Prime Time Larceny: It Takes a Thief

A product of TV’s schizophrenic late ’60s, It Takes a Thief is a light-hearted escapist adventure that ran on America’s ABC network from January 1969 to March 1970. Some shows come out on DVD a season at a time, or even half a season, but not this one. The box contains all three seasons plus a few bonuses, and we shall stroll through the summery maze of its garden with our magnifying glass in one hand and pinking shears in the other, a manservant following behind with a tall cool beverage on a silver salver.

The series was a vehicle for Robert Wagner in his niche as a handsome TV-friendly leading man who avoids overly heavy material. He plays suave anti-hero Al Mundy, who enjoys a reputation as a world-class thief, a glamorous burglar, a black-garbed dangler from skylights over fabulous jewels in closely-guarded museums, a spinner of combination locks with his ear to the tumblers, not to mention a pickpocket’s pickpocket. Too bad he landed in prison. On the day he executes an ingenious escape attempt, he discovers he’s been tapped for service by Noah Bain (Malachi Throne), the ex-cop who arrested him.

The balding, gruff, almost snarling Bain looks a bit like an angry doorknob. He’s a chief of the SIA, which is supposed to be the CIA without coming out and saying it. In the pilot, he glibly summarizes the premise thusly: “Espionage today is mainly larceny and homicide. The best people for that are thieves and murderers. If we want to steal something, let’s have a thief.” If you let that elitist pragmatism sink in, it opens the possibility of a subversive, satirical critique. It’s fair to say the producers don’t really want it to sink in.

So Noah Bain springs Mundy on parole and keeps him on a tight leash, always threatening to bounce him back into stir if he fails to pull off some heist from a foreign embassy or retrieve a defector or double agent from the Soviets or the Red Chinese. The show isn’t coy about naming the Cold War enemy, although it often invents foreign nations for its antics.

Mundy lives in a velvet cage. For his cover as an international playboy (and noted thief? for plot purposes, he can be either), he lives in a mansion and must be seen at casinos on the arms of beautiful women. It’s a dirty job, etc. For a nod at credibility, at least Noah is always bitching about his budget. Closed-circuit monitors in the mansion are meant to ensure that Mundy never gets anywhere with the she-keepers, lest Noah show up glowering and barking like a dyspeptic producer annoyed with his star. With his cameras, Noah personifies the broadcast standards of his day: tease and tantalize with voyeuristic promise but don’t go through with it.

However, it was a transitional period for TV, and the show ends up strongly implying that Mundy manages to have a sex life anyway (and this progressive scamp is willing to flirt with women of every race and nation). In fact, by the second season, the cameras are no longer mentioned and Mundy seems to be on a much longer leash, even taking vacations on his own. Also, Mundy has become more trustworthy in terms of no longer trying to freelance extra diamonds into his pocket.

Speaking of sex, the series manages the amazing feat of showing off swarms of fabulous females with hardly any of them needing to be rescued, unless Mundy’s right there needing rescue with them as they work together. Just fast-forward 30 years to the no-nonsense Agent Scully of The X Files, for example, and consider how often she got kidnapped, trussed, gagged, stuffed in car trunks, and impregnated by aliens, and you’ll realize how groundbreaking this simple avoidance of damsels-in-peril truly is. It’s not only ahead of its time, it’s often ahead of ours.

The show is littered with beautiful women who demonstrate the evolution of this post-Diana Rigg, post-Barbara Bain, post-Barbara Feldon era by falling into three categories. Some are merely decorative, some are femme fatales, a few are ditzy handfuls, and many are competent intelligent professionals who simply happen to be gorgeous. The first three categories had always been a part of male adventures on TV and movies, while the last began asserting itself most strongly on TV (more so than films) during the late 60s. TV is generally 10 to 20 years ahead of cinema in social values, since TV shows have a more immediate and immoderate production schedule. They remain closer to the living room, even when escaping from it.

The Formula and Its Forbears

Each episode whets our appetite with a bit of suspense or mayhem already in progress. Then Dave Grusin’s swanky theme music, which sounds a little like it’s played on a groovy car horn, swings over mod, multi-colored credits that evoke the era’s craze for split-screen gimmickry (e.g., The Thomas Crown Affair). Then, in the weekly expository ritual, the uptight Noah explains the assignment, hectoring and cajoling Mundy as the latter lounges on a sofa making dry interjections like “Terrific” and “Oh, you’re beautiful, baby.”

