Inconsistency, thy name is U.N.C.L.E. season 1! Aside from the ridiculous title (Terbuf is supposed to be a small Balkan nation, on the Adriatic Coast), this was a perfect example of the kind of episode I’ve been expecting all along, and precisely because David McCallum was allowed to play a full role this week, both in tandem with Robert Vaughn and in his own right. It made a taut, well-written story even more fun by bringing in the kind of light-hearted approach to deadly danger that I associate with my mental impression of the show.
What we have is a Police State (much of the Balkans in that era was subsumed in the now-dissolved Yugoslavia, a Communist state independent of the USSR) whose Head of Secret Police, Colonel Morisco (played by Alan Caillou with a wonderful RAF-style fluffed out moustache) is diverting very large portions of the country’s foreign aid into his own pocket. A gypsy named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) has obtained letters proving this and is trying to get out of the country with them. An attractive Amarican woman, Clara Valder (Madlyn Rhue, later to make a memorable guest appearance in Star Trek wearing skirts a damned sight shorter than she does here) is trying unsuccessfully to get Emil out of the country. Little does she know that her tall, upstanding sheep-farmer husband, Stefan (Kurt Kreuger) is not only passing every detail to Colonel Morisco, he’s in on the appropriating. But when he tries to bargain with the Colonel to hand over Emil in exchange for Clara being untouched, the Colonel gets a bit shirty – he does not like people who try to bargain with him – and sends Stefan off to torture, just like any other political prisoner, and introduces Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen) to the scheme.
We now cut to Rome, and Agents Solo and Kuryakin on leave, looking for the place that cooks the perfect veal parigan, when they find themselves being herded by gypsies, to meet with Clara Valder. Who, seven years ago, as Clara Richards, had a thing with Napoleon, in whose heart the flame is still alight. Clara wants Napoleon’s help with Emil. Ilya, with his Russian sense of pessimism, as well as his innately cynical turn of mind, adds himself to this voluntary mission, figuring that Napoleon is going to need someone who can keep his mind on the job.
It’s a wonderfully poised set-up. Napoleon arrives openly by train, met by Clara at the main railroad station, two-horse affair that it is, and introducing him to her ‘husband Stefan’ or, as she dare not give away, Major Vicek. Ilya turns up on a fishing boat, in the harbour, which will take Emil out unobtrusively with the fishing fleet, an hour after dawn tomorrow. Not much time then.
What follows is a wonderfully rambunctious affair of gaining the gypsies’ trust, uncovering the false Stefan, rescuing Clara, going before the firing squad and bashing their way out of the country against overwhelming odds. In short, a top-notch U.N.C.L.E. affair full of fun and frolics. The balance between the seriousness of the situation and the carelessness of attitude with which our Men approach it is beautifully maintained, and Madlyn Rhue spends the last third of the episode in her nightie, though with her dressing gown on over it, boo, hiss (she really was an attractive woman, who I’d never heard of before).
The episode ended on a bittersweet note that was, in itself, a moment of poignant genius. Everyone’s getting away on the fishing boat. Napoleon and Clara are handcuffed together but she is fawning over the wounded Stefan, eyes and thoughts only for him. She doesn’t know he’s a rat, nobody does, only the audience. He’s just her husband and she loves him. Ilya, spotting the sadness in Napoleon and sympathising in his reserved and unemotional manner, says they’ll get the handcuffs freed once they’re in Italy. And Robert Vaughn delivers the last line with perfect grace: “There’s no hurry,” he says, “they’re not holding anything together.”
This episode is more or less the middle of season 1. To be honest, I’ve been disappointed so far and thinking of putting the boxset on eBay once I get to the end of it. I’m not saying I won’t, but if they can manage to keep this up for the back half of the season, I’ll definitely be hanging on to it. Keep your fingers crossed for me!