Judge John Floyd knows a little bit about being an uncle, though he's never had to teach a gorilla to dance.
Our review of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Collection, published November 3rd, 2008, is also available.
"Open Channel D!"
Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.), an international organization dedicated to preserving peace around the world. This is their (almost complete) story.
Facts of the Case
From 1964-1968, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was one of the most popular television programs in the world, entertaining legions of fans, generating a tidal wave of merchandising tie-ins, and even spawning a handful of theatrical films comprised of multiple episodes spliced together to form feature-length adventures. Given an unofficial stamp of approval by James Bond creator Ian Fleming (who reportedly also suggested the name of the lead protagonist), the action-packed adventures of Solo (Robert Vaughn), Kuryakin (David McCallum), and their boss Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) became a global phenomenon that endures to this day.
With 105 episodes in this four-season, 41-disc set, there simply isn't the time or space to go into great detail about specific installments here. Suffice it to say that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. has the reputation of beginning as a relatively serious-minded spy series, becoming an increasingly silly, tongue-in cheek spoof in its second and third seasons, and returning to a slightly grittier tone in its fourth and final year, and that reputation is spot-on. After 29 broad but suspenseful outings in Season One (highlights of which include "The Shark Affair" with Robert Culp; "The Project Strigas Affair" with William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Werner Klemperer; "The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair" with Lee Meriwether; and "The Never, Never Affair" with Cesar Romero and future Get Smart star Barbara Feldon), the program seemed to roll with the tide of the spy craze and place increasing emphasis on camp humor. Seasons Two and Three are certainly enjoyable (with great episodes like "The Foxes and Hounds Affair" with Vincent Price; "The Moonglow Affair," which served as a pilot for the short-lived The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. spin-off; "The Concrete Overcoat Affair" with Jack Palance and Janet Leigh; and "The Pieces of Fate Affair," which was written by Harlan Ellison, but it is clear even in the best outings from the sophomore and junior years that no one is really taking the program seriously anymore. Season Four returns to form with topnotch efforts like "The Summit-Five Affair," "The Test Tube Killer Affair," "The Deadly Quest Affair" (featuring Darren McGavin), and "The Maze Affair," though the ratings damage had already been done by that point.
Camp and kitsch notwithstanding, however, the entire run of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is great fun because of its charismatic leads, its fabulous guest stars, and the running plot device (inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest) of placing an innocent civilian in jeopardy alongside our intrepid heroes. This reluctant participant is usually a woman (portrayed by some of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood, including Jill Ireland, Victoria Young, Marta Kristen, Dorothy Provine, Diana Hyland, Joyce Jillson, Nancy Sinatra, and Anna Capri—just to name a few ), though occasionally the bystander is a male star like young Kurt Russell, Shatner, or Jack Weston. The villainous guests are even better, the list of great Hollywood heavies and hams too long to detail here. From Rip Torn to George Sanders to Telly Savalas, it seems like every sinister sophisticate and brutish blowhard in film and TV history gets a crack at the men from U.N.C.L.E. during the series' four-year run. There are also plenty of sultry femme fatales on hand, including Anne Francis, Senta Berger, Luciana Paluzzi, and Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! star Tura Satana (Russ Meyer fans take note—another future Meyer vixen, Edy Williams, appears in Season Three's "The Hula Doll Affair"!). One would be hard-pressed to name a television series with more memorable guest appearances than The Man from U.N.C.L.E..
As good as most of the celebrity supporting players are, they are often upstaged by the regulars. Robert Vaughn's star-making turn as the charming, self-effacing Solo is consistently magnificent throughout the entire run of the series, his suave, tongue-in-cheek super spy an American precursor to Roger Moore's version of James Bond. Adding to his considerable charisma is Vaughn's admirable willingness to do whatever the script calls for, no matter how ridiculous. In a true testament to his courage and acting prowess, he even manages to survive the idiotic scene in "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair" (by far the series' worst entry, from Season Three) in which Solo teaches a perfectly groomed jungle savage named "Girl" and her pet gorilla how to do the Watusi with most of his dignity and credibility intact. McCallum creates a similarly unforgettable and amiable hero in Russian agent Kuryakin, overcoming both the character's initial supporting status and Cold War-era prejudices to become American television's first Soviet protagonist and, at the time, something of an international sex symbol. Carroll (who was 80 when he accepted the role) is a wry joy as the unflappable head of U.N.C.L.E. In "The Iowa-Scuba Affair," Mr. Waverly tells Solo to report any attempts on his life immediately, adding very matter-of-factly, "Unless they're successful."
Even when it's playing things deadly straight, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. emphasizes thrilling action over logic or realism. Tonally, the series falls somewhere between the lightest Pierce Brosnan 007 film and the best of Dean Martin's Matt Helm movies, and will never be confused with the works of John Le Carre or Robert Ludlum. Though never as smart as Mission: Impossible or as quirky as The Avengers (both of which came in the wake of this series' success, and owe it a great debt of gratitude), U.N.C.L.E. is never a boring ride.
Making this complete collection even more enjoyable is the positively exhaustive array of bonus features. The seasons themselves come complete with great extras (including featurettes, cast and crew interviews and retrospectives, the original pilot episode "Solo," and the feature film One Spy Too Many), and there are two additional discs loaded with over five hours of fascinating, fan-friendly stuff. The whole package comes in a cardboard briefcase cool enough to be carried by Napoleon Solo himself. With the great packaging, comprehensive content, and truly excellent video and audio quality throughout, TimeLife simply could not have done a better job putting together this long overdue release.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the post-911 era of Casino Royale and Jason Bourne, this simplistic spy silliness might be a bit too cartoonish for viewers who weren't alive during its initial primetime run. Completists will also bemoan the absence of three of the four theatrical films and the 1983 reunion movie, The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.. For that matter, since we're niggling, why wasn't this set expanded to include the single season of The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., a series unlikely to have much DVD sales potential on its own?
If you're a fan of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a collector of television nostalgia, or just a lover of TV and movie secret agents, this is a must-own collection. With every (digitally re-mastered) episode of the series, the unaired pilot, a feature film, and more extras than you can shake a communicator pen at, this set is a shining example of how classic television should be treated on home video.
This is perhaps the most open-and-shut case this court will ever consider. The Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Complete Series and TimeLife are hereby found not guilty on all counts. The court also orders that all persons responsible for bringing forth these allegations against the defendants be held for questioning, on suspicion of ties to the terrorist organization THRUSH.
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Scales of Justice
• "The Cloak and Swagger Affair: The Untold History of The Man from U.N.C.L.E."
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