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Sunday, January 16, 2011

MAN IN A SUITCASE: SET 1 -- DVD review by porfle

Fans of 60s British spy shows such as "Secret Agent" and "The Avengers" should get a bang out of "Man in a Suitcase", which graced UK tellies for a single season back in 1967.  (American viewers got to see it on ABC-TV a year later.)  Acorn Media's DVD collection MAN IN A SUITCASE: SET 1 offers the first 15 out of 30 episodes on four discs, and is just plain fun to watch. 

Texas native Richard Bradford (THE UNTOUCHABLES, A TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL) stars as ex-American Intelligence agent McGill (his first name is never revealed, although he's often referred to as "Mac"), who was framed for treason by his own agency in order to protect the identity of a double agent working in Russia.  While fighting to clear his name, McGill survives by taking various odd jobs as a private detective, bounty hunter, or bodyguard, and is often enlisted by his former superiors in Intelligence to perform dirty jobs for them against his will.  As one character describes him in an early episode: "He's a Yank.  Not bent, not straight.  Works for himself."

This interesting premise--you never know what he'll be involved in next--makes it possible for McGill to take part in a wide variety of dangerous and unpredictable adventures.  Bearing a closer resemblance to "Secret Agent" than the more fanciful "The Avengers", this gritty Cold War thriller is marked by snappy, hardboiled dialogue, wry humor, and frequent violence.

The latter is most often directed at McGill himself, who often gets bludgeoned, stabbed, beaten up, drugged, and even shot during the course of an episode.  Despite his attempts to look spiffy in cool-cat tailored suits with narrow ties, he usually ends up pretty ragged before the fadeout.  On several occasions, in fact, he spends much of the episode either staggering in a daze or struggling desperately just to stand up.

McGill takes all of this in stride because he has to.  As played by method actor Bradford--whose distinctive look includes prematurely gray hair and an ever-present cigarette jutting from his lips--he's gruff and hardbitten on the outside but sensitive and sympathetic on the inside, often getting into trouble by helping out an old friend or being drawn into an ill-fated romance.  We know he's a good guy and a skilled agent, yet the abuse and betrayal he's endured from both enemy agents and former allies makes him wary and suspicious of everyone.

While McGill keeps a London apartment, most of what he owns is contained in his beat-up suitcase, which he may have to take into action anywhere in the world at a moment's notice.  To this end, the backlot of Pinewood studios serves as various "exotic" settings.  Actual London locations are used to good effect as well.

Though the series takes place in the late 60s, it's refreshingly free of that era's usual "mod" nonsense.  Sets are low-budget but interesting, and heavy on the pastels characteristic of early color television.  On a technical level, the show is quite well done, with much of the 2nd unit direction and editing by five-time "James Bond" director John Glen.  The nifty animated opening titles are accompanied by Ron Grainer's cool theme.

Episode one, "Brainwash", finds McGill being held captive by deposed South Africa governor Colonel Davies and subjected to heavy psychological torture for unknown reasons.  It's a strange episode to start out with as McGill spends much of it confined in a cell in a drugged stupor, but it does demonstrate his resourcefulness and resolve.  He also gets knocked out, beaten up, and shot, barely surviving the ordeal. 

In episode two, "The Sitting Pigeon", McGill must babysit a surly, uncooperative gangster who's scheduled to testify against his own brothers and is marked for death.  Besides being one of the funnier and more suspenseful stories in the series, it boasts a guest appearance by none other than legendary "Monty Python" babe Carol Cleveland, here sporting an auburn beehive along with her miniskirt.  The next episode, "Day of Execution", features a young pre-stardom Donald Sutherland. 

"Variation on a Million Bucks", a two-parter with guest stars Yoko Tani (FIRST SPACESHIP ON VENUS), Norm Rossington (A HARD DAY'S NIGHT), and Aubrey Morris (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, "Deadwood"), is one of the best in the series.  McGill is given the key to a safety deposit box containing a million dollars by an old friend, a former Russian agent, as he lies dying of a gunshot wound.  Trouble is, the money is in Turkey and McGill must illicitly buy passage on a ship populated by cutthroats who will do anything for the key.  As par for the course, he ends up getting conked out, beaten up, stabbed, and shot--in addition to losing his girlfriend! 

With episode six, "Man from the Dead", we finally get to see the series pilot and find out the details of how McGill was originally set up as a fall guy.  Stuart Damon guest stars.  Next, Judy Geeson is "Sweet Sue", a spoiled rich girl whose father hires McGill to expose a couple of hipster hucksters who are taking her to the cleaners.  "Essay in Evil" is a tale of blackmail and murder directed by Freddie Francis, the highlight of which is a fight between McGill and a brawny Bond-style henchman.

"The Girl Who Never Was" concerns a lost Botticelli painting and features Bond regular Bernard Lee.  Barbara Shelley (FIVE MILLION YEARS TO EARTH) appears in "All That Glitters", in which McGill is hired to locate a kidnapped boy.  "Dead Man's Shoes" finds McGill in a small village beset by marauding thugs.  In "Find the Lady", he's hunted by a homicidal jewel thief in Rome and joined by Jeanne Roland (YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE) and Patrick Cargill (HELP!, "The Prisoner"). 

The final three episodes in the set, "The Bridge", "The Man Who Stood Still", and "Burden of Proof", feature such familiar faces as Jane Merrow (HANDS OF THE RIPPER), Rupert Davies (THE OBLONG BOX, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE), and John Gregson (THE LONGEST DAY).  More astute fans of British television will probably recognize several more.

The 4-disc DVD set from Acorn Media is in full-screen with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound.  No subtitles.  Picture quality is good, with occasional flaws--which, to me, just add to the nostalgic ambiance.  Each disc contains a photo gallery.  The smartly-designed menus are also adorned with some nice pics, along with episode summaries.

There's just something about these vintage British spy shows that I find appealing and fun.  An "Avengers" fanatic as a kid, I never seemed to connect with this particular show during its initial run.  But thanks to MAN IN A SUITCASE SET 1, I'm finally catching up with a really cool series.

Buy it at
Read our review of Set 2

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