Behind the Scenes: The Spies Who Came in from Television: “The Spy with My Face” (1965)/”To Trap a Spy” (1965)

MGM wasn’t the first studio to hit upon the idea of re-editing episodes of a television series into a movie for cinema release. Small-screen The Lone Ranger had spawned The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1952) and Disney had stitched together episodes from its Davy Crockett franchise to create Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955) and Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1955). The Challenge for Rin Tin Tin (1957) derived from The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Frontier Rangers (1959) born out of Northwest Passage, the Texas John Slaughter series the basis for five movies shown between 1960 and 1962, Crimebusters (1962) originated from Cain’s Hundred and Lassie’s Great Adventure (1963) from five episodes of the eponymous series.

But all these movies had one major disadvantage. Like their source material, they appeared in black-and-white. The Disney pair mined some box office gold, but primarily as matinee material. The rest were fillers, scheduled for the bottom half of a double bill and aimed at suburban and small-town cinemas and drive-ins desperate for anything to fill out a program. And all were nothing cruder than editing two or more episodes together to make a feature film.

MGM took a different approach. Instead of merging two different episodes, albeit starring the same stars, the studio decided to take one episode and expand it, filling out the story with subplots and extra characters and spicing up proceedings with levels of sex and violence that would not be tolerated on mainstream television. As important, it would be shot in color to make it stand out from the television series being shown in black-and-white.

First picture in the trial scheme was To Trap a Spy (changed form the initial To Catch a Spy), an expanded version of the television pilot known as The Vulcan Affair, and as well as series leads Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, 1960) and David McCallum (The Great Escape, 1963) toplined future Bond femme fatale Luciana Paluzzi (Thunderball, 1965). A second movie was culled from The Double Affair which had been screened on November 17, 1964, with an European star with a considerable pedigree in Senta Berger (Major Dundee, 1965).

Since MGM had no idea whether the spy series, launched in the U.S. on NBC on 22 September 1964,  would catch on abroad, where in any case stations paid comparatively little to screen top American shows, its initial idea was to release films only for the foreign market.  

In fact, the studio didn’t wait to see if the BBC could make a hit out of the debuting The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series and shunted out To Trap a Spy before the series even screened in Britain. And lacking momentum from television, it went out as the support on the ABC circuit in Britain to The Americanization of Emily (1965) starring Julie Andrews and James Garner.

At that time, the ABC chain was not beholden to the double bill idea. In fact, more than half the annual weekly releases went out as solo affairs. A double bill was more likely to suggest that there were doubts over the pulling power of the main film. There was no way of judging the box office appeal of any film put out in the lower half of a double bill.

The odd thing was that if MGM had held off pressing the button on the circuit release, To Trap a Spy would have demonstrated box office success. At the same time as the double bill was simultaneously released at nationwide first run theaters, To Trap a Spy opened in London’s West End in May 1965 at the 529-seat Ritz and delivered the best business MGM had enjoyed there for two years. It returned to the 556-seat Studio One, also in the West end, in October that year as the top attraction in a double bill that included Glenn Ford-Henry Ford western The Rounders (1965) and in its fifth week took in an excellent $5,600 and a few weeks later shifted back to the Ritz.

Between released the first and second Uncle pictures, MGM had launched a major marketing campaign on the back of the launch of the series on BBC. One marketing gimmick, inviting the audience to write in for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. certificates, brought in over half a million applications. MGM splashed out $85,000 marketing The Spy with My Face (1965). Again, the movie went out in an ABC circuit release – in July 1965 – as part of a double bill, with Son of a Gunfighter (1965), but this time the Uncle film topped the bill. Launched in the West End at the much larger 1,330-seat Empire it took $22,000 in its opening week.  Nationally, “it was far and away above average for a top-grossing picture in the UK.”

To Trap A Spy and The Spy with My Face each grossed $2 million in the UK market. By January  1996, a third Uncle film had launched in the British market, One Spy Too Many,  based on the two-episode Alexander the Great Affair which had screened in America in September 1965. This time MGM held off from ABC circuit release until mid-February until One Spy Too Many had cleaned up in January in the West End, $25,000 at the Empire, helped along by a Xmas merchandizing bonanza that saw the country flooded with memorabilia, paperbacks, three singles and an album. It broke studio records in 91 of the 125 situations it first played.   

