Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cities of That Remote Land Are Not Touched by Modern Civilisation (The Blue Veil)

airdate:  2 October 1960
NATO opening:  yes
NATO openings so far:  2
NATO-less openings so far:  2
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

By contrast with the past three episodes, we begin not with a murder but with Drake arriving in a desert location by helicopter, accompanied by Drake’s own voiceover explaining his mission: investigating the slave trade carried on by “Tuaregs” in “Arabia.”  Inasmuch as the Tuaregs are native to northern Africa, whereas Arabia is a subcontinent of Asia, this episode really takes place in a kind of orientalist neverland, with most of the major tropes reliably checked off.  (The “blue veil” of the title is another Tuareg reference [and not a nod to the Jane Wyman movie], but is never mentioned in the actual episode; it may have a double meaning in Drake’s disguise, especially since in Tuareg culture it is traditionally men, rather than women, who are so veiled.)

Drake’s chief adversaries are the local ruler or “moukta” (an older Westernised spelling of “mukhtar” or “muhtar,” meaning an elected village chieftain, which does not seem to describe this wealthy and sinister feudal lord – played by Ferdinand Mayne, who will spend much of his later career playing vampires), and an English slaver “gone native,” with the decidedly inappropriate name of Spooner (a deliciously reptilian performance by Laurence Naismith), who is referred to as “the Fat Man” in an amalgamated homage to Sidney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca and moniker in The Maltese Falcon. (Spooner refers to Muslim polygamy with the quintessentially English phrase “custom of the country” – I’m thinking of the jurisprudential meaning, not the Jacobean play, though I suppose the latter might be more apt here.  Of course having six wives is not actually the Muslim custom, but artistic license is compassionate and merciful.)  Drake’s (initially grudging) allies are a stranded showgirl whom Spooner is trying to acquire for the moukta’s harem, and a street urchin (with a venomous snake down his shirt) who pledges his service to Drake in exchange for sparing his life.  (Spooner tells the showgirl that women require a protector, and unfortunately nothing in the episode suggests otherwise; she merely trades up in protectors.)

But in this episode the plot is really just a showcase for McGoohan’s delightfully hammy tour de force performance as Drake’s undercover persona, a scruffy “desert rat” (whose antics bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the previous episode’s chuckleheaded millionaire; there’s a goofy smile that McGoohan rarely gives Drake except when Drake is playing a role).  McGoohan’s every move, gesture, and twitch in this episode are riveting to watch.  If the prologue feels rushed, that’s because its job is to get itself over with as quickly as possible in order to get the desert-rat act onstage.  (And ditto, mutatis mutandis, for the ending.)

Smart co-wrote this one with Don Ingalls, best known in sf circles for the Star Trek episodes “The Alternative Factor” and “A Private Little War,” and less happily for, well, this.  (Incidentally, the lighting in this episode is especially effective, for which credit is presumably due either to director Charles Frend or to cinematographer Brendan Stafford.)

This time around Drake is working for the U.N., and is explicitly identified as being American; and once again, as previously, American and/or western intervention is a force for good in a benighted third-world country.  The salutary cynicism of The Prisoner is not yet with us.  All the same, the emphasis put on Drake’s being an “unbeliever” in this episode seems to go beyond merely making the point that he’s not a Muslim; it seems to suggest, positively, that he sees through illusions where others do not, and negatively, that he has not fully committed himself to any particular allegiance – both traits that point forward.

Be seeing you!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Foreigners Coming Here and Interfering In Our Politics (Josetta)

airdate:  25 September 1960
NATO opening:  no
NATO openings so far:  1
NATO-less openings so far:  2
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

We begin with a blast of sound and a flurry of colourful floats – a carnival, or indeed Carnaval, atmosphere.  Then we shift to a woman at a piano, playing the Fantaisie Impromptu – not the opening allegro agitato, but the succeeding moderato cantabile, as though to emphasise the contrast between the frenzy without and the calm within (a boundary that will shortly be broken).  We realise she is blind when she reaches forward to touch her braille sheet music.  A man arrives; she invites him to let himself in (the doors aren’t even locked against what lies without).  As they chat pleasantly, he takes a gun from his jacket, a gun she cannot see ....

