Mar 16, 2012

DVD Review: Man in a Suitcase - Set 2

For the first-ever Region 1 DVD release of the classic Sixties ITC series Man in a Suitcase, Acorn opted to split the show’s single, plus-size season into two 4-disc sets. I reviewed Set 1 last year, here, and rather than reiterating the show’s background, I’ll refer you back to that original review. If you’re new to the series, that’s the set to start with anyway—though Man in a Suitcase - Set 2 probably has a higher concentration of top-notch episodes. The quick refresher recap is that Richard Bradford plays McGill (or sometimes Mac for short, but no other name is ever given), a disgraced former secret agent wrongfully ejected from American Intelligence and now bumming around Europe living out of his suitcase (hence the title), his services for hire to anyone who can pay—governments, politicians, corporations, or even the occasional private citizen. McGill is cynical, but not without scruples. He’s pretty moral for a spy-for-hire, a trait that tends to land him in trouble. Man in a Suitcase, while still a fairly light adventure series in the classic ITC mold, tends to be a bit grittier than its stablemates like The Saint or The Baron—and McGill rarely escapes an episode without taking a pretty severe beating. Sometimes things turn out okay, but while the series isn’t as bleak as Callan, sometimes they don’t. Happy endings aren’t as assured as they are for Simon Templar.

Acorn’s second set of Man in a Suitcase DVDs kicks off with a truly excellent episode about Africa. And, honestly, how many ITC programs about Africa can be called excellent? There are a few (one particular Danger Man comes to mind), and often they at least have their heart in the right place, but the majority turn out pretty embarrassing. “The Whisper,” however, is all-around great. It’s also got black actors in multiple roles (a rarity for Sixties ITC), and what look remarkably like actual African locations! A lot of the scenery is second unit stuff, and there’s definitely some stock footage, but there are also scenes that appear to depict guest stars in real African settings. Perhaps they’re just sets from a bigger budget movie that was filming at Elstree at the same time, but whatever the case, they’re impressive nonetheless.

On top of that, there’s a truly stellar guest cast, including Patrick Allen (Dial M For Murder) as Marcus Spencer, a plantation owner in an unnamed African country, and Colin Blakely (for the second time on this series, but in a different role—though one again with ties to Africa) as a local Jesuit missionary (supposedly) named Father Loyola who’s negotiating on behalf of the native workers. Spencer sees Loyola’s negotiating tactics as threatening, and suspects he’s not what he claims to be. On a trip to London, he calls on McGill to look into the supposed priest’s past.

That investigation takes McGill from the Jesuit mission headquarters in England to a swinging London nightclub where he meets (and dances with) a sexy, miniskirt-clad Vatican representative(!), to an Africa-obsessed spiritualist eccentric enough for The Avengers, and eventually to Africa itself. This being Man in a Suitcase, things don’t wrap up in a tidy package the way they might for Simon Templar or John Mannering. McGill’s involvement in the whole situation leaves almost everyone worse off than they were before, despite his best intentions. But downbeat is what we want from Man in a Suitcase, and the script for “The Whisper” by Morris Farhi delivers it along with some biting social commentary. ITC television doesn’t get any better than this, and we’re only at the beginning of the set!

Like all spies of his era, McGill isn't immune from the occasional bad fashion
“The Boston Square” has a lot going for it, too: speedboats off Corfu (via rear projection), duplicitous American intelligence officers, doubly duplicitous Albanian intelligence officers, submarines, and knock-out fist fights on the docks of picturesque Greek fishing villages. Of course the one getting knocked out in the latter is McGill (decked by a hulking Albanian he dubs “King Kong”), who’s caught up in the middle of all this.