The success of the first pair pointed up the potential U.S. box office from these featurized episodes and MGM put together the double bill The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy on the  assumption that the films at the very least would pick up business outside first run venues where bigger-budgeted pictures dominated and provide respite for showcase (wide release) theaters, drive-ins and small cinemas suffering from product shortage. The bigger a hit a movie became, whether roadshow or not, the longer it took to move down the food chain.

MGM was also inspired by the merchandizing boom generated by the television. A toy gun was well on its way to notching up sales of two million, and there were in addition, games, puzzles, trading cards, costumes and masks and chewing gum.  

The MGM was entering a very crowded espionage market. Not only had Thunderball taken the top off the box office with an explosive debut in Xmas 1965, but any new entrant into the field in 1966 would come up against such spy behemoths as Columbia’s Our Man Flint (1966) and The Silencers (1966) from Twentieth Century Fox as well as more offbeat spy numbers like Paramount’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965) and other pictures aiming for a slice of the cake like Where the Spies Are (1966) with David Niven and That Man in Istanbul (1965).

Variety magazine was sniffy about the double bill’s prospects – “for the least discriminating audiences” was its take on To Trap a Spy although Box Office deemed it “far better story-wise” than The Spy with My Face.

Advert in “Variety” (May 27, 1964, p41) announcing the new series.

The Spy with My Face/To Trap a Spy gained surprising traction in first run, even though MGM was demanding a 50 per cent share of the box office. In some cities it ran smack bang into the openings of one or other of the biggies while Thunderball played for months on end. Even so, the results were surprisingly good. Leading the single cinema first run bows was $24,000 – equivalent to $214,000 now – in Chicago (and a second week of $18,000). Boston audiences delivered $16,000 (plus $11,000 second week), Detroit $18,000 (and $12,000). It ran for three weeks in Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Providence and two weeks in St Louis, Buffalo, St Louis, San Francisco and Cleveland.

There were one-week bookings at other major cities like Seattle, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Cincinnati. Except in Portland (“drab” first week and “dull” the second) and Seattle (“okay”) the box office verdict varied from “potent,” “virile” and “sock”  to “nice,” “fine,” and “pleasant.” Box Office magazine reckoned that in Hartford the duo produced revenues over three times the average and in Memphis twice the average.

Following first run, it would go into wider breaks in these various cities. Some cities ignored first run and opted for a straight “showcase” (wide release) bow, New York leading the way with $104,000 – $928,000 equivalent today – from 25 cinemas, Kansas City bringing in $35,000 from 10 in week one and $25,000 from 10 in week two, and Baltimore good for $40,000 from 18. In new England cinemas and drive-ins united for a multiple run release hat “rang up some of the briskest business of the winter months despite the adverse weather conditions.” The only downside was the Pacific chain of drive-ins refusing to show the double bill on the grounds that previous experience of showing movies adapted from television series had “brought patron beefs” and that its own tests had not worked.

Even when The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series ended after three-and-a-half seasons, MGM continued bringing out movies, eventually totalling eight in all. The others were: One of Our Spies Is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968) and How to Steal the World (1968).

Towards the end of the decade the Easy Rider (1969) phenomenon prompted a brief vogue for box office analysts to point to low-budget pictures generating the biggest profit. Nobody tended to include the first three Uncle films in this equation regardless of the fact that, costing an original $200,000 per episode plus extra for reshoots and editing, they were, on a profit-to-cost basis, extraordinarily successful, easily bringing home revenues in the region to 10-15 times their budgets.

SOURCES: Allen Eyles, ABC: The First Name in Entertainment (CTA, 1993), p123; “Another Uncle Sequel As O’Seas Theatrical,” Variety, September 23, 1964, p79; “Uncle Gets 3rd Whirl As O’seas Feature,” Variety, January 27, 1965, p26; “International Soundtrack,” Variety, May 26, 1965, p26;  “Toys from Uncle,” Variety, June 30, 1965, p42; “Uncle Stunt in London Is Metro Hit,” Variety, December 8, 1965, p23; “Metro Sees Uncle TV Stanzas As B.O. Kin to James Bond in Theaters,” Variety, February 2, 1966, p1; Review, Variety, February 16, 1966, p18;  Review, Box Office, February 21, 1966, pB11; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, March 14, 1966, p22; “One Spy Looms MGM Leader in Britain,” Variety, March 20, 1966, p29; “Drive-Ins in New England Preparing To Solve Springtime Problems,” Box Office, March 21, 1966, pNE4; “Pacific Prefers Not To Follow Video,” Variety, April 20, 1966, p24; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 20, 1966, p14; “How Uncle in Great Britain Clicked Via Tie-Ups with Tele,” Variety, June 22, 1966, p17; “Uncle TV Conversions Boffo at B.O. Theatrically O’Seas,” Variety, March 20, 1968, p4; Box Office figures taken from the weekly edition of Variety in the “Picture Grosses” section on the following dates: in 1965 on November 10 and December 8, in 1966 from February 2 until June 1; and August 18, 1966.  

