Warner Bros. // 1964 // 5620 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // November 3rd, 2008
"Open Channel D, overseas relay..."
NBC's The Man From U.N.C.L.E., an espionage show created by television veterans Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe (with early, mostly unused input from James Bond creator Ian Fleming), made its debut in the fall of 1964. Capitalizing on the popularity of then-recent Bond films Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the show became a huge hit for the network, making stars of its leading men Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven) and David McCallum (N.C.I.S.). Running just four years but yielding 105 episodes, U.N.C.L.E. combined the charm of its leads with ample amounts of tongue-in-cheek humor and Cold War-era intrigue to produce a unique and highly entertaining T.V. series. Available only online from Time Life previously, this colossal 41-disc set was recently given a wide release.
The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) is an international organization dedicated to fighting crime in all guises, particularly in the form of T.H.R.U.S.H. (While never revealed on the show, this stood for Technical Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity), also an international organization but, unlike U.N.C.L.E., dedicated solely to spreading evil and tyranny. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. follows two of U.N.C.L.E.'s top operatives, American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Russian Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum), as they work, under the direction of Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll, Strangers on a Train), to foil the schemes of T.H.R.U.S.H. and other criminals.
One of the perennial problems with the James Bond film franchise is that the series' tone has vacillated so wildly over the years, from the more serious-minded early entries (such as Dr. No and From Russia With Love) and the nearly unremitting silliness of much of the Roger Moore years, to the slight stabilization that came with the Timothy Dalton films and Pierce Brosnan's GoldenEye, to the downward spiral of Brosnan's successive entries, culminating with Daniel Craig's ship-righting Casino Royale. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is a good example of a piece of entertainment that was successful because it balanced drama and comedy very well-but when that balance was lost, as happened with U.N.C.L.E., the art very clearly suffered.
During its first two seasons (especially the first), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. accomplishes a rare thing: It is spy-themed entertainment that is neither too self-serious nor overly silly. While the characters do toss off pithy remarks and land scores after scores of beautiful women, they are placed in situations that very seriously place their lives in danger, and even though the fate of the show's two central characters is never really in question, there is still a sense of risk present in these episodes. The men from U.N.C.L.E. carry guns and use them. People die on episodes of the show, and not just T.H.R.U.S.H. henchmen either. And by including the "innocent"; ie, the civilian (frequently an attractive woman) who gets caught up in the events of each episode, the showrunners give the audience a point of entry into the world of the show.
Yet even with the danger and death, it's clear that the showrunners were careful that U.N.C.L.E. never took itself too seriously. Season one's "The Deadly Games" affair has Solo playfully bantering with a beautiful T.H.R.U.S.H. agent. However, even this early in the series, things could get a little out of hand; in "The Bow Wow Affair" (the title should say it all), it's up to Kuryakin to bring down a band of stock-grubbing Gypsies who train dogs to attack their enemies. Still, season one is highly enjoyable, 1960s spy entertainment; the series' first episode, "The Vulcan Affair," is a prime example of the overall quality of this season, as is "The Dove Affair," written by Chinatown scribe Robert Towne and featuring a strong guest turn from Ricardo Montalban.
As the show's popularity increased, however, the tonal scales began to tip toward silliness, as season two's opener "The Alexander the Greater Affair" handily demonstrates. (This affair will be discussed in greater detail in the bonus features portion of this review.) Even when things seem like they might get more serious, as in "The Adriatic Express Affair," where Solo and Kuryakin try to prevent a chemical from falling into the hands of T.H.R.U.S.H., the tone sometimes borders on the farcical; a running joke involves an American woman perpetually stumbling on corpses while aboard the titular train. A bit disturbingly, one of the corpses is a man Solo and Kuryakin were trying to protect.
Still, season two continued to increase Kuryakin's presence in the show's storylines, as it was by this point readily apparent that McCallum was a breakout star. For his part, McCallum didn't use this newfound spotlight to oversell his character; his Kuryakin is just as humorous and mysterious as the character was in the previous season (even if the situations he and his co-star were being placed in were becoming increasingly absurd). And season two also contains one of my favorite episodes: "The Foxes and Hounds Affair," featuring a delightful guest appearance from Vincent Price as a T.H.R.U.S.H. operative. The actual plot is kind of hokey (something about a mind-reading machine), but, as with many other episodes of this series, the guest stars really help elevate the quality of the show. Another notable episode is "The Discotheque Affair," which has Kuryakin going undercover as an ultra-hip bass player (dig those shades and turtleneck!).
