Spies were the vampires of the ’60s. Like all trends, their stories proliferated based on the public’s appetite for the material until all resources were exhausted, the backlash had its backlash and everything was deconstructed, parodied and dragged through the muck.
Danger Man premiered in 1960, two years before the first James Bond film, Dr. No, hit theaters. The novels chronicling Ian Fleming’s famous secret agent were already popular, however, and their success, coupled with the political climate of the Cold War created the right environment for stories of international intrigue and adventure.
Bond, of course, usually found himself pitted against some mad genius bent on controlling the world, but Danger Man’s John Drake, as played by Patrick McGoohan, faced comparatively run-of-the-mill villains. Early on McGoohan appears as an American agent of NATO and, in a voiceover at the beginning of each episode, he explains that every government has its own spy organization, as does NATO. He’s called in for specific work. “A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me, or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.”
In the first episode Drake tries to track down $5 million dollars in gold bouillon that goes missing after a banker is murdered. McGoohan exudes the same cool temper and, when called for, the lethal efficiency of the early Bond, and is almost robotic in his pursuit of information. There’s a hint of levity in almost everything he does, though, evident by the permanent smirk on his face. It’s an odd trait, but one that McGoohan sells convincingly. His Drake is many different people-: a tough, a cornball, a coward, a drunk, a charmer. McGoohan’s secret agent is an actor, a chameleon.
During the show’s first season, Danger Man ran for just 30-minutes, leaving little time for filler. The stories are fast-paced, but there’s ample time for fantastic flourishes like Drake disassembling parts of his car to build a rifle when he’s called to take out an assassin hiding out behind the Iron Curtain in a fictional eastern European nation. Some episodes feature narration to fill in the gaps in stories and keep the pace moving, but it also adds the feeling of a detective story. Drake is a loner, he doesn’t let anyone in and, in the biggest departure from his contemporaries, he never gets the girl. There’s always a beautiful woman, of course, but she’s always positioned as a problem rather than a prize, further complicating the already diminished role of women in these kinds of stories.
The series remains strong after the switch to the hour-long format, but the episodic nature of ’60s television makes for a monotone viewing experience when watching a block of episodes. As a result, the stories fuse together into a great mass of images that, while enjoyable, isn’t always distinctive.
The final two episodes of the series, the only ones filmed in color, features Drake pitted against an “ancient murder brotherhood” that seeks out “the poetry of death”. The show’s dry humor and stripped-down action work well in black and white, and the addition of color detracts from the moodiness and noir sensibility of many of the earlier episodes. Still, there are great scenes. In the first color episode, “Koroshi”, Drake attends a strange kabuki performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. There was no room for extended scenes in the half-hour episodes. Next Drake finds himself in a storeroom filled with mannequins dressed in kabuki masks and traditional robes. He wanders among the frozen faces admiring the costumes, still with that smirk on his face, until one comes to life and attacks him from behind. The fight is brief, but it’s just one of many moments of quiet action throughout the series.
In America, Danger Man was known as Secret Agent Man, and used as its theme the famous song of the same name sung by Johnny Rivers. The song was a big hit, peaking at number three on the Billboard charts. In retrospect this pop music provenance lends an unfortunate novelty sheen to the series that does little beyond providing a connection to viewers unfamiliar with the series. A far better association is McGoohan’s next project, The Prisoner, which some read as an sequel to Danger Man as it concerns a secret agent who quits his job only to be kidnapped and brought to the mysterious Village where he’s interrogated and his persona is reduced to a number. Already being familiar with The Prisoner it’s hard not to see echoes of that show in its predecessor, but the connection is more in the minds of the viewers than in the creators’ intentions.
Spies are no different than vampires because their adventures are no less fictional. Vampires drink blood and burn or, if you like, sparkle, in the sunlight. In a spy story there’s an exotic locale, a dangerous woman and a mad man to contend with. These elements may well exist in real life, but they happen away from the eyes of government, the police and, most importantly, television cameras. One could go out and find a real private detective, or a even a real cowboy, but one doesn’t just go out find a secret agent–they find you. That’s their job.
Sometimes, real spies are in the news. Whether it’s CIA agent Valerie Plame-Wilson, whom the Russians caught earlier this year, these stories break and are told through the filter of popular culture, it’s almost as if they’re not taken seriously. We only have the fantastic exploits of fictional spies as reference for these real world events, but when the stories are as entertaining as Danger Man often is, that’s good enough.