Our reviews of Secret Agent (AKA Danger Man): The Complete Collection (published February 21st, 2007) and Secret Agent Aka Danger Man: The Complete Collection (published March 26th, 2011) are also available.
Every government has its Secret Service branch. America, the CIA; France, Deuxieme Bureau; England, MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? That's when they call me, or someone like me. Oh yes—my name is Drake, John Drake.
If Danger Man fans will forgive me, I'd like to talk about James Bond for a bit. It is no stretch to say that the James Bond franchise is the most successful depiction of a spy in the history of cinema. If you ask around, most people will tell you that they prefer the earlier Bonds, particularly the Sean Connery films of the '60s. As time has passed, the Bond franchise has moved away from gritty stories featuring wits over technology. Ian Fleming's original stories are a distant memory where the films are concerned, fading away with Timothy Dalton's tenure as 007. The films now emphasize flash and style over espionage and palpable danger. Personally, I long for the franchise to recapture the spirit of the '60s Bonds, with fewer megalomaniacs, fewer gadgets, less stainless steel and lasers. Wouldn't it be cool to have a Cold War-based Bond film again, with pistols and fists and intrigue?
If you feel the same way, Danger Man comes to you at just the right time. You remember Danger Man, right? If not, don't despair. This British spy series made little noise in the United States, although the U.S. was one of its intended markets. It ran on American TV in 1960, two years before Dr. No, and later became known as Secret Agent. A&E brings you an entire season of noirish espionage, cryogenically frozen, fresh and ready for you to discover it for the first time.
Facts of the Case
John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) is a forthright American chap who fixes messy problems for NATO. These messy problems range from performing assassination to thwarting assassination to solving crimes to preventing political unrest. Every week brings a new problem for Drake to confront. He uses a vaguely familiar blend of technology, disguise, belligerence, cunning, and logic to defeat scads of nefarious villains. Drake ensures the safety of the world, unknown and unsung. He travels the globe, going wherever NATO needs him at the moment.
It doesn't take long to figure out what you're going to get with this series. A problem arises, Drake pops in, and we watch a linear progression to the problem's resolution. In terms of plot and story, this approach is very simple. The events of one episode hardly matter in any other episode. There are no lasting rivalries, few regular cohorts (save his bosses Hardy and Keller, who hardly count), and no ongoing subplots. There are subtle refinements made along the way, but in general, the last episode is much the same as the first.
On the other hand, it doesn't take long to determine the craftsmanship that goes into the show, either. Of particular note is the lighting: Danger Man is lit in fine noir style. At times the shadows seem to reach out for people, threatening to drag them into the depths of darkness. Many shots are composed with such delicacy and grace that I forgot I was watching a television program. The transfer allows the lighting to shine. There are definitely signs of age in the print, but the show looks better than many recent television DVD transfers. Some moments of rear projection gave me a chuckle. The black and white photography is on the cool side, but the deep blacks and creative lighting give each episode a wealth of contrast.
The lighting hardly matters if the set is poor, but these sets are remarkable in their detail and variability. The outdoor scenes are usually a mix of foreign locales and carefully selected domestic ones, which lend remarkable authenticity to Drake's globetrotting persona. The interior sets are classy, evoking high style and a sense of elitism.
All of this craftsmanship is well and good; fortunately, the stories are worthy of the attention. Almost every episode was successful at drawing me in, giving me a noticeable edginess as I waited to see what would happen. The first episode, unsurprisingly, is one of the weakest in that regard. It doesn't take long to right the ship. Episode two finds Drake handcuffed to an unwitting accessory to an assassination. How can Drake confront his target with a schoolteacher in tow? The third episode peaks with a killer entering a dark home, with Drake playing cat and mouse. Each episode has a similar hook that, while sometimes transparent, still manages to press the buttons of adrenaline and suspense. The series shows remarkable creativity and a lack of overlapping twists. So there is consistency in the approach, but variety in the execution.
As a leading man, Patrick McGoohan is easy to watch but difficult to grasp. Drake speaks in a halting clip that reminds me of Kiefer Sutherland in Dark City. He is grim and pointed, rarely sparing warmth when directness will suffice. His eyes sparkle when he gains understanding and glint when he has his man. Drake allows himself a secretive smile when he's pleased with his own work, revealing an unapproachable cockiness and a self-rewarding drive. Voiceovers give us an idea of what is on Drake's mind, and that goes a long way towards our understanding of him (it also speeds the plot along). Patrick McGoohan was wildly popular in England and later in the U.S. He made Drake his own and the character is richer for it. There are several times when Drake (and thus McGoohan) overacts, such as when he poses as a cowardly American businessman looking to hire a killer in "Name, Date, and Place." He gnaws on a cigar while acting like a complete heel. Times like these were slightly annoying, but the entire show has periodic fits of melodrama. McGoohan is certainly not the only culprit.
Of course, action and espionage are the trademarks of this series. Drake relies on his own cunning, but he gets a hand from technology. The gadgets he uses won't wow anyone today (bulletproof vests, hidden radio transmitters, and such) but they were precursors to the gadgets employed by James Bond and The Avengers. The outdated technology works in an odd sort of way, giving the series a retro authenticity. What is nice is that the technology is an inherent part of the plot, rather than a handy deus ex machina to lift our hero out of trouble when the writers get into a corner. The action is mostly fistfights, but they are never the same twice. You know Drake is going to get physical, but you never know just when or why. Again, realism holds sway over fantastic situations.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extras…if only. If A&E had dredged up some extras, real period extras, mind you, and thrown in a modern retrospective on the spy genre—well, this release would catapult to must-have status. Espionage fans, disenchanted Bond fans, and even regular people would have caught the buzz and been intrigued by this lost gem. As it stands, the release is average, with very little extra content. There is a photo gallery with random stills from each episode, and information about Patrick McGoohan. Footage…that would have been the ticket.
It is impossible for me to watch this show and not compare "Drake…John Drake" with "Bond…James Bond." As such, it took me an inordinately long time to settle in with McGoohan's character. He passed up many fine-looking women who were obviously interested in him. In fact, he outright turned down virtually every woman he met. On one hand I admire this realistic approach—after all, a true spy has little time for dalliance. However, accustomed as I am to Bond's rampant libido, this took some getting used to.
I was also shocked to see how many times Drake got his butt kicked. In the first two episodes, he is only saved when the women he is protecting come to the rescue. All of this is deliberate; McGoohan wanted to portray a true gentleman spy. Ironically, this detracts from the show's realism at times, when Drake passes up an obvious tactic (such as using a gun) in favor of complex machinations that might not actually work.
The DVDs all seem to be encoded with the same ID number. When I placed each new DVD into my player, it treated them all like the same DVD. If you use bookmarks or other software tweaks, this will be an annoyance.
The audio is clear enough, but not crisp. There were a few times when subtitles would have been welcome. The music is solid and moody, but after a few episode marathons it got somewhat repetitive. The series was never meant to be watched this way; many DVD boxed sets have the same issue.
Danger Man lives up to its moniker. I was repeatedly drawn in to this 44-year-old series, which is a testament to the succinctness of the plots and immediacy of the action. Sometimes I chuckled at vintage foolishness, but isn't that what retro TV is all about? Thirty-nine episodes of edgy espionage set in great locales with exquisite film noir aesthetic—sign me up.
On the charge of impersonating James Bond, the court finds Patrick McGoohan not guilty. On the charge of being overly goal-oriented, we find John Drake guilty, but His Honor fears for the balance of world politics if the defendant is allowed to let down his guard. He tried to go on vacation once, and he still had to beat down some bad guys! This court is in abeyance.
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