(He’s capable of greater wit, as when he explains how he learned to pick a lock: “My father taught me on my 16th birthday. He wanted me to follow in his fingerprints.” Let’s credit the writer of that one: British comedy scribe Norman Hudis.)

Returning to the weekly crisis, basically Mundy must sneak in somewhere and steal something for his country. He devises his own plans, which sometimes involve disguises and masquerades in various accents, and which can be ingenious in their near-plausibility. Alas, something nearly always goes wrong.

In one episode, he breaks a leg or ankle or something and must coach Noah through the charade via transistor earpiece in order to lift this week’s gadget. This is unusual because Noah normally just stands by bothering Mundy, but here Noah hits it off with an Iron Curtain scientist (Ida Lupino). In another caper, Mundy breaks his whatsis again and must cast a substitute, a double-crossing old comrade (Fernando Lamas), then recuperates enough for them to get in each other’s way. It’s actually one of three adventures with Lamas, who always plays a different character; this is the one with the castle moat and the tiger.

The high concept behind the series is to combine the spy genre with the heist genre. Both trends had exploded in ’60s film and TV and were just starting to wane when this series premiered. The glamorous Euro-heist had been kicked off with Rififi, a film referenced in an early episode when Mundy wants to watch it on TV. The show’s title also invokes the Alfred Hitchcock trifle with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, To Catch a Thief, since they form the aphorism “It takes a thief to catch a thief.” Even at the height of the show’s popularity, many viewers mistakenly called it To Catch a Thief and probably still misremember it.

The modern heist or caper film was an extension of classic thief romances such as Raffles and Trouble in Paradise in that besides glamorous locales and costumes, it emphasized the breathless mechanics of the heist itself. The heist and its smaller-scale cousin, the swindle or con game, had reached a TV pinnacle with The Rogues (1964-65), a European-shot series with Gig Young, David Niven and Charles Boyer leading a wealthy family of thieves who put their skills to work on the side of the angels. (Where are those episodes now?) Then Bruce Geller melded the elaborate scam with the spy game in the very successful Mission: Impossible, which was going strong as It Takes a Thief premiered.

They are close relatives conceptually, with differences in tone and approach. Geller’s series is cold and emotionless, with every plan unfolding like clockwork during its early seasons, always five steps ahead. It took the producers a while to realize that sometimes things have to go wrong or the suspense gets dull. It Takes a Thief, created by Rolanld Kibbee, carries a warm, larkish tone from the beginning, mostly conveyed by Wagner and plots that have unforeseen wrenches tossed into the works. At its best, it keeps Mundy hopping and improvising, which leaves the viewer enjoyably off-balance within the inevitable formula of a successful outcome.

Although it’s just kidding, the show occasionally makes feints in the direction of post-John Le Carré realism via sour asides on what a gloomy, deadly game it is where everyone’s considered expendable by their own government (yet no one who matters ever dies). The noir-tinted landscape of spy fiction, and the world around it, had changed to the extent that even audiences who wanted light escapism wouldn’t buy the naively good-natured idealism of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. plots of a few years earlier. Thus we can find episodes like “Get Me to the Revolution on Time”, in which a sympathetically angry and charismatic black Caribbean revolutionary (Ivan Dixon) does business with a cabal of throat-cutting white Yankee capitalists more unscrupulous than he, not that it does him any good. More serious episodes arrive in the third season, and we’ll get to them in due time.

Behind the Scenes: Season One

The first few episodes are largely shaped by writer-director Leslie Stevens, celebrated creator of The Outer Limits. That includes a pilot, barely over an hour long, that was shown in a 90-minute slot and was severely cut down from a feature-length theatrical version seen in Europe. That complete version is included as a bonus, and viewers should go to it directly and skip the short version, which lops out 45 minutes to finish incoherently.

Stevens must have liked working with close-cropped Susan Saint James, who was at the beginning of a career with Universal TV that led directly to The Name of the Game and McMillan and Wife. She played an ill-fated stewardess in the pilot, and he brings her back twice in a new role as kooky jewel thief Charlene Brown, called Charlie or Chuck — get it? She bounces back in Season Three for a couple more double-crossed scams. Briefly hovering around the edges of these early outings is Amanda Andrews (Francine York), one of the live-in lovelies whose main duties are modeling tight sweaters; they get dropped (the lovelies, not the sweaters) along with Stevens.

