Sep 23, 2011

DVD Review: Man In A Suitcase: Set 1

DVD Review: Man In A Suitcase: Set 1

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.”

The series boasted the same slick color photography as other ITC programs of the period, the same high production values and the same international locales created by combining a stock footage establishing shot with Pinewood studio backlots. But it managed to look and feel different at the same time, a rare feat for a series in a stable known and beloved for each show’s dependable sameness. It managed to feel less studio-bound, though I think that just comes from clever editing. But there’s a fluidity to the camera (when its outside, anyway) rarely found on other ITC adventure series of the time (and more in keeping with their police shows) that gives it a grubbier, quasi-documentary feel in spite of all the slickness.

Despite its reputation for being downbeat (“You call it downbeat; I call it honest,” says star Richard Bradford on a commentary track on the 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.

I feel a need to point out here that none of these observations should be counted against Man in a Suitcase. There is a place for bleakness in Sixties spy TV, and that place is on Callan (and in the Seventies on The Sandbaggers). I don’t personally attach a qualitative value to a show’s darkness of tone (as so many seem to do today); I just felt it necessary to dispel up front the myth that Man in a Suitcase is some gritty, downbeat show. It’s not really. Sure, it espouses a more realistic outlook on the espionage profession than James Bond, but it’s still an ITC show with slick production values, catchy music (one of the series’ best attributes, in fact, including a terrific, catchy theme by Ron Grainer), and an overall dedication to good prevailing over evil. The fact that it hovers somewhere between Callan and The Saint should make Man in a Suitcase accessible to fans of both those series rather than alienating either base. It occupies a happy middle ground which is itself unique territory.

For some reason, 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.

One thing that does make “Brainwash” an appropriate beginning is its rather wonderful opening, which succeeds in establishing the tone, the title and indeed the premise of the series, albeit insufficiently for a pilot. A train pulls into a station; a man in a trench coat steps off and sets down his battered old suitcase on the platform. The camera focuses on the suitcase, which McGill (Bradford) lives out of. Exactly why he’s in that predicament we’ll have to wait until “Man From the Dead” to learn, but it’s made clear enough in “Brainwash” (and, indeed, in every single other episode, too, for the benefit of those just tuning in) that McGill is a former spy, tossed out of American Intelligence (always “American Intelligence”; never “CIA”), and now operating freelance.

“Brainwash” is of particular note to Sherlock Holmes fans, because McGill finds himself menaced by not one but two evil Doctor Watsons. Howard Marion Crawford, who played the part opposite Ronald Howard in 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.

The very lovely Suzan Farmer plays Crawford’s fetching daughter who brings McGill his food while he’s imprisoned, and as with any good ITC heroine her exact role in the thorny plot is unclear to the hero until the very end. The most memorable sequence is a really terrific and bizarre one prefiguring the Avengers episode “Death’s Door” in which McGill tries to escape into a corridor of identical doorways: he opens one to be faced with a floor-to-ceiling mirror, in an atypically surreal moment for this generally grounded series. Others lead to movie screens blaring documentaries about Africa and more weird stuff (including Crawford aiming a pistol directly at him, Great Train Robbery-style), or to armed henchmen! “Brainwash” is a great episode, but it doesn’t really set an accurate template for what’s to come in terms of tone and style.

The second episode in this set, “The Sitting Pigeon,” doesn’t really do any better a job of that. It’s as bland as can be–and again, not representative. This time, the police blackmail McGill into babysitting an ambitious gangster who’s going to snitch on his two gangster brothers. As far as the cops are concerned, they just want him to keep the hood alive long enough to testify. McGill doesn’t like the job, naturally, and Bradford shows his disdain, occupying himself by driving the lid to a cigar box around on a desk like it’s a Matchbox car while the gangster ties to talk to him! That moment is the highlight of the episode, and exemplary of Bradford’s McGoohan-like disrespect for authority channeled through method acting techniques. Other than that great character moment, though, “The Sitting Pigeon” is pretty boring–and more like an ITC cop drama plot than a spy drama plot. (It should have been on Gideon’s Way.) There’s plenty of “We’re just alike, you and I!”/”No we’re not!” kind of back-and-forth between McGill and his charge, which gets old fast, but at least there’s a good climactic fight when the mob hitman comes after them in a botanical garden. The ending wasn’t as downbeat as I expected it to be, reminding us that we’re not in Callan territory.

