Prime Time Larceny

It Takes a Thief

by Michael Barrett

1 February 2012


Light-Hearted, Yet Serious

The season premiere is Stephen Kandel’s time-is-of-the-essence script, “Saturday Night in Venice”, as Mundy gets poisoned and has two days to perform a triple-cross betrayal to the Soviets. It’s like the movie D.O.A. amid glamorous canals and without having the hero croak.

This final season is in some ways the most light-hearted, yet it also contains the most serious, Le Carré-esque episodes. “Flowers from Alexander” ends in tragedy for a beautiful agent betrayed by love. This unusual Larson script jazzes itself up with a flashback structure, handled by director Bruce Kessler with the trippy back-and-forth editing transitions used in the film Easy Rider. Too bad it’s hardly convincing.

Another nearly-serious outing is “The King of the Thieves”, a festival of mixed messages about a political candidate (Lex Barker) who kidnaps his own daughter as a ploy to criticize the SIA for its history of illegal covert operations to meddle in foreign countries with plans that backfire. Note that while this critique is being overtly acknowledged on the series, it’s put into the mouths of “bad” characters who are shown as dangerous and crazy.

The kicker is that the candidate is a former actor, and the last image of him is a smiling freeze-frame as he flashes big teeth in front of the American flag. That’s Larson’s style, along with the fact that the heist is a totally unrelated digression from this kidnap plot that finds an amnesiac Mundy (with more Kessler-directed trippy flashbacks and subjective out-of-focus moments) helping an expatriate kingpin. The latter is played by Lionel Stander several years before reuniting with Wagner in Hart to Hart.

The series was bringing in bigger guests than ever. The biggest was Fred Astaire as the greatest thief in the world—Mundy’s father, Alistair Mundy. Lounging in his Mediterranean villa amid famous missing paintings, attended by his aide-de-camp or minion Funello (Francesco Mulé), arranging cocktails with contessas on borrowed yachts or winking at slinky eyefuls in the casino, he embodies exactly the breezy gravitas that the show frequently just misses otherwise; maybe it really is all in the casting. It’s Alistair who negotiates his son’s role into that of a fully pardoned freelance contractor, thus completing the hero’s liberation.

In the four episodes where he appears, Astaire is given prime real estate in the official opening credits, where we hear him say “I’ve heard of stealing from the government, but for the government?” Oddly, he’s credited as Alistair in his first appearance and Alister thereafter; if they don’t know for sure, how can we? A slippery character indeed. It’s too bad they couldn’t use him more often, because his outings are the airiest and classiest of the season.

Astaire’s presence reminds us that TV during this period was the last refuge of classic Hollywood actors who were otherwise sitting around getting moldy. The show did itself a favor by seeking them out. In his interview, Larson correctly observes that Wagner rose to the occasion with such guests, and Wagner concurs in his own interview. It had been notable in such second season Larsons as the two-parter with Joseph Cotten (“Hans Across the Border”, ha ha), and “The Artist Is for Framing” with Paul Henreid as a retiring policeman who collars Mundy as his last great case.

Fred Astaire and Robert Wagner

Fred Astaire and Robert Wagner

It’s obvious again in Wagner’s rapport with Astaire and such later guests as retiring spy Elsa Lanchester and aging thief Bette Davis. These iconic old stars embody the message, from opposite sides of the law, that seniors are still valuable contributors. It’s a theme that recurs throughout the series and bespeaks creators conscious of their ties to Hollywood history. The title of the Lanchester is “The Spy Who Came In From the Old”, a Le Carré joke that expresses this series’ awareness and subversion of that more serious strain in spy fiction.

The Lanchester and Davis shows are directed by Gerd Oswald, a cult figure who did remarkable TV work in fantasy and crime. However, his contributions to this series have a standard self-effacing approach. Meanwhile the weirdest episode, “The Scorpio Drop,” which seems to have dropped in from another series, featues exactly the type of expressive, almost psychedelic flourishes one might expect from Oswald. It’s handled by Robert Gist, an intriguing upper-echelon TV director (Peter Gunn, Naked City, Route 66) who did the ambitious 1966 failure An American Dream.

This doozy boasts another old-time Hollywood star, “Spider Woman” Gale Sondergaard, as the leader of an astrological cult in California that wants to perform human sacrifices. This episode of December 1969 seems to be an oblique nod to the Manson Family murders of a few months earlier, so it’s both utterly bizarre and distastefully contemporary. It’s scripted by William Bast with an unusual opening narration by Mundy. Bast later created the series Tucker’s Witch (1982), about a housewife/witch in Laurel Canyon, and wrote the excellent TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, so he had a thing for dangerous women. (He’s best known as a friend, biographer and lover of James Dean.)