The Stevens output was produced by Frank Price, who settles into the role of executive producer for the rest of the season. Price, on his way to being head of Universal TV during the ’70s and then head of Columbia Pictures, oversaw two mostly independent production units on the series. The episodes produced by Winston Miller seem relatively serious; in a bonus interview, Glen A. Larson calls them the more precision-oriented, Mission: Impossible shows. This isn’t strictly so, for Miller’s last episode is the season finalé, a Riviera lark with Hermione Gingold as a faded flapper whose scandalous memoirs will supposedly embarrass several governments.

Trumping Reason

Still, the lighter larks with wackier guests tend to be produced by Gene L. Coon, fresh from a distinguished run on Star Trek. His episodes include the one where Mundy spends the whole show crossing paths with a competitive former colleague (Bill Bixby) who complicates the assignment, the one with Suzanne Pleshette as an opera diva (!) and Harvey Lembeck as her effeminate hairdresser-cum-assassin (!!), and the one where Lynda Day (before she was Lynda Day George) is a dizzy jet-set kleptomaniac who lifts a crown jewel that Mundy must surreptitiously return.

It was Coon who got Larson onto the show as a writer and story editor, his first regular role in the medium he’d been trying to break into while touring as a member of The Four Preps. Larson was on his way to being a major force at Universal TV in the ’70s and ’80s. His scripts are marked by a decided unpredictability, which he clearly values more than credibility or any overwhelming compulsion to seal every plot hole.

His episodes are looser in several meanings of the term, and at best, their ability to amuse and distract the viewer trumps our sense of reason. A perfect example is his first script, “Birds of a Feather”. It begins with Mundy disguising himself as a military officer to sneak into a prison in some Eastern European hellhole to rendezvous with an inmate (Strother Martin) with a microdot in his tooth, then shifts direction until he breaks into an embassy in Washington DC and drops a ring down the sink, later to return as the plumber with a carrier pigeon. This is a ramshackle farrago of elements when you think about it, but you don’t think about it because you have no idea what’s coming next. You sense Larson trying to surprise himself in order to surprise the viewer.

Season Two: What to Do

Gordon Oliver took over as executive producer of Season Two. He was a veteran of the Blake Edwards series Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky, which are essentially the origin of TV’s love affair with dashing, well-dressed heroes at ease mingling with the demi-monde or drinking cocktails in jazz clubs. He must have understood the joie de vivre and savoir faire and je ne sais quoi of such a tone, and he let Coon produce most of the season. Coon gets a few episodes off for good behavior thanks to pinch-hitting from producer-writer Mort Zarcoff (normally the associate producer) and prominent TV action director Leonard Horn (Mission: Impossible, Mannix) in his only stint as a series producer.

The first thing Coon and Oliver did was establish Mundy in a ritzy Washington DC apartment — at the Watergate! Too bad he didn’t masquerade as a plumber in these episodes. The old mansion with the cameras is only seen in a couple of early episodes apparently left over from the Price era. Mundy now has almost complete freedom and steps out on dates. Isn’t it ironic that he lost the 24-hour surveillance when he moved into the Watergate?

Larson got his next big break with the 13th episode of the season, “Guess Who’s Coming to Rio”, his first effort as producer as well as writer. Mundy is on vacation far from Noah when he stumbles into a world of cross-purposes and redundant assassination plots. Showing his personality, Larson throws in comic support from Terri Garr and a pair of fellows who imitate Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre for no reason but a wink and a nod. (The Greenstreet clone is called Demetrius in reference to the film The Mask of Dimitrios.)

This episode introduces an even angrier boss than Noah, the tall and shiny William Dover (John Russell, who looks a bit like Jack Palance); he returned several times in Season Three. Larson also brings back Garr’s character, Maggie Philbin, once more in Season Three. He likes to keep track of his details and recycle them as part of the show’s world.

Something interesting happens after Coon’s finalé as producer, a comic but imploding and protracted two-parter that takes place behind the scenes at a movie studio where Joey Heatherton plays a talent-free starlet while future Brady Bunch boy Barry Williams plays her genius brother. That was directed by Hollywood veteran Jack Arnold, who made great science fiction films in the ’50s. He must have liked the show and the feeling must have been mutual, because he takes over as executive producer for the last third of the season under now full-time producer-writer Larson (and a few by Zarcoff), and the show hits its stride. There will be good shows later, but it will never again be so consistently good as this string of episodes.