The Spy with My Face (1965) ****

Far more enjoyable than I had expected and definitely benefitting from being seen on a small screen – I suspect the effects would show up the worse for wear on the big screen. Certainly, a decent enough plot and Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) as the main Man from U.N.C.L.E. dominating proceedings.  Despite being an expanded version of an episode, The Double Affair from the television series, it doesn’t betray its origins. Female master spies were thin on the ground until Thunderball (1965) and Deadlier than the Male (1967) and here Serena (Senta Berger) masterminding a T.H.R.U.S.H operation to steal a nuclear weapon, steals a march on both. The action is counterpointed by some nice humor.  

While Solo and crew are busy attacking an Australian base of arch-nemesis T.H.R.U.S.H.,  Serena is putting the final plans together to infiltrate U.N.C.L.E. by using a doppelganger of Solo, cosmetic surgery creating an exact double. Solo’s sidekick Ilya Kuryakin (David MacCallum), portrayed as a cold fish – “I’ve got my computer to keep me warm” – is attacked leaving HQ by gas-spraying robots.  

Women here are a good bit more realistic than in Bond. Let down by Solo, his girlfriend Sandy (Sharon Farrell), an airline hostess, proceeds to get drunk. When they go out to dinner, a bandaged man (the double) is at the next booth and when Solo is called to the telephone Serena is there on his return, prompting the jealous Sandy to dump her dinner all over him. In best secret agent style, of course, Solo reckons he can have his cake an eat it, hoping to dupe Serena at the same time as seducing her. However, he is suspicious of her motives – “whenever I go to strange places with strange women I get hid over the head by strange men.”

In Serena’s apartment, suspicion continues, Solo takes his gun into the shower. However, when he answers the door, it’s to his double, and Solo is gassed. Sly sexual elements are brought into play – the double isn’t quite correct, failing the kiss test. While Solo is transported to the Alps where T.H.R.U.S.H plans to hijack a secret nuclear device, the double enters U.N.C.L.E. HQ where he will receive a new password relating to the weapon.

Meanwhile, it transpires the double’s disguise is both convincing – the still jealous Sandy pours a pot of coffee over him and later kicks him. And not foolproof enough – he wears the wrong aftershave. The real Solo is intrepid enough, finding a clever method of delaying a countdown, and a good bit more alert when captured than when not.

The set pieces are well-done, considerable tension built up at various points, the assault on the T.H.R.U.S.H. premises, while lower-grade than James Bond, considerably more realistic with Solo in Special Forces-type camouflage and hiding in the trunk. The climactic fist fight between the rival Solos is convincing and there is an excellent motorcycle chase. Fortunately, the movie steers clear of gadgets and gizmos, presumably for budgetary reasons, and the only let down is a vault which looks as if it is constructed of bits and pieces of leftovers.

I was particularly fond of a quip by Kitteridge (Donald Harron), U.N.C.L.E’s Australian associate. In response to a query from the big boss, Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll), about whether his beard was real, Kitteridge answers “No, sir, it’s fake, I’ve got the real one in my pocket.”

The movie is surprisingly adept at treading a fine line between serious action and playfulness. The notion that the entire conspiracy can be undone by female jealousy or the wrong scent adds an interesting layer to the proceedings. And even the computer-loving Kuryakin finds time for romantic distraction. Serena is something of a secret weapon herself, far from an obvious espionage villainess, and keeps both Solo and the audience in the dark about her real intentions.

Director John Newland, more at home in television, steps up to the plate with a brisk tale that still has time for surprising subtlety. Robert Vaughn (The Venetian Affair, 1966) strides through the concoction effortlessly. The ever-alluring Senta Berger (Bang! Bang! You’re Dead, 1966) creates an intriguing character. Demands of the plot mean that David MacCallum (Sol Madrid, 1968) is somewhat underused. Sharon Farrell (A Lovely Way to Die, 1968) sparkles in a supporting role. Look out for Bardot lookalike Jennifer Billingsley (The Young Lovers, 1964), Harold Gould (The Sting, 1973) and Michele Carey (El Dorado, 1967). Joseph Calvelli (Death of a Gunfighter, 1969) and Clyde Ware (No Drums, No Bugles, 1972) devised the screenplay.

