Wednesday, November 07, 2007

To Trap a Spy (1966)

It's almost never shown on television, it's never been released on DVD, so it was exciting to see that yesterday TCM turned over most of its daytime programming to the cinematic versions of the classic 60s spy show The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. This film, To Trap a Spy, is actually an extended version of U.N.C.L.E.'s pilot, "The Vulcan Affair" with some additional scenes to fill out the runtime (it's also in color where the televised version was in black and white). I've never had the chance to watch U.N.C.L.E. and I've wanted to for years, so I figured better take the chance while it's available, even if it is in some sort of weirdly edited form.

It's a fun little show, and if this episode-movie is any indication, an interesting one. Obstensibly, it's a twist on the James Bond mythos, with a suave, gadget-wielding super-spy named Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, who battles the forces of the evil Thrush alongside his Russian partner Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). After a lengthy setup involving a murdered U.N.C.L.E. agent (i.e. the stuff that was almost certainly shot to pad the show to feature film length), Thrush agents storm the offices of U.N.C.L.E. looking to kill the station chief. They fail, but only temporarily — actor Will Kuluva was soon replaced in the role by Leo G. Carroll for the remainder of the series because, according to legend, an exec demanded they can "that K guy" and thought they meant Kuluva when, in fact, they were referring to the Kuryakin character. Whoopsie!

Given the stupidity of the Thrush agents' mission — five dudes against an entire building of spies — it's not surprising when they're defeated, but they do pull off at least one totally awesome visual, stumbling on Solo and revealing him for the first time in the film (and, presumably, in the series as well) by shooting at him and cracking the bulletproof glass in front of him. Awesome.

From there, the story takes an odd turn. Solo moves to the background so that a random homemaker (Pat Crowley) who once had a relationship with industrialist and Thrush agent Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver) can infiltrate his organization via some Notorious-lite canoodling. Crowley's character and her plight — being plucked from 1960s domestic bliss (i.e. picking up her kids crap and getting ignored by her husband) and having to come to grips with the glamour and romance of international intrigue — is an odd blend of proto-feminist empowerment messages (Crowley's character does, in effect, save the world) and shameless sexism. And, of course, all the other female characters are sexpots — Solo's Moneypenny equivalent literally talks to him over the radio while she's sunbathing in her office in a bikini! That's right ladies you can be anything you want to be, as long as you strip down and oil up beforehand!

It it was it is; a blowup of a decent but not great tv show, with a very likable lead performance from Vaughn and a lot of fun '60s flavor. The titles of these movies are great too; others include The Spy With My Face and The Karate Killers. Time to watch some more.


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