98 – One Spy Too Many – 1966
Director: Joseph Sargent
Starring: Robert Vaughn, David McCallum, Dorothy Provine, Rip Torn
Screenplay: Dean Hargrove
I have loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. since I watched it on BBC 2 in the 90s. I have memories of seeing it before then but that is when I first watched it avidly and grew to love its unique cross of stylish 60s cool and tongue-in-cheek, deadpan silliness. Robert Vaughn was smooth, laconic and charming while David McCallum was stoic, intelligent and wry. Together they became 60s icons and television legends. Like many TV icons of 60s (such as Doctor Who, Thunderbirds and Batman) they made the transition to the big screen. In the case of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. this resulted in 8 films that took two part episodes of the TV show, filmed new scenes to make them a bit more adult and were shown in colour. These were often shown on TV in the UK over the summer holidays and this is where I had my first childhood exposure to the adventures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.
Of all the films One Spy Too Many feels the most like a pure, concentrated burst of the TV show in 102 minutes. Adapted from the TV story The Alexander Affair The film opens with a daring theft of an experimental gas from a military base that robs the enemy of the will to fight. The thief is a millionaire named Alexander, played by Rip Torn, who has decided that he is going to conquer the world like Alexander the Great and break all the ‘moral commandments’ along the way just to make it more interesting. Solo and Kuryakin are assigned to investigate but their progress is complicated by Alexander’s ex-wife Tracey. Tracey is also looking to track the man down to serve him divorce papers and decides that the two U.N.C.L.E. agents are her best shot at finding him so she doggedly stays by their side.
A regular feature of the TV show plots would be women who found themselves taken from their regular lives and swept up in spy adventures. Dorothy Provine is one of the very best in this role and she is so much fun as Tracey. She breezes into Napoleon’s life pretending to be a shop window mannequin in order to steal a briefcase belonging to Alexander and is a whirlwind of chirpy persistence from that point on. One which the two agents eventually come to utilise and care about as she wears them down through sheer force of personality. She is a wonderful screen presence and has real star quality. She deserved to become a big name and may well have but she chose to retire from acting in 1968 after she married Robert Day. Atypically for a 60s spy film she is not a love interest for either of the leads. While she does find herself in danger it is shared with Illya who actually requires more rescuing from peril. While she is the only woman in the main plot (Yvonne Craig’s subplot with Napoleon was extra footage shot for the film) she is shown to be a determined, clever, brave and funny. She is fantastic and her performance alone is worth giving the film a watch.
Rip Torn is having a whale of a time going full on Bond villain as Alexander. He exudes arrogance and confidence as he proudly declares his intentions. The scene where he first meets Napoleon as they play chess with human pieces at a party is nicely tense with Alexander looking to assert his dominance while Solo pushes his buttons. Solo beats Alexander and it is something that Alexander takes badly to the point that when he has them trapped in an ancient temple he declares it as a rematch even calling him trapping Tracey and Illya as taking his knight and Queen. He his interaction with the Peter Lorre-esque Mr Kavon played by David Opatoshu are also a lot of fun. Opatoshu plays sinister obsequiousness very well and he is deliciously creepy as he uses enthusiastically explains his mummification process to Illiya as he is wrapping him in hot bandages.
As great as all the supporting players are the main reason to watch this, as with the TV show, is the performances of the two leads who are both given moments of cool action and goofy silliness. Napoleon’s fight with an aggressive gym instructor in one of Alexander’s chain of health spas is a nice blend of action and nonsense as Napoleon is physically outclassed and Vaughn mugs his way through making fake weights look heavy. McCallum gets his own set piece as he takes on the guards at one of Alexander’s farms leading to the sight of the sharp suited spy kicking people dressed as farmers off of slow moving tractors and getting covered head to toe in swamp water. The fact that they can carry off the action and comic elements equally well and make the transition between the two look so effortless is one of the main ingredients to the success of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and this film contains one of my favourite exchanges in any action/spy film. After a car chase being pursued by Alexander’s guards in a jeep the two decide to abandon the vehicle and make a stand with their trademark weapons (I love the U.N.C.L.E. issue guns), they weather machine gun fire and send the jeep spinning over. As they stand there in the aftermath of this battle Illya turns to Napoleon, shows him his hand and says “I cut my finger.” I have always found this hilarious and it is the essence of what makes this so enjoyable.
Today spy films need to be earnest and angst ridden in order to be taken seriously but One Spy Too Many is a relic from the age where being a spy wasn’t just seen as being cool but actually kind of fun. I’m fully aware of the fact that it bares no relation to actual 60s spycraft but I don’t care. I love this film as an example of when spy films were allowed to be escapist fun and I hope it is something that modern spy action cinema looks to embrace again sometime soon.