McGill’s been hired by a big London company to find an oceanographer who suddenly went missing while in possession of a valuable report on deep water fishing in the Adriatic. McGill catches up with him in Corfu, and finds the affable English scientist in the company of spies from both sides of the Iron Curtain. The report has significant industrial value, but why would Albania’s intelligence apparatus be after it—especially when they already employ a far more renowned oceanographer themselves? Everything comes together quite nicely in a good espionage plot that combines the sunny, exotic locations of James Bond with the bleaker realities of Callanesque espionage in which the innocent are nearly always doomed. It’s a good mix, and director Don Chaffey integrates the scenic stock footage of the Greek coast with the studio shots to much better effect than many ITC efforts. Furthermore, we get to see McGill golfing.

Unfortunately, we also see a whole lot of that blue velour shirt he’s become so fond of in the second half of the series, and it wouldn’t really be fair of me not call attention to it after giving Peter Graves such a hard time over his Mission: Impossible wardrobe. Come on, McGill, you can find yourself classier spywear that better complements your ever-present cigarette! Seriously, that cigarette almost never leaves his lips—even when he’s golfing. (Or when he gets knocked into the water face-first.) These DVDs ought to carry a Surgeon General’s Warning!

“Somebody Loses, Somebody… Wins?” is a first-rate ITC spy story. This is McGill’s “escape from East Germany” episode, and I tend to love those episodes of Sixties spy series (like the Saint episode “The Paper Chase,” the Danger Man “Time to Kill,” the Sentimental Agent story “Express Delivery” and even that goofy Jason King episode where he crosses the Wall in a packing crate with a luxurious interior). Here it’s even identified as East Germany, too, and not an analogue with a made-up name.

McGill is hired by a German-born, London-based camera dealer to make a trip to Dresden, ostensibly to meet with a manufacturer, but really to locate his missing brother. McGill knows such a trip will be particularly dangerous, given his background, and quotes and exorbitantly high fee to get out of it… but the merchant agrees to pay it, so he’s left little choice but to go. Even though part of him probably suspects that he’s being put up, which, of course, he is. The camera seller is really a British Intelligence operative. But why does he want McGill to go East? When he gets to Dresden, McGill realizes there’s more to this assignment than meets the eye when the “brother” flees from him and he finds himself mixed up with British agents, American agents, double agents, state security and supposedly “reformed” Nazis. He’s but a small cog in a larger Intelligence operation designed to lend Spy Who Came in from the Cold-like credence to a phony defector operation… and McGill’s unwitting role in the scheme is, apparently, to get caught. There’s lots of great behind-the-curtain intrigue, all building up to a breakneck car chase (in which McGill even deploys a 007-like smoke screen!) and high-octane escape attempt at the border. This may be the quintessential Man in a Suitcase episode, and the title certainly sums up the series’ ambiguous view of the espionage game.

When it begins, a viewer could be forgiven for fearing that “Web with Four Spiders” would turn out to be a boring, run of the mill blackmail plot along the lines of Set 1’s “Essay in Evil.” However, this episode goes off in a very different, far more interesting direction from its familiar set-up in which McGill is hired by a Dr. Norbert (Ray McAnally), a bigshot American lawyer chairing an international space legislation committee to find out who sent him some seriously embarrassing photographs and what, exactly, they want of him. He thinks of McGill as a “seedy little man” and hires him rather than going to his own security detail with his problem because he knows McGill’s reputation isn’t worth a damn, and nobody would believe him if he decided to make his own claims about the pictures. That point of view will come back to haunt him in one of the bleakest, most nihilistic episodes in the series. It turns out that seedy little McGill might be the only person who still puts any stock in values and reputation (on his own sliding scale, like his rate) in a world where government, big business, criminals, lobbyists and intelligence agents all converge. As usual, McGill will emerge from it all physically worse for the wear—but at least with his dignity intact. Not that anybody else cares about that.

“You’re both up against the machine!” one slick character (played by Simon Oates) warns McGill. “No one beats the machine. Not you. Not me. Not Norbert. No one.” McGill knows he’s right, but that doesn’t stop him from trying his hardest and getting beat up for his troubles. And that’s the bleak overall message of Man in a Suitcase put succinctly: you’re never gonna win, but you have to keep fighting for what you believe in, no matter what the odds.