Then came season three. This season is more or less universally acknowledged as the period in the show's run where the tonal balance teetered undeniably into the silly and over-the-top. I could go on and on about the problems with season three, but I'll use just one episode as an example of how drastically the show changed for the worse. In "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair," in which a deranged professor is using a serum to create an army of superhumans in Africa, through a series of contrivances too absurd to explain, Solo ends up dancing with a gorilla (actually a man in a gorilla suit). Even Vaughn, on one of the supplements included here, singles out this episode as the series' nadir. (Well, it wasn't all bad; the Harlan Ellison-penned "The Pieces of Fate Affair" is actually pretty good, even if it includes the absurdly named T.H.R.U.S.H. chief Ellipsis Zark.)
The truncated season four seems like an attempt to right the ship, and indeed, "The Summit-Five Affair," the season's opener, actually plays as if it could have aired during the first or second seasons. Other episodes, such as "The Master's Touch Affair" and "The Deep Six Affair," are similarly much more grounded in (relative) reality. The first involves a T.H.R.U.S.H. bigwig named Pharos Mandor (played by Hawaii Five-O's Jack Lord, of all people) who tells U.N.C.L.E. he intends to defect-but not before he settles some old scores. With the latter episode, a British U.N.C.L.E. agent is blackmailed into giving plans for a new submarine to T.H.R.U.S.H. But while the element of danger returns with these episodes and the tonal balance is clearly much more even, the backpedaling wasn't enough to save the show (and the competing spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. probably didn't help), making the fourth season the last of the series.
However, despite the show's unfortunate tonal detour in season three, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is still a fine example of great 1960s television. The technical aspects and production values of the show are superb throughout its run, and these, combined with creative use of the MGM lot (and areas near the studio), give the show a cinematic quality.
Perhaps the biggest keys to the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., however, were its two stars. Simply put, Robert Vaughn and David McCallum made a great team, and it is the personalities of their characters-whether they're appearing together or separate during an episode-that really make the show compelling. Vaughn's Solo is the quintessential suave spy: always impeccably dressed, always ready with a quip or compliment (the latter reserved for the many beautiful women who appeared on the show), always ready with a solution during a jam. With McCallum's Kuryakin, we get a more mysterious but every bit as capable operative. The writers give Kuryakin a wry, deadpan sense of humor, to the point that oftentimes it's hard to predict what he's going to say in a given situation. And while both actors clearly understand the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings, McCallum gives Kuryakin a subtly mischievous smile that sells this self-awareness really well.
I would be remiss, however, in not also noting the contribution of Leo G. Carroll as Mr. Waverly, who, as Vaughn rightly asserts in the supplements, brings real class to the show (although Vaughn is pretty classy on it himself). His perpetual seriousness (although he gets his own little moments of levity now and again) helps keep the show grounded, and Mr. Waverly ultimately becomes a key steadying presence of U.N.C.L.E..
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series is presented in four large plastic cases that fit into a rather fragile gray cardboard briefcase. The four cases each contain a season; seasons one, two and three each span 11 discs, whereas season four is housed on six discs. Season one contains 29 episodes, seasons two and three contain 30 episodes each and season four contains 16 episodes. Separate sleeves are included for the two bonus discs included in the set. Episodes are generally apportioned three to a disc. With each season, a disc of supplemental content is also included, as well as a booklet containing a message from Vaughn and McCallum (the same note is used for all four sets) and an essay about the corresponding season.
In terms of technical quality, these episodes aren't perfect, but they're really quite good. Some of the episode transfers look better than others, but all in all, Warner Home Video really deserves praise appearance of these shows. The first season was shot in black and white, and these transfers are certainly on par with the color ones for the remaining three seasons. In terms of sound, the mono tracks on these episodes are more than adequate. While obviously not as full-bodied as Dolby 5.1 tracks may have been, the mono nevertheless conveys the dialogue, wide array of sound effects and copious amounts of music well.
Where Warner Home Video has truly outdone itself with this set is in the extras. The amount of supplemental material assembled for this set is mind-boggling, with a staggering array of featurettes, interviews, vintage footage and much, much more. Warner Home Video was also able to get quite a few people involved with the show to participate in these extras; Vaughn and McCallum figure prominently in this set, as do frequent show directors Joseph Sargent and Richard Donner, writer Dean Hargrove, assistant producer George Lehr and many more.
