Videophiled TV Sets: The Complete ‘Secret Agent’

SecretAgentCompleteSecret Agent (aka Danger Man): The Complete Series (Timeless, DVD) – Before Patrick McGoohan was The Prisoner, he was John Drake, the maverick agent of Britain’s top secret M9 security force, in the series Danger Man. The show began in 1960, before the first Bond feature was released, in a 30-minute format, with the cool, clever undercover operative Drake sneaking into Eastern bloc regimes and Latin American dictatorships to flush out traitors and assassins, recover stolen secrets, and dabble in a little espionage himself.

That incarnation lasted a single season and was cancelled after the American networks failed to renew it, but a few years later it was reworked as an hour-long show in the wake of the renewed interest in spy shows and Cold War conflicts and it was picked in the U.S. under the title Secret Agent and a new theme, “Secret Agent Man,” sung by Johnny Rivers. (This set features the original British version of the series, with the Danger Man title and a harpsichord theme song.) Where he was once the loyal agent who follows faithfully orders, even when he seems to be on the side of status quo in some very repressive countries, the realpolitik shenanigans are played out with less assuredness and a creeping sense of futility, as if anticipating the disillusionment of McGoohan’s later series The Prisoner, in the second edition. Episodes played with the ambivalence of cold war politics (“Whatever Happened To George Foster,” “That’s Two of Us Sorry”), and two of them even anticipate The Prisoner: in “Colony Three,” a spy school in a manufactured village that could be the inspiration for The Prisoner’s village, and “The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove” features a mind game worthy of the new Number 2. Both of the latter episodes were directed by Don Chaffey, who helmed his share of The Prisoner.

Still, it was, like the U.S. series The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a cleverly-constructed show built of elaborate espionage shell games and diplomatic chicanery, with McGoohan as the ingenious con man behind the bluffs and feints. The series ends with the only two episodes made in color: “Koroshi” and “Shinda Shima,” both set in Japan and later combined and turned into the TV movie Koroshi. This set features the original episodic versions.

The series has been on DVD before but the original release is long out of print and had been going for high prices. This set features the original British broadcast versions of all 86 episodes with the same transfers as the A&E release but compacts it in a smaller box set of three cases, organized by season (as broadcast in the U.S.), and is quite reasonably priced. It features commentary on three episodes and bonus interview with Catherin McGoohan. All that’s missing is the alternate American version of the credits with the rocking theme song.

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Patrick McGoohan is John Drake

Basil Dearden’s London Underground

Basil Dearden’s London Underground” (Criterion/Eclipse)

British workhorse director Basil Dearden never established a strong cinematic personality like Michael Powell or the storytelling muscle (and powerful canvases to match) of David Lean, his two most distinctive contemporaries in the British film industry. But in a career of nearly 40 feature films (plus TV and contributions to a pair of anthology movies), Dearden proved himself a reliable craftsman in films like Dead of Night (1945, the horror anthology film to which he contributed two sequences), The Captive Heart (1946) and The League of Gentleman (1960, included in this set).

Up from the London Underground in "The League of Gentlemen"

The four features in the handsome box set Basil Dearden’s London Underground from the Eclipse imprint of Criterion display talents rare enough in any industry: intelligence, craft, ambition, professionalism and the ability to rise to the challenge of his material with a compassionate portrait of his characters. There’s a tastefulness and a restraint that keeps a lid on the emotional pressure cooker of the repressed and repressive worlds he peeks in on, which only makes him seem all the more distinctly British.

Sapphire (1959), the earliest film in the set, is also the most awkward, a somewhat arch murder mystery that traces the killing of a beautiful young woman on Hampstead Heath into the culture of segregation and racial prejudice in late fifties London. This well-liked student with a wild side (her secret wardrobe bursts with the exploding colors of party dresses and dancing outfits, a sharp contrast to the muted, overcast shades of everyday dress) turns out to be a “lily skin,” a light-toned colored girl who was “passing” in white society (including her own whites-only boarding house). And yes, the bigotry just pours out when the these facts are revealed, even in the junior police detective (Michael Craig) who proclaims that they should just “ship them all back.” The cooler, more compassionate Superintendent (Nigel Patrick) offers the voice tolerance and understanding next to his hotheaded partner while the racial tensions immediately cast a pall over every room once the subject comes up.