Luckily, things quickly get on track with the superb “Day of Execution.” We glimpse another side of McGill here: his off-duty leisure life. This is atypical for an ITC hero. While the Saint and Jason King led lives of nothing but leisure, that leisure would inevitably lead them to adventure. McGill seems closer in spirit to Patrick McGoohan’s John Drake from 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.

Unfortunately, breaks don’t come easy for McGill. As he’s leaving a pub with Moira, supporting the dead-drunk Willard between them, some bad guys in a car drive by and yell, “We’re gonna kill you, Mariocki!”

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.

“Then came my social action phase!” she tells him. “I marched with banners!”

“What’d they say?” McGill asks because he’s supposed to.

“That people shouldn’t be beastly to each other.”

She’s a quintessential Swinging Sixties London girlfriend—and very appealing. I wouldn’t have minded seeing her as a regular. Alas, she’s not. (It should be noted that I make that assessment based solely on ITV series and kitchen sink dramas; I have no actual experience with the typical London girlfriend of the Swinging Sixties. But if television’s to be believed, they were all unrelentingly adorable, and Nicols plays this to the hilt.) There’s a surprisingly convincing romantic subplot between them, something this series is notable for. When they break up—as they must—it’s touching.

“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.

Besides romance, there’s a really good car chase through abandoned nighttime London streets... or maybe Pinewood backlots. But if they are backlots, they’re fairly extensive! And impressive. The bad guys—whoever they are—keep harassing McGill by phoning him up, calling him Mariocki and promising to kill him soon (eventually the threats get more specific: "at midnight"), sending him laundry that’s not his, and breaking into his apartment and rearranging his shoes. Now, anyone would get irritated by that sort of crap, but especially McGill. As an ex-spy, he takes death threats kind of seriously. (And, apparently, he’s not too keen on having his shoes messed with, either.) The denouement involves some shooting and a rare flashback to McGill’s CIA days (in Beirut), but what’s more important than the plot are the character resolutions. No one comes out happy—not Willard, not Moira and certainly not McGill.

The two-parter “Variation on a Million Bucks” further explores this more personal side of McGill. Here, as in “Mariocki,” he’s not a loner, but someone who falls in love and had past loves and even has friends and parties in his apartment to entertain those friends—belying the implications of the series’ title. (It’s kind of hard to entertain out of a suitcase.)

The always-great Anton Rodgers (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.

Next on Acorn's set, we finally come to “Man From the Dead,” which was filmed first and certainly functions much better as a pilot than “Brainwash.” As I indicated above, I really do recommend putting this one on first when you buy this DVD set. It much more clearly establishes McGill’s backstory and shows viewers where he currently stands in relation to his former employers.

The action kicks off when Rachel Thyssen (Angela Brown) sees her father on the streets of London… even though he’s officially dead. McGill reads about it in the paper. The father, Harry Thyssen, was his CIA (sorry, “American Intelligence”) boss, who six years earlier ordered McGill to let an American scientist named LeFabre defect… and then conveniently died. While not accused outright of treason, McGill was held responsible for the scandal and forced to resign. Whereas “Variation On a Million Bucks” required padding to be stretched into two episodes, “Man From the Dead” packs a feature’s worth of story into just a single hour. Other characters connected to that past event and to McGill are the CIA’s London Station Chief, Coughlin (who threatens to have McGill arrested if he insists on chasing down old ghosts), his right-hand man Williams (Stuart Damon, playing it much smarmier than in his usual leading man roles on The Champions, The Adventurer and “The Ex-King of Diamonds” episode of The Saint), who now occupies McGill’s former position… and Rachel. In addition to being Thyssen’s daughter, McGill was also romantically involved with Rachel, further complicating an already murky affair. (Their relationship evidently went sour when she perceived his own cries of innocence as accusing her dad of treachery.)