Sol Madrid / The Heroin Gang (1968) ***

Was it David McCallum’s floppy-haired blondness that prevented him making the jump to movie action hero because, with the ruthlessness of a Dirty Harry, he certainly makes a good stab at it in this slightly convoluted drugs thriller. Never mind being saddled with an odd moniker, the name devised surely only in the hope it would linger in the memory, Sol Madrid (McCallum) is an undercover cop on the trail of the equally blonde, though somewhat more statuesque, Stacey Woodward (Stella Stevens) and Harry Mitchell (Pat Hingle) who have scarpered with a half a million Mafia dollars. Hingle is the Mafia “human computer” who knows everything about the Cosa Nostra’s dealings, Woodward the girlfriend of Mafia don Villanova (Rip Torn).

Sol tracks down Stella easy enough and embarks on the audacious plan of using her share of the loot, a cool quarter of a million, to fund a heroin deal in Mexico with the intention of bringing down both Mexican kingpin Emil Dietrich (Telly Savalas) and, using the on-the-run pair as bait, Villanova. A couple of neat action sequences light this picture up. When Sol and Stella are set upon by two knife-wielding hoods in a car park, he employs a car aerial as a weapon while she taking refuge in a car watches in terror as an assailant batters down the window. Sol has hit on a neat method of transferring the heroin from Tijuana to San Diego and that is filled with genuine tension as is the hand-over where Sol with an unexpected whipcrack slap puts his opposite number in his place.

Meanwhile, Villanova has sent a hitman to Mexico and when that fails turns up himself, kidnapping Stella and planning a degrading revenge. Most of the movie is Sol duelling with Dietrich, suspicion of the other’s motives getting in the way of the trust required to seal a deal, with Mitchell, hiding out in Dietrich’s fortified lair, soon being deemed surplus to requirements. Various complications heighten the tension in their flimsy relationship.

Madrid is Dirty Harry in embryo, determined to bring down the gangsters by whatever means even if that involves going outside the law he is supposed to uphold, incipient romance with Woodward merely a means to an end. McCallum certainly holds his own in the tough guy stakes, whether trading punches or coolly gunning down or ruthlessly drowning enemies he is meant to just capture, and trading  steely-eyed looks with his nemesis.

It’s a decent enough effort from director Brian G. Hutton (Where Eagles Dare, 1968), but is let down by the film’s structure, the expected confrontation with Villanova taking far too long, too much time spent on his revenge with Woodward, for whom audience sympathy is slight. Just at the time when Hollywood was exploring the fun side of drug taking – Easy Rider just a year away – this was a more realistic portrayal of the evil of narcotics.

It is also quite prescient, foreshadowing both The Godfather Part II (1974) in the way Villanova has modernised the Mafia, achieving respectability through money laundering, and this century’s television obsession with South American drug cartels with all-out police battles with the Narcos. And there is a bullet-through-the-glasses composition that will be very familiar to fans of The Godfather (1972), and you will also notice a similarity between the feared Luca Brasi and the Mafia hitman Scarpi (Michael Conrad) here. And why we’re at it, Woodward’s predicament is close to Gene Hackman’s in French Connction II (1975).

The action sequences are excellent and fresh. Think Madeleine cowering in terror as the car window is battered in No Time to Die (2021) and you get an idea of the power Hutton brings to the scene of a terrified Woodward hiding in the car. Incidentally, you might think McCallum was more of a secret agent than a cop with the cold-blooded ruthlessness with which he dispatches his enemies.

Stella Stevens (The Silencers, 1966) is the weak link, too shrill and not willing to sully her make-up or hair when her role requires degradation. Her part is better written (“I never met a man who didn’t want to use me”) than Stevens can act and she gets a clincher of the film’s final line. Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) with his playful villain, though the trademark laugh is in occasional evidence, is in sharp contrast to Rip Torn who is all snarling bad guy. Ricardo Montalban (Madame X, 1966) is Sol’s Mexican sidekick and Paul Lukas, a star of the Hollywood “golden age”, puts in a fleeting appearance.

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