A Cold War refugee
Although we are now accustomed to carrying around record collections and multiplexes in our pockets, to my ancient mind there is still something pleasantly improbable about the thought that all 105 episodes of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” have been put onto DVD and packaged in a single cardboard “attache case” roughly the size of a complete volume of Shakespeare. (I will dare no other comparisons between the two.) That a laser beam is at the heart of the technology that has made this possible is also suitably science-fiction, and poetically appropriate, regarded with a mind that can still thrill at the words “laser beam.” Laser beam! Oh!
Unto each generation heroes are born, and in the High Cold War days of my youth, the spy was king (succeeding cowboys and “army men” in the aggressive playtime imagination). With the fate of the world again being decided by invisible armies, it is no surprise we are seeing a slight return of the secret agent. “Chuck” and “Burn Notice,” especially, are in the “U.N.C.L.E.” tradition: They are made to convert geopolitical anxiety into plain fun.
I can’t exactly say that I’m a kid again, watching these shows after many years -- the NBC series ran from September 1964 to January 1968 -- since as a kid I went entirely, unquestioningly into their reality, whereas now I can’t help viewing the whole thing with amused, ironic detachment. To say the show is quaintly dated in nearly all its particulars is not to say it is no longer entertaining. Indeed, I love it as much for what makes it silly -- the visible effects of its budgetary constraints, the way that everything is labeled as exactly what it is (Private Airfield, Central Control, Explosives), its risible political incorrectness -- as for what made it actually good (cartoon energy, the wit of its lead performances). And is not “amused, ironic detachment” the very essence of the character of the modern filmic secret agent? Really, the whole world could use a lot more of that.
I find these shows effortless fun to rewatch -- although I am surprised at how poorly I can recall any specific episode, given the deep imprint of the characters and their milieu upon my imagination. The Brylcreemed suavity of Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), the slightly ascetic cool of mop-topped Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), the donnish dry wit of their boss, Mr. Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), and their shared repertoire of raised eyebrows and deadpan shrugs. The gray corridors of the “U.N.C.L.E.” HQ, with their endless successions of sliding doors -- not a single hinge to be found in the whole of that place. The tin-can technology that 40 years ago passed for wondrous, most famously the communicator pen (originally a cigarette pack) that opens Channel D, a secret device that announces incoming calls with the gusto of a car alarm. (“Vibrate” had yet to be invented.)
I have to wonder if this could elicit a glimmer of interest from a contemporary tot, weaned on CGI effects and the three-second edit and who may carry on his own person a small device capable of worldwide communication, along with a host of other cute tricks the “U.N.C.L.E.” engineers were born too early to even consider.
Executive producer Norman Felton reportedly had Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” in mind when he began to think about a series about spies. But James Bond is, of course, the nearer and more obvious influence; Ian Fleming was in fact briefly involved in the show’s creation -- though all that he seems to have contributed, finally, is the name Napoleon Solo. More important was Fleming’s perception that the Cold War could be made glamorous, could provide a productive context for sexy adventures garnished with games of chemin de fer and fast cars and martinis shaken, not stirred.
With an American and a Russian agent working together for the good of all nations, the series can conceivably be seen as a bold, idealistic repudiation of Cold War politics. (U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, and the U.N. building is often seen in the much-repeated establishing shot of New York.) The villains are not ideologues but old-school world-domination types, on the Alexandrian/Cesarean model. The heroes serve a Wilsonian vision of respectful cooperation between sovereign bodies.
And yet, arriving at a moment of great cultural change, when every sort of social assumption would be loudly challenged, “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was a thing of the past almost in its own time -- you can feel almost the world pulling away from it. It is clueless about youth culture, parochial as regards the Third World, Neanderthal about women. (The strongest female characters are all enemy agents.) Even as Vietnam was heating up, the series inhabited a world that, owing in no small part to its being shot largely on the back lot of MGM, seemed to have more to do with the B pictures of the 1930s and ‘40s than any present realities.
Among “U.N.C.L.E.” aficionados and alumni, the first two seasons are generally accounted best, the third is seen as a camp-inspired descent into jokiness and hokiness, and the abbreviated fourth an unsuccessful attempt to get “serious” again. (The third-season “My Friend the Gorilla Affair,” which finds Napoleon Solo doing the Watusi with a female Tarzan and a gorilla, is indeed some sort of low point.) At the same time, it’s possible to argue that the show was always basically preposterous and what undid it in the end was a failure to recognize that a degree of silliness was essential to its charm; Season 4 has its points, but it is overall pokey and grim. Comedy and suspense are not mutually exclusive, after all.
And if you can’t have fun saving the world every week, I mean, what fun can you have?