McGill follows Rachel to a disco (where we first hear an awesome rock queue that will recur throughout the series whenever McGill passes or enters a trendy club) and discovers that a Russian agent is also following her. Here, McGill is established as pretty prone to violence. I say “established” since this was intended as a pilot, yet that trait diminishes throughout the series. But in “Man From the Dead” he has no qualms with taking out that Russian agent swiftly and without warning. Later, when Williams and a CIA goon break into McGill’s apartment while he sleeps in a chair, McGill wakes up and instantly attacks the goon. Even after he sees Williams and realizes the guy’s CIA, he still kicks the fallen goon again out of anger and spite... and hard! You don’t see too many ITC heroes behaving that way, and as much as I love Simon Templar and John Drake for their strict moral codes, this approach is honestly kind of refreshing. Richard Bradford conveys the violence that McGill is capable of even in quiet moments; he’s a very intense method actor, and he milks a lot of tension out of his silence in a scene with Brown where he doesn’t talk at all… and makes her nervous.

Bradford is also a very physically fit hero for ITC; it’s easy to believe him in these fights and stunts. He also knows how to take a beating (something that is established just as well in “Brainwash”) and that will certainly serve him well throughout the series! In a rare instance where McGill doesn’t have to fight or get beaten up, he finds himself surrounded by nearly a dozen Russian agents on an empty soccer field. Usually spy movies and shows depict the KGB operating in much smaller numbers in the middle of London, and it’s cool to see so many agents in suits in such an incongruous setting… and so many agents in suits fleeing when the police siren wails! (Imagine what a blow it would have been to Soviet Intelligence to have a dozen operatives ejected at once!) That and other action sequences are filmed mostly in long, wide shots, which establish a neat recurring style for the series that further sets it apart from its ITC brethren—and make it clear that Bradford is performing a lot of his own stunts.

“Man From the Dead” also features a character who seems to have been intended as recurring, but was sadly dropped: a London P.I. who McGill pays to take on odd tasks for him. (Including, at one point, drawing away a Russian tail by donning McGill’s raincoat. I have no idea how that works, since the guy is about a head shorter than McGill and has dark hair!)

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.”

In “Sweet Sue,” McGill proves that he’s more fun when he’s playing a role! At the behest of a wealthy businessman, he poses as a young, well-heeled American industrialist-cum-playboy in order to woo his client’s promiscuous daughter (Judy Geeson, of 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.

McGill makes the most of his “plus expenses” clause this time around, living it up at a swank Riviera hotel and throwing money around like crazy, bribing everyone he meets to really sell his public image as a playboy. It all comes down to a card game in the end: poker. (And it’s a pretty engaging gambling scene!) These two-bit villains seem a bit beneath McGill (certainly not in his league), but they still manage to turn the tables on him at one point and give him his usual beating. Even so, you never really fear that he’s in over his head. That doesn’t matter, though, because it’s lots of fun watching Bradford relax and play a less wound-up version of McGill for once, and Geeson sure is good to look at. (Especially in the bathing suit she dons at the hotel pool.) That particularly great discotheque music from “Man From the Dead” also makes a welcome return. McGill eventually imparts his employer with some prudent relationship advice about his daughter, but the businessman doesn’t follow it. That’s not what he’s paying McGill for. That’s this series’ version of a downer ending–and it is a downer… just not a Callan-style downer where lives hang in the balance and not just relationships.

One of the hazards of McGill’s freelance spy-for-hire profession is that he sometimes ends up employed by the wrong side. In “Essay in Evil,” he finds himself working for a man named Masters, unaware that his employer is a blackmailer. He eventually quits because he doesn’t like the set-up, but unfortunately for him he’s already involved. All quitting does at that point is ensures that he doesn’t get paid for the inevitable beating he’s about to take. McGill’s already spotted three suspicious characters gathered at his hotel, led by the always suspicious Peter Vaughan (Judy Geeson's future Hammerhead co-star). They’re all being blackmailed (apparently) by Masters, and plotting to get even by killing him with a giant WWII naval mine. Since he’s already mixed up in everything, McGill ends up in the thick of it, tied up as the plot unfolds and people’s motivations prove to be different than they had claimed. It’s one of those sad, slice-of-life morality plays this show sometimes delves into in which basically decent people make bad decisions that get them killed.