Our episode is set in the city of San Pablo, in an unnamed country in Latin America.  (Though we’re not told so explicitly, it seems likely that San Pablo is the country’s capital.  Most Latin America countries have a San Pablo, but in no case as the capital – so unlike last time there is no obvious candidate for the unnamed country.)  Drake is here quite explicitly as a representative of the U.S., speaking of “my government” and “our embassy” in connection with it – no talk of NATO this time.  (Yet he pronounces “lieutenant” the British way – a mistake on the actor’s part, probably, but it contributes nicely to the ongoing vagueness of Drake’s identity.)  And he has come to San Pablo to identify an assassin, in order to prove that the assassination was not a U.S. plot.

So, a forward-looking subject matter, since the succeeding decade would be an especially fertile period for CIA assassination plots in Latin America – though the 1954 Guatemala coup (inter alia) would have been a relatively fresh memory, even if the extent of U.S. involvement was not as widely understood at the time as it would be later on.  Of course the notion of the U.S. trying to prevent a right-wing military coup, and to avenge a slain left-wing politician of whom Drake admits his government disapproved, is a little hard to swallow, even in 1960.  At least the regime that Drake is helping to prop up is not portrayed in too rosy a light; though the police chief (appropriately named Segur, as in seguridad) is Drake’s ally and thus presumably a good guy, he tells Drake matter-of-factly that he will arrange to have a pliable judge hear his case.

All the same, in this episode we see little of the moral ambiguity that pervaded “Time to Kill.”  Here Drake is the good guy, and America is the good guy too; both are framed for crimes of which they are innocent, and both are vindicated.  

Nevertheless,  since my aim in this project is to read Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner, it’s worth pointing out that although Drake evidently believes that the U.S. is devoid of complicity in the killing of Ingres’s brother, we have no proof that he is right; that Cortez committed the act hardly settles the question of whom he was ultimately working for (“Who is Number One?”), and so we can just as easily view Drake’s mission as one of covering up a U.S. plot rather than disproving one.  Cortez himself might well not know the identity of his ultimate masters, and so might be perfectly sincere in telling Drake he wants Americans to butt out of his country’s affairs, even as he has been their useful idiot all along.  If the killing has led to more anti-American agitation than had been anticipated, the real fear of Drake’s superiors might be the potential success of the agitators, rather than (as they claim) the army coup the agitation might provoke.  Drake can thus be seen as a useful idiot in his own right, a cleanup man sent to defuse a left-wing threat while being led to believe he is defusing a right-wing threat.  (Imagine if Drake were to find this out later.  One can almost picture him striding angrily down a hallway and into a government office, to resign ….)

Apart from the political aspects, the episode’s main plot concerns an attempt to spook the suspected assassin into giving himself away by convincing him that the sole earwitness to his crime is also an eyewitness – a tricky job, since the witness in question, Josetta Ingres, is the blind woman with whom we opened.  (So, another pairing with a woman, though again no romance – other than the slight hint of it in the way Drake kisses Ingres’s hand at the end, though that can be read just as easily as congratulations on a job well done.)

The idea that a blind person’s recognising a voice (and scent) is less reliable evidence than a sighted person’s recognising a face is of course absurd; but it’s not the show’s absurdity (the episode makes a point of showing, more than once, that Ingres’s hearing is more discriminating than that of a sighted person), but rather a plausibly realistic absurdity of the legal system. 

Ingres feigns sightedness by having Drake watch her from a distance and relay instructions to a speaker in her ear.  I worry that in reality, especially with so little opportunity to practice, this would work about as well as Leonard Read’s flyswatter game, which Rose Wilder Lane describes as follows:

Leonard ... has devised a parlor game, in his effort to get the definition [of liberty] into another head .... The game requires two persons, one fly-swatter and a fly.  One person holds the swatter, but can move only as the other person tells him to move; the object of both is to swat the fly.  This cannot be done, of course.  (The Lady and the Tycoon, p. 31)

But it works well in the story – and (probably inadvertently) doubles as a metaphor for the American style of imperialism: not direct conquest, but the illusion of autonomy, with vigorous direction behind the scenes.  Thus the real Drake personifies the private face of American foreign policy, just as Drake’s amusing impersonation of a wealthy, feckless, clueless gambler personifies its public face.

Be seeing you!