre keeps his word to spare their lives, although Solo ends up in a jail cell. Meanwhile, Illya gains access to the Robespierre estate grounds by posing as a hunter with a proficient use of a bow and arrow. (Actually an electronically enhanced bow and arrow system that ensures he gets a bullseye every time.) He has a chance encounter with a real expert bow and arrow hunter, Karl Vogler (Frank Marth, who played many secondary roles on the "classic 39" episodes of "The Honeymooners"). A highlight of the episode is the sporting competition between Vogler and Illya in which both men try to top each other in terms of marksmanship, though Illya is clearly cheating with his U.N.C.L.E.-enhanced arrow device. Vogler also recognizes Illya as an enemy agent (the villains in this episode are unusually efficient) and before long he becomes the stalked prey in a version of "The Most Dangerous Game", as Vogler and his fellow hunters track him through the woods. Illya, who is handcuffed behind his back, has only his wits and natural instincts to avoid what appears to be certain death. Once freed from his pursuers, Illya ends up at Robespierre's castle and gets possession of the guidance system just moments before it is to be utilized to launch the missile. In the most amusing sequence in the episode, he is mistaken for a famed engineer and is forced to give a lecture to real engineers about the workings of the system. It's genuinely amusing to see David McCallum get a rare chance to show off his comedic abilities, as he uses double talk to get the engineers to answer their own questions. Nevertheless, he is inevitably exposed as a fraud and is sentenced to Robespierre's idea of traditional justice: death by guillotine.
"The Virtue Affair" boasts some of the wittiest repartee between Solo and Illya, with both men making jokes at the other's expense, all thanks to the fine script by Henry Slesar. Ronald Long makes for one of the more memorable villains, an amusing Burl Ives-type who defends chivalry with a passion but thinks nothing of overseeing the senseless slaughter of thousands of innocent people. The episode is very ably directed by Jud Taylor, who sadly would not contribute to any more of the shows over the length of its run, and Robert Drasnin's score is particular effective. Unlike "I Spy", which filmed around the world, all of U.N.C.L.E.'s exotic locations consisted of stock footage- but that only adds to a retro TV lover's affection for the series.
EPISODE RATING: ***1/2 (out of four).
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