Is this not the most unflattering picture of Bernard Lee ever?
“The Girl Who Never Was” is notable for a scene-stealing performance by Bernard Lee (in a very un-M-like role) as a down-on-his-luck WWII veteran who thinks he’s found a path to easy money. When McGill and others get in his way, he resorts to violence, but the character is both written and performed as something quite beyond a typical ITC baddie. What is typical is the plot, which relies on the production company’s frequent crutch of ex-soldiers vying for a treasure looted during the war. (The Saint did it best, but the late Fifties series like Interpol Calling and The 4 Just Men did it most frequently.) McGill demonstrates another commonality with his closest TV cousin of the era, David Callan, when he engages in some wargames. “You’re American,” says the British officer and wargames enthusiast he’s trying to question. “You choose the battle.” Expecting a WWII scenario, the old Colonel is thrown for a loop when McGill deadpans, “Bunker Hill.”

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.

While the title “Dead Man’s Shoes” may seem sort of arbitrary, the episode it belongs to is one of the show’s best. This is when McGill finally encounters that other certainty of his profession and his era, James Villiers, playing a posh drug dealer in bed with the Russians. He’s happy to subvert men for profit while his silent partners subvert industry for ideals. The upshot is a bunch of spies descending on a quaint and unsuspecting little English village. One of the residents of this tight-knit community grew up to be British agent, and his enemies find out and start terrorizing the town to force him to surface after he’s gone to ground in Italy. They do things like burning barns and running over priests with motorcycles. McGill, meanwhile, has been hired by Villiers to ask questions about the spy, unwittingly acting as a false lead for anyone trying to ferret out the true troublemakers. (Who are, of course, Villiers’ gang.) Everyone in town thinks McGill’s connected with the terror and hates him for it.

British and American Intelligence know what’s really going on (along with the CID), but do nothing to stop it, because they, too, want the missing agent to turn up with the report he has on Villiers’ organization. McGill ends up in the middle of it all and gets beat up for his troubles, as usual. Some of the backdrops to the violence include old ruins and a pigeon nesting tower at the town’s vicarage, all of which look to be actual location work as opposed to sets. The stellar setting, set-up and setpieces all combine to make “Dead Man’s Shoes” a thoroughly entertaining hour of television, despite its dark edge. Following that highlight, however (and continuing in broadcast order on Acorn’s DVDs), we’re in store for a fairly weak run.

Whereas some episodes of Man in a Suitcase really stand alone amidst the greater ITC oeuvre, others are totally cookie-cutter ITC. “Find the Lady” is one such example. A diamond necklace is stolen in Rome. An informant has information, and brings it to McGill, because he is an old friend. Being an old friend, said informant is quickly dispatched, and McGill ends up involved, working for the police and the insurance company (on his terms, at least). There’s a mysterious femme fatale mixed up in it all as well, of course, but not a very compelling one. It all feels so much like an episode of The Saint that I’m actually not at all certain that the exact same storyline wasn't an episode of The Saint! (ITC wasn’t above recycling plots from one series to another.) Even the production feels more like a typical ITC adventure show than most episodes of Man in a Suitcase. Gone is any hint of the gritty edge present in some of the London-set episodes. This is typical ITC Rome: establishing shots and studio backlots. Even the stock establishing shots are doled out frugally; “Find the Lady” mostly takes place inside McGill’s hotel! (I.e.: on a set.)