While in Sweden at the behest of an exiled and endangered Arab revolutionary in “The Revolutionaries,” McGill has the audacity to actually drive the Saint’s trademark white Volvo P1800! (At least it hasn’t got the distinctive ST1 license plate.) He even gets in a car chase in it.

The appearance of the car proves appropriate, and not just because of the Nordic setting; “The Revolutionaries” plays much more like a Saint episode than the typical Man in a Suitcase. However, this being the latter, there’s always the very possible fear of the sort of downbeat ending that you rarely see on The Saint.

McGill’s employer, Dr. Maza, dwells with his grown daughter at a cool lakeside house (that does, indeed, look convincingly Swedish to my untrained eye) complete with a water wheel. (Okay, perhaps the house is on a river, not a lake.) He entrusts McGill with a manuscript containing his account of a revolution that left the dictator of a North African nation dead—and, according to him, installed a new leader just as bad. McGill is to escort Maza’s manuscript—and his daughter—safely to London, but the new regime’s secret police are hot on his trail. None of the many Arab characters (at least the main ones) are played by remotely Arab-looking actors. I suppose that because so many wealthy Arabs at the time were educated in Britain and carefully cultivated British accents, ITC must have thought it could get away with Ferdy Mane and Hugh Burden playing them. Unconvincing as they are, the episode is still a good one. Highlights include a very atmospheric, snowy airport finale and an honest-to-goodness shootout with McGill killing people (not something he does that often, really) with a machine gun. He even manages to climb up the water wheel, pistol in hand, which is a pretty cool way to make an entrance.

This episode also marks the first time in the series, as far as I can recall, that the CIA is actually mentioned by name rather than obliquely referred to as “American Intelligence,” ITC’s preferred euphemism. “I often wonder how far the CIA were involved in our… democratic revolution,” Dr. Maza ponders.

“Well, that sort of backfired on us, too,” McGill admits. That reference to America’s unwelcome covert involvement in toppling left-leaning regimes in the Fifties and Sixties is about as close to actual politics as any typical ITC adventure show ever gets.

Donald Sutherland, who made a very memorable impression as a hard-partying college buddy of McGill’s in one of the best episodes on Set 1,  “Day of Execution,” is back in “Which Way Did He Go, McGill?,” but in a very different role. This time (as usual in his UK television days), he’s playing a bad guy—a bad guy with a really weird accent, and a genuinely creepy (and unforgettable) laugh that sounds somewhere between an orangutan and a croup cough. The espionage-free plot is a standard crime story, but well enough told. Sutherland plays a criminal released from jail after five years who hunts down the other members of his gang, killing them off one by one in a quest for his share of the loot from their bullion heist. McGill gets involved in a convenient, roundabout manner, and forces his services on the bullion company in exchange for the standard 10% finder’s fee. His investigation takes him into contact with some interesting people including, since this is the Swinging Sixties, a fashion photographer in the middle of a psychedelic photo shoot with a bikini model.

There isn’t any spying in “Castle in the Clouds,” either, but it is a particularly fun episode and the best of the batch on the final disc of the set. McGill gets himself involved in a very convoluted plot surrounding a diamond brooch when a politician hires him to retrieve said article. The brooch belongs to the politician’s wife, but he made the mistake of lending it to his mistress, Magda, to wear… on the night she chose to leave him, with the brooch still attached! The politician wants McGill to retrieve the brooch before his wife finds out, but unfortunately it goes through many hands fairly rapidly, and all of those hands belong to would-be blackmailers with different motivations. For the most part, though, they’re pretty likable blackmailers. There are no out-and-out bad baddies in this one (well, there’s a gangster, but even he pales in comparison to some others McGill’s come across), just a bunch of eccentric characters, each one looking for an angle. And they’re played by good, charismatic guest stars, like Edward Fox, Sydney Tafler and especially Gay Hamilton as the tale-spinning fantasist Magda, who you can’t help but root for even if she’s a gold-digger and an inveterate liar.

