The ‘Man in a Suitcase’ Is a Surly Bastard

[14 February 2011]

By Michael Barrett

American Intelligence Is Resigned

McGill (Richard Bradford) is a big guy with grey-white hair. He speaks in a low cool rumble, not unlike Clint Eastwood. He’s laidback and heavy-lidded to the point of seeming half-asleep, but you wouldn’t want to poke him with a stick. He’s been around too much to look young. He doesn’t have a first name. He’s an American in swinging London, but he never seems very happy about it. He’s a surly bastard. He’s the Man in a Suitcase because the battered title accessory is all he owns and he’s constantly on the move. This DVD set gathers the first 15 episodes of his lone season of adventures.

McGill’s backstory is explained in “Man from the Dead”, the first episode broadcast on American TV in the summer of 1968 but the sixth episode shown in the UK in the fall of 1967. That order makes a difference. Written by Stanley R. Greenberg and directed by Pat Jackson, “Man from the Dead” feels like a proper origin setting up a series; it even explains the suitcase. Six years ago, McGill was an American intelligence agent in England (“third from the top”) who was fired for allowing a scientist to defect. He learns what will be predictable to readers of spy fiction: the defection was a ruse to plant a double-agent, and McGill’s disgrace made it look convincing. Now he bums around Europe as a taciturn, two-fisted private detective who gets badly beaten up at least once an episode.

This set uses the UK broadcast order, which means this explanation arrives a bit late in the day. The previous episodes only allude to his shady history in dribs and drabs, letting us know he’s an object of disgrace or that he accepts the blame for something of which he isn’t guilty. That leaves a lot of room to imply what he might be guilty of, or that he might be a scapegoat for others. These vague allusions could mean anything. All we know is that he stumbles from one adventure to another as a soldier for hire haunted by his past. By the time this sixth episode rolls around to answer our questions and iron out the ambiguities, it feels mundane to realize everyone was just doing their best. For the rest of the series, somebody in every episode remarks, “As a former American intelligence agent” or “Since you had to resign from American intelligence…”

As broadcast in England, the first episode is “Brainwash”, and it’s a strong opening that somewhat misleads the viewer about the nature of the series. Written by Bernie Cooper and Francis Megahy, this episode takes place in a mazelike house where McGill is subjected to the torture of watching the same film over and over.

The villain is a British country squire who’s the deposed ruler of a fictional African country that might be a version of Kenya. (He’s played by Howard Marion-Crawford, Dr. Watson in the 1954 Sherlock Holmes series.) His colonial government was overthrown in a democratic coup, and he blames McGill for being part of the “Anglo-American conspiracy” behind this. McGill spends the episode insisting he was never in that country, but he we’re expected to assume he’s lying. One thing about ‘60s spy shows in contradistinction to reality: overthrowing foreign governments is okay as long as despots are being replaced by democracy, but never the reverse.

Another thing about ‘60s spy shows: they all have brainwash episodes where the heroes were subjected to flashing lights, distorted photography, and zooming close-ups. The visual language of brainwashing was the same as for drug hallucinations. This episode is more convincing and unnerving than most of those other shows and manages a few truly disorienting moments, thanks to distinguised director Charles Crichton. His output includes The Lavender Hill Mob, A Fish Called Wanda and British series as diverse as The Avengers, The Adventures of Black Beauty, and Space: 1999.

It makes sense that the US used “Man from the Dead” instead of “Brainwash” as a premiere simply on the basis of better explaining the series, but I must wonder whether the network was influenced by the fact that this episode is so disorienting and cruel and potentially political. A commenter on IMDB points out that “Brainwash” resembles an episode of The Champions scripted by Dennis Spooner, who co-created Man in a Suitcase with Richard Harris, and that Colin Blakely plays the cold torturer in both episodes.

“Brainwash” feels so close to Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner, also about an agent who resigned, that one can’t help wondering about other resemblances between the two shows. Both are ITC productions that premiered in England within two days of each other in September 1967. They share one director, Pat Jackson, but no production crew. They couldn’t, since they were filmed simultaneously in different locations. However, both have themes composed by Ron Grainer and both use the same casting director and music director.

It’s natural for several of the same guests to appear, especially from the same casting director. At least three actors who played Number Two in McGoohan’s show also dog McGill’s heels: Anton Rodgers, Derren Nesbitt, and Patrick Cargill. Prisoner fans will spot other common actors such as Jane Merrow, Mark Eden, Angela Browne, Annette Carell, and Aubrey Morris.