If “Find the Lady” is familiar, “The Bridge” is downright pedestrian. (Ha! Pedestrian bridge. Sorry.) As in “Sweet Sue,” McGill tangles with careless rich teens—but the result isn’t nearly as fun. “The Bridge” attempts to uncover the dark side of Swinging London: some dumb kids fool around on a bridge and one of them dies, but the exact events of the night remain shrouded in mystery. One of them feels guilty enough that he tries to throw himself off the bridge later, on multiple occasions, so his politician father hires McGill to babysit and find out what really went down. Yawn. The whole affair seems way beneath McGill’s skill set, but I guess that’s what you have to put up with if you’re an independent operator. Sure, a private eye would get cases like this, but usually they’re not the ones you’d make a TV show about! (And it’s not done in a Public Eye "all cases are boring" sort of purposeful way, either; there’s nothing existential about it, just bad writing.)

“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.

Luckily, Acorn’s 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.

Of course, what’s wonderful about ITC shows is that no matter how dark and bleak things might get in a plot like this, they won’t look it. Indeed, this episode looks particularly great in the vibrant, oversaturated Technicolor one readily associates with the brand. Among the locations to benefit from the lush cinematography are a hotel room decorated in all the paisley patterns you’d expect from a top London establishment of the era and a casino full or rich reds and golds. I love ITC shows with scenes in London casinos, and the lurid color schemes this one delivers give it the edge over Danger Man’s high-contrast “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.

Man in a Suitcase is fairly unique in ITC’s stable of Sixties adventure shows. On the whole, it’s not nearly as dark as lower budget rival spy series like Callan, but it’s still got a tone different from The Saint, The Baron, The Champions, Department S and all the others we know and love. It’s not the best of these series (though it's by no means the worst, either), but it certainly stands out. And it may well be the best looking, thanks to a lush color palette throughout, riskier camera work than ITC aficionados will be used to, and lots of authentic London exteriors. It’s also got one of the best soundtracks of any ITC show, and the fantastic title sequence and equally fantastic incidental score propel it well above the crowd. This is terrific spy television, long overdue 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.


8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Splendid review as usual :-)

And an underrated ITC series. It's not my favourite, but it's certainly one of the better ones. It doesn't have the 'filmed-on-the-backlot' feel of many of the other ITC product of the 'sixties. I have the Network set, which some people have criticised technically (for the authoring of the discs I see to recall?) but which I find absolutely fine.

I'm not terribly keen on the cover design for the US release though!

Tanner said...

Thanks, Anonymous! Glad you liked the review. This one was a long time in the works.

I actually prefer the US cover art to Network's or Umbrella's! I think it's pretty cool. I really like Network's art for the soundtrack set, though.

Anonymous said...

Actually, my name's Simes (Simon) but I can never sign in so that my name is displayed properly! (I think it's a cookie issue or something...)

I forgot about the Umbrella release. And I do think that the Acorn set has a certain 60's Retro look about it. Sill prefer the Network cover though I think.

As for 'Brainwash', I do think that it's actually a barnstorming opening episode (even if it wasn't designed to be), although as you say not especially representative of the sort of production that follows.

I do wonder if this might be on Network's 'to do' list for Bluray release actually.

Hmm. I'm off to listen to a few cues of Network's MIAS soundtrack set... :-)

dfordoom said...

I've only seen a few episodes of this one. I should give it another go. My DVD rental company has the Umbrella set.

night person said...

This is terrific reportage. I love this blog. I eagerly await a coffee table book written by you at some point...

Tanner said...

Thank you, Night Person! That's high praise, and much appreciated. I'm certainly working toward that sort of end; it's been my goal all along...

Nice to see you come out of the Cold, Simes! I'm sorry about the sign-in issue. I'll try to figure it out, but in the meantime, feel free to sign your anonymous postings to differentiate yourself from the other anonymous posters! (Though I can usually tell when it's you.)

DForDoom, I'd definitely recommend giving the Umbrella set a rental! I think you'll be pleased.

Emm said...

If it's okay, I'd like to use a couple of your screenshots for a post I'm writing on MIAS. I'll credit you of course!

Tanner said...

Sure, Emm; you're welcome to. Please share the link to your post when you do (either here or by emailing me), as I'd love to read your thoughts on the series!