Season One Special Features
The Cloak and Swagger Affair: The Untold History of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (28:05)-This featurette discusses the origins of U.N.C.L.E. from its conception (including lots of details regarding Ian Fleming's involvement) to casting and production of the series itself. While this doesn't cover the series' later years (particularly the third season), it nevertheless offers an interesting and concise look at the creation of the show.
"Solo"-The Original Color Pilot (1:10:06) As the title implies, this was the original pilot episode for what would ultimately be called The Man From U.N.C.L.E.. This is basically a longer, color version of "The Vulcan Affair," which was U.N.C.L.E.'s first episode. Beyond some additional footage during the opening scenes, as well as the casting of Will Kuluva as the U.N.C.L.E. chief (he was replaced by Carroll for "The Vulcan Affair"), I didn't catch that many differences between the two.
U.N.C.L.E. V.I.P.S.: A Celebration of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Guest Stars (9:48)-This featurette includes clips featuring various guest star appearances from season one of the show, as well as interviews from people involved with the show offering their own reflections on different actors' appearances on U.N.C.L.E.. Throughout its run, the show attracted a considerable number of guest stars; examples from season one include Ricardo Montalban, Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner (who both appear in "The Project Strigas Affair"), James Doohan, June Lockhart, Kurt Russell, Barbara Feldon, Sharon Tate and many others. This featurette is also included on the bonus discs for the other three seasons.
Season Two Special Features
The Spy-Fi Tour: Archives, Art and Artifacts featurette (23:26)-Spy pop culture expert Danny Biederman shows off his extensive collection of U.N.C.L.E. materials, including weapons, clothing and communication devices. All of the items he shows are on display at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, CA. Biederman unquestionably knows his stuff when it comes to these items, and it's neat watching him discuss their background and history.
Feature film One Spy Too Many (1:41:25)-This was released theatrically in the U.S. in 1966, but is actually the two-parter "The Alexander the Greater Affair" which opened season two, albeit with some extra content. The plot concerns a businessman named, you guessed it, Alexander (played by a very young and somewhat dull Rip Torn), who sees himself as a modern day version of the conqueror with whom he shares his name. Naturally, Solo and Kuryakin are called in to foil his nefarious plans, but the one thing neither Alexander nor the U.N.C.L.E. agents count on is the persistence of Tracey Alexander (Dorothy Provine), Alexander's wife, who wants a divorce (along with the inheritance she poured into the marriage). Mrs. Alexander begins tagging along with Solo and Kuryakin to get at her husband (hence the title). While entertaining in spots, the plot of this one is pretty weak, and its corniness (Mrs. Alexander's antics, an attempted mummification of Kuryakin) is an ominous portent of the all-pervasive camp that would permeate the show by season three. Its datedness does make for some good unintentional humor; early in the film, an American general remarks, "Biological and chemical warfare's been getting a bloody nose in the world press. But I think we're gonna change all that."
U.N.C.L.E. V.I.P.S. (6:12): Again, the only difference between this one and its predecessor on season one are the clips of who are featured; in season two, you get Vincent Price, Montalban again, Norman Fell, Martin Landau and more.
Season Three Special Features
Double Agents: The David McCallum and Robert Vaughn Reunion (1:17:41)-This extensive bonus feature is an interview with the show's two stars. While some of this material is included in other featurettes in the set, it's nice to have a single, standalone segment with just the two of them reminiscing. The actors both clearly have warm memories of their time on U.N.C.L.E., and it's great to listen to them tell stories and joke with one another. On the whole, Vaughn is more talkative than McCallum, and the questions get a bit dopey by the end ("Have the famous U.N.C.L.E. scores changed your taste in music?"), but overall, this is one of my favorite extras on this set.
The Secret Tapes of Illya Kuryakin: Home Movies from the set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (16:59)-This featurette consists of 8mm footage shot by David McCallum during the production of U.N.C.L.E. episodes. The footage is silent, but fortunately, McCallum was called in to provide commentary, and it's wonderful listening to him revisit the people and places he filmed decades ago, whether it's his wife Katherine Carpenter, people on the set or the MGM lot. I don't know how much replay value this extra has, but it's certainly worth watching once.
U.N.C.L.E. V.I.P.S. (6:14)-Sonny and Cher, Joan Collins, Jack Palance, Janet Leigh, Joan Crawford, Nancy Sinatra, Jill Ireland (who also appeared in seasons one and two) and Telly Savalas are among the guest stars found in season three.
