Man in a Suitcase is a Sixties British spy show from ITC, a production company that churned out slick adventure series with some regularity, including The Saint, The Baron and Danger Man. In fact, Man in a Suitcase was in part commissioned to fill the void left by Danger Man, which was still a hit when star Patrick McGoohan abandoned it in order to turn his attention to what’s likely the most famous of all ITC series today (though short-lived in its time), The Prisoner. Many of the key personnel from Danger Man (known in the U.S. as Secret Agent) transitioned straight to Man in a Suitcase. Like most of its ITC brethren, Man in a Suitcase featured a solitary hero who traveled the world (mainly Europe) on the fringes of the intelligence community getting into trouble wherever he went. Unlike The Saint or The Baron, though, the titular Man in a Suitcase, McGill (“Oh! Like the Parthenon and Liberace, you have no first name,” exclaims Judy Geeson breathlessly on meeting our hero) was unlikely to get out of that trouble without becoming bruised, battered and bloodied in the process. For that reason, Man in a Suitcase developed a reputation—true or not—for being “gritty.”
Region 4 Umbrella DVD—not present on Acorn’s Region 1 set), Man in a Suitcase is nowhere near as downbeat as its contemporary, ABC Weekend Television’s (later Thames Television) Callan (review here). And, fittingly, no level of Technicolor grubbiness can compete with Callan’s monochrome bleakness or the much lower budget that suited its tone, and no matter how bloody McGill gets (and he gets a lot bloodier than any other ITC hero), it’s garish Sixties Kensington Gore-colored blood, not that harsh black blood Callan bled. The point is, like McGill’s sliding scale for his fee (“plus expenses”–always!), one needs to apply a sliding scale to the grittiness of Sixties spy shows. It’s true that Man in a Suitcase is grittier than other ITC adventure shows, but it was nowhere near the grittiest spy show on UK television at the time. In Callan, if Callan had a girlfriend he seemed to love, the viewer could be pretty sure that she would meet a bad end. In Man in a Suitcase, McGill’s girlfriends are more likely to get their hearts broken than perforated. If Callan finds himself searching for a kidnapped child, that kid’s odds of survival are far from assured. When McGill takes on such a case, you can be pretty sure the kid at least will come out okay, even if McGill ends up worse for the wear. In fact, McGill himself absorbs most of the show’s brutality (and seeing the hero so drenched in blood and ready to keel over indeed gives the outward appearance of a much darker show), and innocents don’t suffer nearly as much as they do on Callan, where the suffering of innocents due to the machinations of governments is an ongoing theme.
Acorn’s Region 1 set opens with the episode “Brainwash,” which came sixth on Umbrella’s Region 4 set, instead of “Man From the Dead,” which was the first episode produced and clearly intended as the series pilot. “Brainwash” indeed aired first (either here or in Britain; I’m not sure about everywhere), but I don’t think that justifies its placement in this set. It’s a great episode–one of the best–but an atypical one much closer in tone to other ITC shows than most Man in a Suitcase episodes, with its crazy, Prisoner-like psychedelic mind torture. If you were a spy in a Sixties series–film or television–you had but two certainties in life, and they weren’t death and taxes. They were that sooner or later you’d cross paths with either James Villiers or Nigel Green (Bulldog Drummond managed to encounter both; McGill would eventually tangle with Villiers), and that sooner or later you’d also find yourself subjected to crazy, Prisoner-like psychedelic mind torture. For McGill, the latter happens right off the bat in Acorn’s set.
the 1950s TV series, plays the mastermind here, and Colin Blakeley, who gave one of the all-time best performances in the role opposite Robert Stephens in Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, plays his subordinate. Crawford’s character is the exiled president of an African nation, and McGill may or may not have played a role in his ouster back in his CIA days. Either way, the Watsons want a signed confession out of him and put him through the wringer to get it.
Danger Man, but we never saw Drake at rest or at play. Again flying in the face of the series’ reputation, McGill actually isn’t nearly as dour as Drake, even though he has plenty of reason to be. When he’s not working, he hangs out with friends and sees girlfriends and gets drunk in bars—in a social way, not an antisocial one. Donald Sutherland is the buddy in question here, in one of his meatiest and least villainous ITC roles as Willard, who went to college with McGill. Rosemary Nicols from Department S plays McGill’s girlfriend of the week, Moira... and they’re really girlfriends for McGill, not just conquests (though he does have a lot of them over the course of the series); you get the sense that these girls are actually after relationships with the man, not just sex like the Saint’s gal pals–and he might even be willing to reciprocate if he could ever catch a break.
McGill laughs and replies, “My name’s McGill you crazy idiots!” He clearly doesn’t take them too seriously. Ignoring their threats, he and Moira retreat to his surprisingly palatial apartment (much bigger than a suitcase, certainly!), complete with stairs. How many two-storey flats were there in London in the Sixties? Everyone on TV seemed to have one! (Tara King’s springs readily to mind.) Speaking of Tara, Rosemary Nicols is quite good here–and very Avengers Girl-y. You can see why she’d be picked for that type of role on Department S. She’s got her hair down, too, which looks better than her Tara do on that show. Her biographical exchange with McGill is lively and well-acted, and recalls some of the best banter between Steed and his female colleagues.
“You’re going to have to run,” he tells her, since his life of old grudges will always get in the way.
“What do you think I am?” she asks, hurt. “Bone China?” She wants to stand by him. Unfortunately, there are always bad guys around the corner.