The first Arnold/Larson outing is “Catspaw”, the aforementioned plot with Lamas, the moat, and the tiger. Then comes an unusually tight Larson script that still lets him juggle the plates. “Boom at the Top” unrolls virtually in real time. The dialogue references the series’ title as Mundy throws a party for DC bigwigs in order to snare a pickpocket. There turn out to be two independent thieves working the room (Carol Lynley and Roddy McDowall) but the real zing is provided by a courier (Barry Sullivan) who crashes the affair handcuffed to a suitcase that will explode in less than an hour — the same time the show will end! Mundy’s navigating of these elements builds absorbing suspense and creates one of the most memorable hours so far.

A Zarcoff episode, “Rock-Bye, Bye, Baby” emphasizes the unpredictability of character as plot motivation. Mundy recruits an alcoholic old-time thief (Edmond O’Brien), who promptly screws up the mission so that Mundy must manipulate the dumb goon (Gavin MacLeod) who wants to kill them all. This is a good example of how the show, at its best, keeps viewers guessing about how a caper can be pulled off as it becomes increasingly impossible. Like a cat burglar dangling from a skylight, the show seems to operate without a net or a formula-plot guidebook during episodes like this. Look for Sterling Holloway in a cameo as the shop owner who keeps piranha.

The high mark is “The Great Chess Gambit”. It’s not only a strong example of a Larson production (co-written with Bruce Belland) but, possibly because of director Jeannot Szwarc, has a tone, visual sense and rhythm that resembles nothing in the show before or later. The cuts between scenes occur on rhyming bits of dialogue or visual motifs that emphasize the gamesmanlike theme; in the pre-credits sequence, three separate scenes are connected by footage of a football game whose announcer seems to be calling the plays on the action. This juggling feels almost radical for TV and is reminiscent of a Richard Lester movie. Nehemiah Persoff (unusually restrained, with an upper class accent) and Stuart Margolin (seething) are outstanding as Russian colleagues. If you see only one episode, perhaps it should be this one.

Szwarc would direct a couple more episodes in the final season. They have a few minor flourishes but nothing so structural. He established himself solidly as a stylish TV director, doing good work on Night Gallery and Kojak, before floundering on the big screen with a few bombs (Jaws 2, Supergirl, Santa Claus: The Movie) and one possible classic, Somewhere in Time.

TV understandably doesn’t emphasize directorial style but rather a generic “house style”, which in the case of this series was laid by its most prolific director, Don Weis. He’d had a brief reputation for light, colorful fare when he worked at MGM in the ’50s. He found his career in TV, where critics Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi in The American Vein praise him as one of the most professional and distinctive in shaping a series.

Season Three: Over and Out

The third and last season brought great changes, the most decisive being cancellation. It remained under the Arnold/Larson regime at first, and production values were higher than ever thanks to location filming in Europe for several episodes. The first two seasons had been set all over the world while being shot all over Los Angeles. It had been the same with The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Mission: Impossible, of course; that was TV’s cheapness. I Spy raised the bar in terms of international location filming, so it was nice when this show stopped faking it (although some episodes still faked it).

Noah was gone; Throne left the series because they wouldn’t bring him to Europe. He was replaced by a rotating circus of angry superiors, usually Wally Powers (Edward Binns), sometimes chubby bulldog Fred Devon (George Murdock), the aforementioned Dover and a few others. Joseph Cotten makes a few appearances as Mr. Jack, head of the SIA, with nobody remembering that he’d played an East German spymaster in a two-parter the previous season; that’s a heck of a defection. Only Powers gets mentioned in the standard reference books.

There are fans who think the show lost something when Throne left, and apparently Throne thought so. Certainly the bosses are dull characters, but Noah had always been a downer, a nagging chaperone and near-bully who kept harshing Mundy’s buzz. His rulebook persona had a sly aspect, as he was the kind who could be flexible or tolerant with admitting it. I’m not sure the show needed his ballast, although his absence might make the show’s inherent inconsistencies more obvious.

Still, the show feels much freer without Mundy’s keeper, and it’s partly because Season Three kept exploring ways to drop its hero into alternate formulas and fresh variations. This is especially true during the latter half, when Paul Mason came aboard as primary producer and Larson became almost a special guest.

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

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.

Debriefing

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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