By Les Chappell, Noel Kirkpatrick, and Cameron White
The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
Season 2, Episode 25: “The King of Diamonds Affair”
Original airdate: March 11, 1966
Les: Welcome, everyone, to our next roundtable discussion! This will be our fourth thematic roundtable, following up on our discussions of spooky shows, detective shows and space operas. Once again, we’re discussing one of television’s most storied genres, entering the cloak-and-dagger world of secret agent television. Spies and their exploits have been part of TV history for much of the medium’s existence, as the success of the James Bond franchise led to multiple attempts to cash in on the genre’s popularity, producing a multitude of agencies devoted to thwarting the spread of evil across the globe with all manner of gadgets and disarmingly handsome agents. In recent years it’s also been the genre producing some of television’s best dramas, with AMC’s Rubicon, Showtime’s Homeland, and FX’s The Americans all garnering devoted fanbases and critical acclaim. As with our space opera discussions, the hope is to see how the genre has evolved over the years, and to get a glimpse of the balance between the innate seriousness of the concept and the often light-hearted attitude that comes when guns and radios are placed in virtually any household item.
First up, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a show that frequently moved between both of those poles in its four seasons. Originally conceived by Norman Felton as a show with Hitchcock overtones and a theme of innocent bystanders being caught up in events of international importance, the show moved into being a more overt parody of the genre before reverting back to serious storytelling in the fourth season, after which it was swiftly canceled. Even a cursory glance through the episode descriptions indicates the show wanted it both ways, with plots involving kidnapping and nuclear tensions offset by ones that involved radioactive bats, hiccup gas and a dancing gorilla.
Compared to all of that though, “The King of Diamonds Affair” is a relatively straightforward hour of television. The plot has shades of Goldfinger as a group of criminals are plotting to destabilize the world diamond market, stealing the diamond reserves of a major conglomerate and smuggling them out of the country in tins of pudding. Our heroes Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) and Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) take the White Collar approach to solving the problem and consult with master thief Rafael Delgado (Ricardo Montalban) for advice on how to catch the criminals, an approach hurt by the fact that Delgado was the mastermind of the heist. What follows is a series of events that sees our heroes shot at by a barrage of umbrellas and caught in a car chase through the streets of London, shipped to Brazil and strapped to cannons, culminating with a raid on a fort and a tragic death.
And… that’s about it. To be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed by “The King of Diamonds Affair,” as it wasn’t quite serious enough or campy enough to really capture my attention. I didn’t think it was bad per se, and it did have some solid performances—both Vaughn and McCallum made for convincing spies, and Montalban was clearly having a blast chewing scenery as the flamboyant Delgado. Plus, everyone knows that I have a weakness for hats, and so the fact that the entire criminal organization known as “The Family” was sporting bowler hats to match their submachine umbrellas cheered me up for style points.
One thing I did find interesting was the episode’s lack of political context. This is a show that takes place at the height of the Cold War, but its central partnership of Solo and Kuryakin is the partnership of an American spy and a Russian spy. I don’t think we had enough time between the two to really get the vibe of their working relationship, as the two were separated so Solo could put the moves on Victoria Pogue and Kuryakin could fall in the garbage and then come to his partner’s rescue, but the scenes we did get had no hint of tension, only a mutual respect for and loyalty to each other. Either the threats of such international organizations like THRUSH (not featured prominently here but what I gather is the show’s equivalent of SPECTRE) are so great that they transcend politics, or the show simply wasn’t interested in being set in a political context.
So, not the most thrilling start to the roundtable, but interesting in its own way. What’d the rest of you think?
Noel: It’s a decidedly staid affair, apart from Montalban’s performance, I agree. There’s very little energy propelling the episode forward, and I think it’s telling that there’s so much focus on Delgado’s interactions with The Family and Blodgett. That mismatched pair of criminals offers up the small joys in their respective approaches to crime and murder (I enjoyed Blodgett’s understanding that it is almost always best to shoot you captives now as opposed to ridiculous death traps: “Dawn? Must we get up that early?”). McCallum likewise offers up a few delights with his dry delivery of quick one-liners. I suppose you could think he’s underplaying, especially in his refusal to even ham it up in that ridiculous outfit in Brazil, but I found it refreshing that no one even commented on how absurd he looked.
Brazil probably is the best part of the episode, though. Edwin Blum (co-writer of Stalag 17 with Billy Wilder) and Leo Townsend’s script has for some nice touches, like the recording of the cavalry to distract The Family and Blodgett’s torn clothes after barely surviving the cannon blast. Joseph Sargent’s directing (and he’s still very active, directing a number of TV movies) isn’t very remarkable, but it gets the job done, which is all you’d really want anyway.
Heather: I had never seen an episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before this and, sadly, “The King of Diamonds Affair” has ensured that I won’t watch another. I’ve seen my share of corny and kitsch spy shows. (Lord knows that Mission: Impossible has its ridiculous episodes, for instance.) But “The King of Diamonds Affair” wasn’t just a low-fi product of 1960s television; it was poorly written and painfully boring. I was a bit confused how Solo and Kuryakin actually became spies. They come off as ineffective dandies and slightly thick. Delgado is the one to move the plot forward. And it’s not even that compelling or interesting of a plot. Solo and Kuryakin get outwitted time and again—from the car chase scene at the beginning to Kuryakin getting stranded (and shot) on the fire escape ladder to Solo being knocked out and dumped in a Pogue’s pudding box. I must admit I shouted at Solo on my screen when he turned his back to the shady pudding factory worker. What kind of spy does that? Being new to the show, I’m not sure whether this daft behavior is an aspect played for laughs, or simply a weakness within this specific episode.
I was also annoyed at the fact that the only female character in this episode lacked any sort of strength or courage. She fainted, she swooned, she whined, she batted her eyelashes at Solo one too many times. Sigh. The Family was rather amusing. I started a drinking game for the number of times Larry D. Mann (Blodgett) unintentionally changed his accent: East London, American, Australian. I know he was going for the East London accent, famously associated with the Kray twins (and their organized crime racket) from the 60s, but by slipping in and out of the accent, the device became comical as opposed to threatening. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything redeeming about this episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for me.
Okay, I take that back. There is was one piece of redemption. As soon as I saw David McCallum on screen, I gleefully thought ASHLEY-PITT! And immediately wanted to watch The Great Escape.
As a reminder, we’ll be sampling a different series every week for the next few weeks:
04/18: I Spy, “Magic Mirror” (season 2, episode 25); available through Hulu.
04/15: Get Smart, “Kisses for KAOS” and “All In The Mind” (season 1, episodes 17 and 20); available through YouTube.
05/02: Mission: Impossible, “The Heir Apparent” (Season 3, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.
05/09: The Avengers, “You Have Just Been Murdered” (season 5, episode 22).
05/16: Airwolf, “Fallen Angel” (season 2, episode 7); available through Hulu and Netflix Instant.
05/23: Scarecrow and Mrs. King, “Welcome to America, Mr. Brand” (season 3, episode 5); available through Amazon Instant Video.
05/30: Alias, “Truth Be Told,” (season 1, episode 1); available through Netflix Instant.