Besides memorable characters, McGill’s odyssey also takes him through some very memorable locations, including a few trips to the swingingest disco in all Swinging London. “Castle in the Clouds” is uncharacteristically lightweight for Man in a Suitcase (though that doesn’t mean McGill doesn’t get beat up), but it’s charming nonetheless, and one of the series’ best episodes.

Less distinctive is its finale, “Night Flight to Andorra”—although it does mark a return to espionage plots. We’re plunged into the thick of things in this one, with McGill holed up with a team of crooks plotting an elaborate heist using a glider. The glider’s cool and the poor man’s Ocean’s 11 set-up is always a reliable one, but unfortunately none of the members of his crew have any memorable personalities. The script treats it like a big mystery as to why McGill, always (more or less) on the side of the angels, has thrown his lot in with criminals, but it’s pretty obvious to any astute viewer that he’s working for British intelligence again, with the goal of recovering some plans for some sort of military McGuffin. Slightly less obvious is which character is a traitor, and which is also working for MI6, keeping an eye on McGill to make sure he accomplishes his mission. Just writing about it makes “Night Flight to Andorra” sound better than it really is, but unfortunately it’s a pretty unspectacular last hurrah for such a good series.

Other episodes in the set run the gamut from spying to bodyguarding to detecting to breaking strikes in African diamond mines (and that old chestnut about a wife whose husband may be driving her mad), but even the worst among them have one thing going for them: the brooding but indomitable McGill, so compellingly played by Richard Bradford. In an interview included on Disc 4, Bradford reveals that there was a lot of tension on the set and he didn’t always get along with his crews and co-stars, but the mixture of this cucumber-cool, chain-smoking Texan amidst so many eccentric and excitable ITC mainstays is pure gold. Man in a Suitcase is must-see entertainment for ITC fans and fans of more serious Cold War spy dramas alike. (Burn Notice fans, as well, will find themselves in surprisingly familiar territory.) Though the storylines can be bleak, McGill’s determination in the face of any odds is always inspiring. And things don’t always turn out badly for McGill…. Sometimes he even gets the girl.

Unlike Set 1, Acorn’s second set of Man in a Suitcase DVDs includes a welcome and sizable bonus feature: an hour-plus interview with Richard Bradford originally recorded for Network’s Region 2 release. Bradford (whose appearance has changed considerably since the Sixties) mumbles a lot, and can be kind of hard to understand at times (especially when he goes off on unexpected tangents), but his frank, uncensored anecdotes make it worth the effort. The interview covers his earliest acting days in high school, first jobs in Hollywood, the influence of Marlon Brando on his career, (Brando was instrumental in getting Bradford his first big movie role in The Chase) and, of course, his experience filming Man in a Suitcase. He's got no illusions about it (he rightly calls Set 1's “The Bridge” a lousy script), but he clearly put his all into the series to make it the best it could be. Unfortunately, that meant ruffling some feathers, and indeed he doesn't portray himself as the easiest person to work with. (He regrets now that his method acting kept him from becoming friendly with Donald Sutherland when he came back as a villain.) Bradford becomes most animated when discussing his bad relathionship with producer Sidney Cole, who essentially tricked the actor into climbing on the titular bridge of that episode despite not having proper insurance waivers. From the sound of it, Man in a Suitcase wasn't the smoothest production to work on, but the results prove that the effort of Bradford and the crew were not wasted. It's a great show and, with the inclusion of this fascinating supplement, Acorn's Man in a Suitcase - Set 2 is a great set. Set 1 might be a better introduction to the character and the series, but there are more great episodes packed into Set 2.

Read my review of Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 here.


s said...

I wonder whether the increased seriousness of MIAS compared with some of the other ITC series is something to do with Producer Sidney Cole. I understand that he was known to be rather left-wing, and the ethos of this series is much more anti-establishment than any of its stablemates.