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TV on DVD 09/28/10 – Ellery Queen and Danger Man

Ellery Queen Mysteries (E1) – Ellery Queen is both the pseudonymous author of and the main character in the scores of novels and short stories that made him the most well-known detective in American fiction. Both sides of the identity come together in this 1975-76 TV series, set in the late forties and starring Jim Hutton (father of Tim) plays the bestselling mystery author who steps out from his typewriter to help out his police detective father (David Wayne) in particularly intriguing cases. Their rapport is perfect, the flinty old professional with a grudging admiration for his son’s talents and the modest, good-natured and often distracted writer with a knack for observation and gift for puzzling out complicated mysteries. He’s the classic absent-minded genius, spotting the smallest detail out of place but always misplacing his glasses. John Hillerman has a recurring role as radio detective Simon Brimmer always attempting to match wits with Ellery (and always getting it wrong) and Ken Swofford is a hard-boiled reporter who also tries (and fails) to beat Ellery at his game in numerous episodes.

No, it's not Gilligan, it's Jim Hutton as Ellery Queen

Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators of Columbo and the kings of seventies mystery TV, developed the show, wrote the pilot and produced the series, an old-fashioned mystery show with a wonderful stylistic trick: just before he solves crime, and right before the show fades out for the final commercial break, Ellery turns to the audience and gives them a hint to solve the crime before he does. Along with its period setting, the episodes feature a grand cast of old Hollywood stars and familiar character actors, including such all-star victims as George Burns, Eve Arden, Rudy Vallee and Walter Pidgeon and grand suspects as Ray Milland, Don Ameche, Ida Lupino, Dana Andrews, Vincent Price, Vera Miles and Mel Ferrer. And movie buffs will want to note that cult director Jack Arnold directed three episodes. It only lasted a single season but it’s a great season.

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Blu-ray of the Week: The Complete Prisoner

The Prisoner: The Complete Series (A&E) – “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. I am my own man.” There are those who proclaim The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cerebral spy show and portrait of personal freedom as an existential prison, the greatest TV show of all time. I won’t argue the point. His insidiously paranoid take on conspiracy, the world order and the nature of identity is no less timely forty years after it was made. No other TV show dared be as enigmatic or philosophically complex and the suspicious view of global power politics still tops the fantastic conspiracies of X-Files and Fringe and friends.

Patrick McGoohan makes his stand
Patrick McGoohan makes his stand

Star, creator, and sometime writer and director Patrick McGoohan mixes James Bond and “1984” in the story of an unnamed British agent (who bears a striking similarity to a certain John Drake) who, in the opening episode, resigns in a furious confrontation. But before he can leave, he’s ambushed and wakes up in a gingerbread-like tourist town called The Village: a prisoner in an isolated artificial society (a lovely Euro-mash of architecture styles and tourist town constructs), given a number in place of a name and put through elaborate theatrical pageants designed to break his spirit and his individualistic defiance. McGoohan turned the genre, and TV itself, inside out with this ingenious political allegory played as a conspiratorial mind-game of elaborate psychodramas and, though it ran a mere 17 episodes, it became an instant cult classic.

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Not a Number – Patrick McGoohan 1928-2009

“I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. I am my own man.”

Patrick McGoohan was Danger Man John Drake, Dr. Syn (alias The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh), Edward Longshanks, Dr. Paul Ruth in Scanners, Agent David Jones in Ice Station Zebra and erstwhile nemesis to Columbo (he starred in four episodes – a record!) and many, many others in his long career, but to most of us he’s the creator and star of one of the most original and daring TV shows ever created. He was The Prisoner, the former British agent (John Drake, perhaps?) who left the service in an outrage (replayed in the opening sequence of every episode) and was subsequently sent to a kind of holiday colony for retired intelligence agents, a velvet prison created as a surreal mirror of the world. It’s an ingenious political allegory played as a conspiratorial mind-game. No other TV show dared be as enigmatic, as philosophically complex, or as genuinely suspicious view of global power politics.

Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, Danger Man
Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, Danger Man

If you’re looking for a proper tribute to McGoohan, you can’t do better than a Prisoner marathon, but also note that in late 2008, Walt Disney released Dr Syn, The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh. The two-disc set feature the complete three-part series as original broadcast on Disneyland in 1963 and the subsequent feature film version edited down from the series. McGoohan is Dr. Christopher Syn, alias The Scarecrow, a rural country priest in 18th century Britain who leads a double life as a masked smuggler and gangleader, a kind of Robin Hood by way of Batman.

There are tributes aplenty across the web and David Hudson has done a fine job of collecting them at The Daily @ IFC.com. Also be sure to see Jim Emerson’s video essay on the opening sequence of the series on his Scanners blog here, which he reposted in tribute to McGoohan here.