How to Steal the World
The moment someone pulls a secret half-burned note out of a missing scientist's fireplace, covered with cryptic 7s - what does it mean? - you know you're in the pretend world of the developmentally arrested. It's a pure place to be - almost a Jungian kid-impulse equally shared by untold millions of other young cineastes, and what's charming about films like this has nothing to do with professionalism, but everything to do with our stasis, or even regress, as children. Call it a "bad" film if you must, but the same aspects that we could condemn as being wretched and inept - the plotting, the dialogue, the action editing, the concepts - also feel sort of child-like, a still-innocent manifestation of play. In our desire to be sucked into a narrative, we usually overlook the fact that moviemaking is a kind of play itself - an elaborate game of pretend. (Jean-Luc Godard knew this perfectly well.) The faster and sloppier a film is shot and assembled seems to accentuate this vibe.
Of course, U.N.C.L.E.'s show-runners and script team did indulge in self-parody at times, and much of How to Steal the World verges on comic hamminess, though never approaching the flat-out cartoonishness of the Batman TV series, which ran contemporaneously. Vampy Eleanor Parker - yes, that Eleanor Parker, the demure melodrama queen from Detective Story (1951) and Caged (1950) - in a mod newsboy cap and toting a badly-dubbed revolver, is merely the most absurd presence on display. She's an evil rogue agent looking to double cross U.N.C.L.E. adversary THRUSH in a plot to kidnap the world's seven most brilliant scientists and use them, and an autosuggestion drug, to gain control over the world's population. The scent of Ayn Rand is definitely in the air here - the set-up echoes Atlas Shrugged - especially once the film decamps to the futurist cult-headquarters in the desert, where the members/employees all wear commune robes, and Leslie Nielsen, as a megalomaniacal Army general heading the scheme, blustering around ordering executions and fondling a riding crop.
It gets complicated, which isn't good because the exigencies of network episodic production means that the essential mechanics of clear cinematic storytelling is at best a minor concern, when in fact the story seems even worth the effort. Every conceivable shortcut and editing fudge-device known to grade-C grinders and get-it-done TV crews is in the mix, as Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, their silk-suited days as superspies winding to a close, are chased, beaten, helicoptered, stranded and captured in their efforts to save the world, presumably for the 200th time. Indeed, with the show's few cast members (like Leo G. Carroll) doing duty in their cutaway roles, U.N.C.L.E. seems a rather hilariously threadbare organization, with only a few offices and fewer agents, and the prospect that they could manage to obviate a threat to their building, much less the entire globe, seems dubious at best.
But the vibe is alluring all the same - this is a strange, impossible, dangerous micro-world, in which assassinations, crashes and machine-gun battles take place in broad daylight, as if no adult cared or could stop it. Vaughn's Napoleon Solo and McCallum's Illya Kuryakin aren't grown-ups battling evil in a remotely authentic landscape; they're kid avatars, tossed about across a giant playground (essentially, the emptied industrial sections and deserts of Los Angeles), making things up as they go along, imagining pulp melodramatics into existence in the blazing featureless sunshine. If you don't key into this vibe, the allure of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. may well be lost on you, as we look back upon this odd cultural phenomena that spawned not only posable action figures but also seven other two-episodes-equals-a-feature movies released worldwide, all between 1964 and 1968. The James Bond series only managed six films in twice the time, but of course those films were actually made with some care and resources. How to Steal the World, on the other hand, is pure malarkey, created like the afternoon whimsy of ten-year-olds playing war on the front lawn.
By Michael Atkinson