What a hoot! A sheer blast! The most brilliant yet of the madman dominating the world schemes, autogyros to out-Bond Bond, a fabulous cast and of course the most incompetent spies this side of Get Smart.
You can’t get better than a scientist inventing a way of turning water into gold. Takes chutzpah to even think of that as a plot. No having to batter your way into Fort Knox as poor Bond did in Goldfinger (1964), you just turn on the tap. But, wait, the formula is lost and our intrepid heroes have to – heaven forbid! – track down five gorgeous women to find it. Was there ever a more onerous proposal?
I never saw any of these films when they came out. At the time I guess they would have been viewed as small screen rivals to James Bond. But although 007 in every picture would eventually be trapped in the madman’s lair, he spent most of the film beating the sh*t out of the bad guys. In sharp contrast, The Men from U.N.C.L.E. seem always to be on the wrong side of a beating, number one hero Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) more hapless than number two Ilya Kuryakin (David McCallum).
With hindsight, it looks like this was never meant to be taken seriously and without going into over-spoof plays exceptionally well as a light-hearted romp. Solo seems to be constantly outwitted with Kuryakin invariably coming to the rescue, the former too often duped by beauty, the latter a bit more discerning. There’s a lovely moment here in their reactions to the instruction by boss Mr Waverley (Leo G. Carroll) to hunt down a dead scientist’s quintet of daughters/step-daughters; Solo gives a knowing smirk, Kuryakin shows disdain.
Must be the best cast yet assembled: legendary Joan Crawford, suddenly hot again after Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1965), Curd Jurgens (Psyche ’59, 1964), Herbert Lom (Villa Rides, 1968), Telly Savalas (The Dirty Dozen, 1967), Kim Darby (True Grit, 1969), Terry-Thomas (How To Murder Your Wife, 1965) and Jill Ireland (Mrs Charles Bronson) as you’ve never seen her before.
The U.N.C.L.E. duo are in a race against T.H.R.U.S.H. operative Randolph (Herbert Lom) to track down the missing formula. Randolph has a head start. He has been having an affair with the scientist’s wife Amanda (Joan Crawford) who is shocked to discover his charming exterior conceals a ruthless interior.
Solo and Kuryakin track down the scientist’s daughter Sandy (Kim Darby), a good bit brighter than your average eye-candy spy girl, who points the way to the step-daughters and to the possibility that each has one part of the missing formula. Was there ever an easier justification for introducing such a random set of characters?
First up is stark naked Countess (Diane McBain) locked away by jealous impoverished husband (Telly Savalas) in a castle in Rome. Then we’re onto Imogen (Jill Ireland), a flamboyant lass shaking her booty at any opportunity, arrested by a constable (Terry-Thomas) for indecent exposure, and involved in a punch-up in a London night-club where Solo is nearly drowned (yup!) and Randolph instructs the band to keep playing since the ruckus is nothing to do with them.
Then we’re off to Switzerland and Yvonne (Danielle De Metz) and a machine-gun ski chase down a mountainside (beat that, Mr Bond). And so on until all the clues, contained in photographs of the dead father, have been found and, wait for it, the puzzle remains incomplete. Eventually it’s unravelled and the final showdown is on.
But what a way to go. Never mind the ski chase, the picture opens with the duo being attacked by a fleet of autogyros (one-man mini helicopters, the “Little Nellie” of the later You Only Live Twice, 1967 ), and as usual someone, this time Kuryakin, is trapped on a low-tech machine, this time on a ice-block travelator where blocks of ice are smashed to bits by nasty spikes.
Randolph is the most droll villain alive. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my dear,” he informs Amanda when she uncovers his villainy and is about to be murdered. The whole jigsaw is exceptionally appealing, the global whizzing about, Japan also included not to mention one of the poles where T.H.R.U.S.H. has established its HQ.
The action is a good bit more thrilling, the aerial and ski sequences very well done on a budget a fraction of the Bonds, and there’s more than enough going on to keep interest levels high, not just where to go next, and who to encounter, but the gathering of the clues, and working out of the final mystery, which offers a nice emotional touch.
Kim Darby is more of a typical ingenue here, sparkier than you might expect but not offering the originality of character expressed in True Grit, while Jill Ireland is a good bit more sassy than she ever appeared thereafter. Barry Shear (Wild in the Streets, 1968) directed.
This is the best so far that I have seen on the series. My interest had begun to flag but, thus fortified, I will continue with my endeavors to watch them all. on your behalf, of course.