Season Four Special Features
MGM's Secret Operations (28:03)-This featurette focuses on the making of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. from a technical standpoint, and includes interviews with Vaughn, McCallum, cinematographer Fred Koenekamp, directors Joseph Sargent and Richard Donner, among others. U.N.C.L.E. contained more sophisticated filmmaking than was customary for television of the day (exemplified in the variety of angles, lighting and camera movement on the show), so it's nice to have a featurette that focuses solely on that aspect of the show.
U.N.C.L.E. V.I.P.S. -- On season four you'll find Eleanor Parker, Julie London, Barry Sullivan, Lloyd Bochner and Darren McGavin, among other notables.
Bonus Disc One
"Cold War, Hot Spies: U.N.C.L.E. and the Cold War" (21:33)-This featurette, which contains interviews with many of the individuals who appear on other supplements throughout the set (the stars, Joseph Sargent, Richard Donner, George Lehr and various academics and experts), focuses on the socio-political climate of America during U.N.C.L.E.'s time on the air. The main point conveyed by this bonus is that with U.N.C.L.E., the showrunners generally sought to make light of the world people were living in during that time, with the exception of Vietnam, a subject which was strictly avoided.
"Guns, Gadgets, Gizmos and Garb" (19:20)-As the title indicates, this featurette focuses on the various props and devices created for use on U.N.C.L.E.. It's particularly interesting to learn about how popular the signature modifiable U.N.C.L.E. gun (a modified Walther pistol) was during the show's run; it even received fan mail!
"Behind the Wheel: U.N.C.L.E.'s Piranha" (17:29)-This featurette covers the sleek, gull-wing door car that Solo and Kuryakin drive in episodes of the show. For this extra, Gene Winfield, the designer of the car, and Robert Short, the man who currently owns it, are both interviewed. They provide a very thorough tour of the car and its various bells and whistles, and also tell some amusing anecdotes about it, the best being Short's lament about not being able to take the car out for drives because police officers, wanting to get a closer look at the U.N.C.L.E. car, would pull it over. (This was some years ago, however; one would think he'd be able to take it out for a spin or two now.)
"Fandemonium" (25:10)-This featurette deals with the fan reaction to the show. It's mainly worth watching for hearing Vaughn and McCallum reminisce about their encounters with adoring (and mostly female) fans.
"The Music from U.N.C.L.E." (23:33)-For my money one of the most interesting extras in this set, this featurette has journalist and music historian Jon Burlingame offering a detailed explanation of the iconic music on the show and how it evolved over the years. It's particularly fascinating to hear him discuss how the show's theme song changed from season to season in keeping with the different changes of tone the show experienced.
"The Girls From U.N.C.L.E." (6:11)-More or less a throwaway, this is a short reel showing the many lovely women who graced U.N.C.L.E. with their presence during its run. This would have been better if Warner Home Video had got some of these women to sit down for brief interviews about their experience on the show.
Promos and Trailers (7:51)-This is a collection of short T.V. spots for the show and four trailers for the films of To Trap a Spy, The Spy With My Face, One Spy Too Many and One of Our Spies is Missing. The image and sound quality, particularly on the T.V. spots, isn't the best, and while they might be interesting to watch once, this is one of the few extras on this set for which I don't see much replay value.
"Official Debriefing: Dean Hargrove, Writer" (27:10)-This is a sit-down with veteran T.V. writer Hargrove, who penned 11 episodes for the show. While occasionally prone to technical glitches (the image takes on different tints, and background noise can be heard sometimes), this is a largely engaging interview. Hargrove is full of insights about working with Felton and Rolfe, and also paints a clear picture about what working in television was like in the 1960s.
"Official Debriefing: David McCallum, Illya Kuryakin" (21:33)-This is a separate interview with McCallum. While this session doesn't add that much more that wasn't already covered by the actor during his joint interview with Vaughn and in other snippets of him throughout the set, McCallum is nonetheless a thoughtful and enjoyable interviewee, making this worth your time. Perhaps more than anyone else connected with the show who is interviewed on this set, McCallum stresses how much fun making the show was for everyone involved.
Bonus Disc Two
"Official Debriefing: Richard Donner, Director" (28:38)-This interview is hampered somewhat by technical difficulties (the sound level drops for several minutes, and the camera is excessively wobbly at times), but Donner still provides great insights, especially into the hectic shooting schedule of U.N.C.L.E.. The questions can get a little silly, however, like when Donner is asked what Channel D is.
