Helicopter Spies (1968) ***

Takes a little while to come to the boil what with disreputable women, a crew of platinum-white-haired thugs, a religious cult, some very dry dialog, a high priestess with her own chorus line of psychedelic dancers, four identical brothers, and a female lead parading a prize shaggy dog story. Our intrepid heroes appear more capable this time round, the previously inept Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) not beaten up quite so often, though he does end up being drowned in sand (water too precious to spare, apparently).

This time round, too, the good guys are taken for a ride by mad scientist Luther Sebastian (Bradford Dillman) who hoodwinks the U.N.C.L.E. organisation into stealing a “thermal prism” from the fortress of another mad scientist Dr Kharmusi (John Dehner). To put his own grand plan into operation Sebastian just has to hijack a rocket. And you should be aware going into this that there’s not the amount of helicoptering you might expect given the title.

This time round, too, there’s hardly a good gal in sight. Azalea (Lola Albright),  aforementioned high priestess of cult The Third Way, has betrayed the good doctor in favor of Sebastian. Sebastian’s wife Laurie (Julie London) pretends to a) be out of contact with him for years and b) maintain a virtuous existence. And that’s before we come to the plainly bonkers, but still traitorous, Annie (Carol Lynley) who will make up any story in a bid to free an imprisoned unseen husband.

Sebastian has some neat touches as a leader, rewarding his team of thugs with booze and women as a prelude to killing them all off. He’s got an ejection seat in his car for getting rid of troublesome passengers. He prefers efficiency, to the point of iciness, to sexiness in his paramour and female underlings. And he has a very dry manner, which elicits a good few laughs.

But some of his thugs just ain’t that bright, the one instructed to follow Solo has just allowed him access to Laurie’s house. Laurie ain’t that bright, either, falling for an old trick by Solo who, as usual, is less bright that Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).  

Some of the set pieces are excellent. Sebastian’s followers meet in an abandoned movie theater where Azalea gives the lowdown on the grand plan assisted by her bevy of dancers. Infiltrating the organisation by the simple device of dying his hair, Solo ‘s disguise is uncovered after being sprayed with champagne.

There are a surprising number of human touches. Head henchman Carl (Roy Jenson) vowing to take “Mom” away from her dingy life running her eponymous diner finds she enjoys too much her dingy life. Carl, appreciative of the disguised Solo’s efforts, apologises for making him ride in the baggage train. Annie can stretch innocence to breaking point, to an extent where nobody cares about her problems.

But where The Karate Killers had a straightforward storyline – find the five daughters of a dead scientist – this gets a tad lost in the first section introducing the thermal prism, the cult, doubling down on mad scientists, and giving Annie all the importance of a red herring.

I thought for a moment that this was the end of the line in my appreciation of the U.N.C.L.E. franchise, the one where it all fell flat on its face and we could see the joins, but after the shaky start it picked up and became quite enjoyable in the series’ inimitable barmy fashion. I suppose I should applaud the initial narrative boldness, audience pretty much fooled from the off, the fortress assault not much more than an extended MacGuffin, with neither Sebastian nor Azalea what they seemed.

I could quibble about the guest stars but in fact this is a superb deadpan performance from Bradford Dillman (Sanctuary, 1961) and quite a departure for the Carol Lynley of Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965). And you could say the same for Lola Albright, previously seen essaying a different kind of character in The Way West (1967).

Boris Sagal (The Omega Man, 1971) directed from a screenplay by Dean Hargrove (One Spy Too Many, 1966).

I’ve only got a couple to go to wrap up the entire series and for your sake I will persevere. If you’ve not already done so, it’s back to the box set.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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