At some point I may soften and buy this series. There are two episodes with Colin Blakely, and he is one of my favourite actors (I have the DVD of THE HANGED MAN, a mid 70s series that was written by one of the writers of MIAS, Edmund Ward. Blakely paid a millionaire businessman who plays dead after he realises a hitman is after him and tries to hunt down the person who wants to kill him. I think that you'd like it).

I'm pleased that you've appreciated Bradford's incredible skill at keeping that cigarette between his lips. Anyone who can be beaten up, thrown down a set of stairs, beat his opponent and still keep on smoking has got to be a little out of the ordinary.

Simes said...

A massively under-appreciated series which I dip into now and again courtesy of the Network set. Bradford's committed performance is just the icing on the cake. I find THE SAINT rather predictable and old-fashioned these days. MIAS has managed to stay fresher for longer.

And how many TV shows these days could afford the services of Donal Sutherland!

Jeff Flugel said...

Great, detailed review of a terrific show! I only started watching MAN IN A SUITCASE last year, and have been truly blown away by just how good (and tough-minded) it is. I'm fond of most ITC shows, but this one is a real stand-out, mainly thanks to Richard Bradford's riveting performance as McGill. Can't say enough good things about this show...thanks for giving it such a careful review!

Tanner said...

Thanks for the comments, guys. S, I will eventually seek out The Hanged Man. I'm a big fan of Blakely, too, and you should definitely pick up at least Set 2 of MIAS, as Blakely's excellent in his guest turn, which is a more complex role than his henchman position in Set 1.

You all point out that the heart of MIAS' success lies in Bradford's performance, which is certainly true. That caused me to think about why THIS American works, when so many attempts by ITC to thrust an American into the lead failed. Gene Barry was obviously the biggest failure in The Adventurer, but while I enjoy The Baron to a degree, I'd deem Steve Forrest a failure too.

It's interesting to compare and contrast Forrest's and Bradford's specific brand of Americanism. Both characters are supposed to be Texan (as was the original conception of Danny Wilde before Curtis was cast; what was Britain's obsession with Texan heroes on spy shows? Does it go back to Ian Fleming's assertion that Bond had known some good Americans and most of them were Texans, to paraphrase?), but they're quite different. Bradford, of course, really is Texan. I'm not sure about Forrest. But Bradford has that Texan cool down pat. In one episode, a woman tells McGill, "you're American!"

"No, ma'am, I'm Texan," he replies.

Bradford, though not actually young enough to be considered part of the youth movement, certainly comes off as more youthful than Forrest. Of course, he IS younger than him, but that's not why. The why is because he ACTS younger. He clearly "gets it." He's one of those hip guys like James Coburn who might be a bit older than the counterculture, but can still identify with it.

Forrest comes off as the more stereotypical view of Americans: he's blustery and loud and leads with his fists. Maybe someone thought that was cool, but to me it comes off as irritating. Bradford, however, definitely comes off as cool. He doesn't seem like he's trying too hard, like Forrest does. And he proves that a quiet American is certainly cooler than a brash, loud one. And certainly a better envoy for the USA on British TV than Forrest or Barry!

s said...

To a British audience one of the attractions of Bradford is that he plays the underdog. One of the things that we really like is an underdog. McGill is rather in the tradition of Philip Marlowe; the knight in tarnished armour who is more interested in remaining honourable than in getting rich.

When we have a really wealthy character like Danny Wilde, we like him because he has a sense of humour. The British TV action heroes such as John Steed or Jason King are aware of the ridiculousness of the stories that they are appearing in. Simon Templar seems to be aware that he is being watched by a TV audience and talks to them directly at the beginning of each episode.

Stuart Damon in THE CHAMPIONS and Joel Fabiani in DEPARTMENT S share the sense of cool that Bradford has. Is partly about the 60s counter-culture, but it also goes back to stars like Bogart, who are able to be part of what is going on, but also able to stand back and look at with a sense of distance.

Tanner said...

Very good point, situating McGill in the tradition of Philip Marlowe.

Anonymous said...

James Bond editor-turned-director John Glen directed the episode "Somebody Loses...".