"Official Debriefing: George Lehr, Assistant Producer" (1:10:06)-This whopper of an interview has the assistant producer talking about a wide variety of topics related to the show. Lehr worked both on the set and in post-production for U.N.C.L.E. and thus has a wealth of knowledge and experience that he brings to the table during this discussion. He even speculates on a hypothetical remake of U.N.C.L.E. that would feature Vaughn as the Mr. Waverly character and McCallum as some kind of trainer of agents.
"Official Debriefing: Joseph Sargent, Director" (21:09)-Like in many of these interviews, Sargent looks back on working with Felton, Rolfe, Vaughn and McCallum. The director, who went on to make films such as The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and HBO's Something the Lord Made, also talks about working with guest stars like William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (both of whom he would also work with on the Star Trek episode "The Corbomite Maneuver") and Barbara Feldon and Cesar Romero, and about the changing landscape of television during the time of U.N.C.L.E..
"Official Debriefing: Robert Vaughn, Napoleon Solo" (26:28)-Like the separate McCallum interview on the first bonus disc, there's some overlap here in what you'll find on the other supplements, although Vaughn does discuss his connection to the Kennedy family (particularly RFK) as well as Martin Luther King. He also tells an amusing anecdote of how he came to visit the Soviet Union during his time on U.N.C.L.E..
T.V. Appearances and Spots (14:21)-The first of these four clips is an excerpt from the 1966 Golden Globes broadcast, where U.N.C.L.E. won for Best T.V. Show, beating I Spy, Get Smart, The Man and his Music and My Name is Barbara. The second is a snippet of the 1965 Emmys broadcast, featuring Vaughn and McCallum. The third is some amusing footage of McCallum appearing on The Andy Williams Show. Finally, there is a clever Tom & Jerry cartoon from 1967 called "The Mouse From H.U.N.G.E.R."
Photo and Image Galleries-These are divided into five main categories: Behind the Scenes: Designs and Blueprints from the Set of U.N.C.L.E.; Hidden Camera: An U.N.C.L.E. Photo Gallery; Classified Files: Network and Studio Documents; For Collectors Only: U.N.C.L.E. Memorabilia; and Top Secret: U.N.C.L.E. Motion Picture Advertising and Publicity. The "Hidden Camera" gallery is further divided into Publicity Stills, On the Set and Joseph Sargent's Case Files; "Classified Files" is broken up into NBC Broadcast Standards Memos, Research Files, Ian Fleming's Personal Notes, and Music; and "For Collectors Only" is divided into Collectibles, U.N.C.L.E. Guns, The U.N.C.L.E. Piranha, and Publications.
For fans of the show, the decision of whether to pick up The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series should be simple. Warner Home Video has done a first class job putting these episodes out on DVD; the technical presentation is very good, and the extras are just incredible both in terms of quantity and quality. The high price tag may be a detriment to some, but if you love The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I don't think you'll be disappointed with this set.
Not guilty. CBS, get cracking on getting Vaughn onto an episode of NCIS!
Review content copyright © 2008 Ben Saylor; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 5620 Minutes
Release Year: 1964
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* The Cloak and Swagger Affair: The Untold History ofThe Man From U.N.C.L.E." featurette
* Original color series pilot, "Solo"
* U.N.C.L.E. V.I.P.S: A Celebration of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Guest Stars
* The Spy-Fi Tour featurette
* Feature film One Spy Too Many
* Double Agents: The David McCallum and Robert Vaughn Reunion interview
* The Secret Tapes of Illya Kuryakin: Home Movies from the Set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E."
* MGM's Secret Operations featurette
* "Cold War, Hot Spies: U.N.C.L.E. and the Cold War" featurette
* "Guns, Gadgets, Gizmos and Garb" featurette
* "Behind the Wheel:U.N.C.L.E.'s Piranha" featurette
* "Fandemonium" featurette
* "The Music from U.N.C.L.E." featurette
* "The Girls from U.N.C.L.E." featurette
* Promos and trailers
* Interview with star David McCallum
* Interview with writer Dean Hargrove
* Interview with director Richard Donner
* Interview with assistant producer George Lehr
* Interview with director Joseph Sargent
* Interview with star Robert Vaughn
* T.V. appearances and spots
* Photo and image galleries