Indeed, this last half-season has several unusual episodes. “Situation Red” is an atypical Larson offering of claustrophobic suspense patterned on a Dr. Strangelove/Fail Safe nuclear-war scenario. “Fortune City” and “Sing a Song of Murder” are marked by expressive direction by Barry Shear, with the camera tracking complexly around a scene. The former affair finds Mundy and a girlfriend (Stefanie Powers, ex-Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) trapped in a western ghost town for mysterious reasons, while the latter uses guests The 5th Dimension for a story with music and flashbacks. Note that “Fortune City” marks the first pairing of Wagner and Powers; their personas would wed years later in Hart to Hart because they look good in champagne.

The series ends on a high point, a mile high. Larson’s “Project X”, directed by Arnold, is an ingenious locked-room or rather locked-airplane countdown in which passengers are mysteriously dying like clockwork in order to call attention to pollution. Christina Sinatra returns as Mundy’s girlfriend Ellen, who appeared a few episodes ago with a different last name (but still remembers the events!), and Wally Cox is a nuclear scientist.

It ends with an ununusal self-consciousness that’s both earnest and winking. Mundy declares, “The ecology crisis has to be told and retold until it does some good,” and Cox’s character answers, “He’s right. It’s no exaggeration to say that we are rapidly making this planet uninhabitable for human beings.” Then Wally Powers, Mundy’s most frequent boss this season, says “Now wait a minute, gentlemen. You know that and I know it, and you can be sure the government knows it.” Then he looks directly into the camera with a smirk and says, “So what are you trying to do, scare everybody?” Freeze frame. Cue credits.

As a sign of the times, this episode was broadcast on 23 March 1970, two days after San Francisco observed the first Earth Day. It’s not certain whether Larson could have known about that, but he certainly knew that the first national Earth Day was scheduled for 22 April, as that demonstration and “teach-in” had been discussed for months in the media. This event is now credited with launching the modern environmental movement that led, among other things, to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Forty years later, the doomsday scenarios are still familiar.


In addition to the various recurring characters already mentioned, three appearances were made by SIA agent Edwina Hopkins (Sharon Acker), and double appearances by high-class fence Nick Grobbo (Ricardo Montalban), agent Nancy Ross-White (Katherine Crawford, married to exec producer Frank Price), bad guy Eric Redman (Adolfo Celi), agent Ramsey (Tony Young), and Paris bureau chief Charles (Nigel Patrick).

The roster of additional guests includes Tina Louise, Anthony Zerbe, Suzy Parker, Keye Luke, Roger C. Carmel, Yvonne Craig, Noel Harrison, George Takei, Alejandro Rey, Dana Wynter, Sally Kellerman, Richard Carlson, Paul Lukas, Edward Everett Horton (an utterly pointless cameo), Peter Sellers (ditto), Lloyd Bochner, Julie Newmar, Jessica Walter, Senta Berger, Victor Buono, Martha Hyer, Henry Silva, Frankie Avalon, Alice Ghostley, Wilfrid Hyde-White, Geoffrey Holder, Dick Smothers, Mario Andretti, Broderick Crawford, Timothy Carey, Earl Holliman, and Cesar Romero.

Overall, this was an intriguing, teasing series whose adventures varied from average to entertaining. If the show restrains itself from crossing into camp silliness during the lightest episodes, it may be for the same reason that it rarely has the dazzling deftness it’s aiming for either. It’s marked by the workmanlike, middle-of-the-road tone of hammering out a show on a backlot, as good as you can settle for on a tight schedule and with Universal’s deserved reputation for chintziness. What lifts it are lively players and bouts of good writing.

This opinion may be colored or rather discolored by the fact that these washed-out prints don’t have the crisp colors and crystal sound we associate with DVDs of similar series of that era from MGM, Warner Brothers or CBS/Paramount. In fact, they’re kind of an eyesore. This often seems the case with Universal, especially when a show is licensed from them by another company, which seems to preclude pristine prints from the vault.

Of course it’s billed as “digitally remastered” but that only means they took what they got and put it on DVD. It’s not as bad as the I Spy DVDs, but not nearly as good as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Mission: Impossible or The Wild Wild West. Frankly, this makes a big difference when the show’s primary appeal is eye-candy and “style”. Barring that, at least this box offers nifty coasters and a film still.

This series established Wagner and Larson as major forces in TV. Larson went on to create another con-artist show, Alias Smith and Jones, set in the old west. Then he reunited with Wagner and Zarcoff for another three-season lark called Switch about—wait for it—a former con artist who teams up with the ex-cop who arrested him to stage elaborate scams on bad people. This time it was for a private agency, not the government. If TV seems to imitate itself, it’s not so much that people steal from each other as that the same producers cannibalize their own history. These Universal productions may be worth revisiting too, but please, we need sharper prints or digital restoration in this high-def era. We’re funny that way.

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//Mixed media