Otherwise, much of Man in a Suitcase falls squarely into the shoot-out, pretty-girl routine of other two-fisted British adventure shows of its era, best defined by The Saint. It’s not even the spy show the opening episodes make it out to be. At first it seems another international frivolity of brisk style and pleasant colors, although with a hero more violent than dashing. Now and then it uses McGill’s cases as a window into lonely, desperate, tawdry lives—kind of like Inspector Maigret if the hero punched people out.

Crichton’s “Day of Execution”, written by Philip Broadley, also deals with a disorienting identity crisis, and it’s another story in which fallout from an old assignment is catching up with McGill. He’s taunted with death threats by people who seem to mistake him for someone else. It appears to have nothing to do with him, but he finally understands that this is indeed the sequel to something he’s done. The young Donald Sutherland is a guest, and this marks the first of two appearances by Jarvis (Robert Urquhart), a journalist whom McGill uses as a contact.

However, this episode’s most notable achievement is what it does with the romantic angle. As you all know, class, whenever a TV adventure hero seems to fall into a serious relationship with a woman, the story follows a certain pattern. He warns her that he’s no good for her, baby, because he’s a lone wolf in a life of danger. She replies that she’s tough and she can take it. She’ll say “Just watch me” or “You just try to get rid of me, mister.” They smooch. We fade to a commercial. At this point, only two outcomes are possible. Either she gets killed, or he bravely renounces her.

Well, this episode’s femme (Rosemary Nicols) commits an act of common sense I’ve never seen before on TV. After all the standard malarkey leading up to the climax where she’s endangered in a scene of frightening carnage, and when it’s finally all over but the clean-up, she runs like hell. The last shots are literally her fleeing the scene. There’s a wrap-up for you.

That’s a good example of one of the show’s tics. While the endings are always technically “happy” (the situation is resolved and bad guys thwarted), the final scene is usually one of ambiguity and resignation. Unlike James Bond or Simon Templar, our hero never sails into the sunset with this week’s female in one arm and a bottle of champagne in the other. When she doesn’t bolt like a rabbit, McGill gives her a blood-stained kiss-off and stumbles away nursing his ribs.

Likewise, the other characters usually end up separated from their loved ones and failing to get what they want. The world is one big aching bruise, which is certainly a tonal shift from those series that end on a freeze-frame of the characters laughing after a job well done. Naturally, this weary gloom can be as formulaic as the slap-happy type, but it tells us something about the evolution of what was passing as escapist entertainment during its era. 1967-68 was a hell of a time for heroes.

The comparatively non-violent “The Girl Who Never Was” is an example of the occasional Maigret-like tone. Written by Donald Jonson and directed by Robert Tronson, this is about the hunt for a Botticelli painting stolen from an Italian monastery during WWII. All the characters are sad and compromised little people, seeking themselves and finding only illusion.

Another episode about the legacy of war is “The Man Who Stood Still”, written by Raymond Bowers and directed by Peter Duffell. Set in Franco’s Spain, the main characters are former anarchists, one newly freed from prison and one in the police, who play cat and mouse with each other as they try to gauge each other’s loyalty. The dialogue is literate and whole thing is unusual for frankly addressing cynical and confusing political loyalties that are grounded in real history. It’s more common for such things to occur in the context of fictional countries, as in the aforementioned “Brainwash” or the made-up South American country in “Burden of Proof”, which also features characters having literate arguments about loyalty and revolution.

Among the pretty women who decorate McGill’s landscape are Judy Geeson in the same year she made To Sir With Love, Nicola Pagett before she moved Upstairs Downstairs, and a couple of Hammer horror heroines, Barbara Shelley and Suzan Farmer. Yoko Tani, who had a minor international film career, shows up in a two-parter as an old flame who naturally goes through the wringer, if you can wring a flame.

Otherwise the guest roster is dotted with ubiquitous British characters, some with spy-fi resonance like Bernard Lee (James Bond’s M) and Rupert Davies (George Smiley in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and British TV’s Inspector Maigret of the earl-‘60s). Others include T.P. McKenna, Robin Bailey, George Sewell, Ron Randell, Norman Rossington, James Grout, Stuart Damon, Ian McCulloch, Donald Houston, Peter Vaughan, Basil Dignam, Michael Goodliffe, John Carson, James Villiers, Bill Owen, Gerald Sim, Simon Williams, and John Gregson.

One episode in this set is directed by Freddie Francis, the great cinematographer who won Oscars for Sons and Lovers and Glory and did three films for David Lynch; for many years he directed not-quite-classic horror films. (His other three episodes for this series will evidently be in Volume 2.) Herbert Wise, a prolific name in British TV, is the fifth director here. These episodes are produced by Sidney Cole, shot by Lionel Banes and Stephen Dade, and designed by William Kellner. The prints look clean and bright. There are no significant extras.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/136679-man-in-a-suitcase-set-1/