“My life’s one Mariocki after another,” McGill explains.
“You talk about your cruel, cruel life. The truth is you just don’t love me.”
“I’m gonna say goodbye now.”
He kisses her and walks away, leaving her standing there in the park pulling her peacoat together against the wind. She really doesn’t want to let him go. But she comes to realize she has no choice. You don’t usually get this kind of real romantic subplot on other ITC adventure shows.
Zodiac) plays Max Stein, McGill’s closest friend, a former Soviet agent. They bond over those things that former spies bond over, and it doesn’t matter to them in the present that they were on opposite sides when they were both in the game. What does matter, though, is that Stein supposedly stole $1 million from the Russians before defecting, and now everybody’s after that money. Meanwhile, McGill hooks up with a former lover, the Japanese beauty Yoko Tani (The Spy Who Loved Flowers). In her arms at the time, McGill isn’t there for Stein when he’s gunned down by KGB assassins. He gets to his friend in time to hear his last words, and Stein bequeaths McGill the key to a safe deposit box in Lisbon, supposedly containing the money. This sets McGill on a race across Europe (a race primarily confined to the interior of a freighter, unfortunately) against American Intelligence, Russian Intelligence and various other freelancers as they all attempt to locate the vault. Like all ITC hour-longs stretched into feature-length “movies” (for theatrical release in Europe—in this case under the title To Chase a Million), the story outstays its welcome. (McGill works better in hour-long doses.) It’s padded out with an overlong boat voyage (achieved by rocking the camera, not the set) wherein McGill is beset upon by sailors and beat up, as usual. (McGill suffers even more battery than usual when trying to kill two hours!) The theatrical McGill does, however, manage to maintain the series’ downbeat tone, though it also reinforces that it’s not as downbeat as it could be. Even if we’re positive that McGill’s love life won’t work out for him to be happy, we don’t get the same utterly doomed sense as from Callan. The relationship won’t last, but the girl just might.
Finally, the conclusion sets up the series to come in a better fashion than “Brainwash” or any other episode. “I’ve gotta get my suitcase and my car,” says a typically bruised McGill.
“Are they so important?”
“Yes, Ma’am. They’re all I own.”
Hammerhead fame) away from the pair of con men she’s currently running with. Essentially, McGill sets out to out-con the conners, and Geeson seems to have some idea what’s going on, but she finds it entertaining to watch it unfold and occasionally egg on one or the other of the parties involved.
|Is this not the most unflattering picture of Bernard Lee ever?|
Since McGill isn’t Callan, though, you don’t really fear for the kidnapped boy in “All That Glitters," but it’s still a decent episode dealing with politicians’ hidden affairs and secret love children against a country village setting. A trained professional like McGill might seem above this sort of goings-on, but our hero still manages to get himself beaten up by some small-time yokels right out of Straw Dogs.
“The Man Who Stood Still” is equally disappointing. This is another one of those ITC episodes that centers on an English actor (in this case Rupert Davies, who played Smiley in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and was at one time slated to become the Second Doctor) giving a flamboyant performance as a foreigner that’s clearly based on Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek no matter what nationality said foreigner is—in the case, Spanish. There was a lot of that going around in the mid-Sixties. It’s also another one of those episodes in which someone wants to know who betrayed them decades ago during the war. This is a stock ITC plot; every series has at least one of these (I think they actually made up the majority in the case of The Four Just Men), and I’m bored sick of them at this point. It’s hard to believe that British audiences were still so hung up about wartime betrayals by the Sixties! Maybe they weren’t, but ITC’s writers certainly were. Anyway, “The Man Who Stood Still” amounts to lots of British actors with hair either mussed or slicked playing Spaniards and yelling at each other in un-subtitled Spanish until someone conveniently declares, “Speak English! You foul Spanish with your tongue.” It’s a boring mess except for the colorful faux-Spanish sets.
Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 concludes on a very, very good episode—which also happens to be one of the series’ darkest. In “Burden of Proof,” McGill is more of a supporting player than main character, when he’s hired to protect Henry Faversham (John Gregson), a man who claims to have fled a South American country with a stolen fortune. Actually, it’s a dangerous ruse to draw out a traitor who plans to use that money to fund a revolution. Not only is McGill not really the main character in this story; he’s also not the person most of the bad stuff happens to for once. Sure, McGill gets beaten up, as usual, but he doesn’t absorb all the torture this time, as he usually does. That safety net of knowing that McGill will come through it because he’s the hero of the series is one of the things that keeps Man in a Suitcase from reaching Callan-like levels (or depths) of bleak realism. This time it’s not McGill, but someone else being tortured inside a foreign embassy behind the official veil of diplomatic immunity as British police and the victim’s wife wait outside knowing full well what’s going on—but utterly helpless to intercede. Therefore, the fate of the man in question is in no way assured, and that situation is very successfully mined for all the terror it can yield.
“Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove.” Not only do we get vibrant red curtains and paisley interiors, but against them we get McGill in a tux, which is spy attire he doesn’t typically don. All of these elements add up to one of the best out-and-out espionage stories in any ITC series, and despite the extremely downbeat ending (the sort that you always expect of Man in a Suitcase, given its reputation, but rarely actually find), it’s a great way to close this set.
on Region 1 DVD and well presented by Acorn in a great looking set—inside and out. The only drawback is the fact that its long single season has been split into two parts, and American viewers will have to wait to see the rest of the episodes.