MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (S3) Reviews: “Nicole”/”The Vault” (spoilers)
“Nicole”: We open with a stock-footage tape scene, I think from the second season again. The mission is to recover a list of US agents who’ve defected to the other side, in the possession of General Valdas (Logan Ramsey, the Proconsul from Star Trek‘s “Bread and Circuses”). It’s a basic enough mission that only Jim and Rollin are involved — the only time this season we’ve had fewer than four regulars in an episode — and in lieu of an apartment scene, we see them planning with a contact, Sparrow, who suggests they work with undercover agent Nicole Vedette (Joan Collins, who of course was Edith Keeler in ST’s “City on the Edge of Forever”), Valdas’s private secretary. Jim doesn’t want to jeopardize her cover, since he’s confident he and Rollin can handle things.
Jim and Rollin attend a party at Valdas’s home, with Jim as a major and Rollin as a lecherous, absent-minded old general, a role he plays with obvious gusto. (He even manages to get in a rather blatant bit of sexual innuendo for 1969, when he’s re-enacting an old military campaign by casting attractive young ladies as the officers and alluding to the “breastwork” of one of them.) Meanwhile, Nicole shows up looking radiant (really, Joan Collins was quite lovely at the time, something I never really noticed in “City,” I guess since she was presented less glamorously there), and she and Jim spend quite a while making eyes at each other across the room before she eventually approaches and they begin flirting. By this point, it’s clear this episode is heading in an unusual direction, more character-driven than the norm.
And it gets more unusual. A few reviews back, I said I thought it would be nice to see an episode where the villains were a step ahead of the IMF for once, getting the edge on them and screwing up their meticulous plans by having their own tricks that our heroes were unaware of. Well, this is that episode. Valdas has just had a pressure alarm installed in his safe, too recently for Jim and Rollin to be aware of it, so when Rollin feigns having to lie down upstairs so he can break into the safe, he sets off the alarm and is trapped by a security grate. Jim is left with no choice but to break cover and hold Valdas at gunpoint. (Valdas goes through the whole episode wearing a neck brace, something which is never brought up in dialogue; so either Logan Ramsey really had a neck injury or the director just decided to throw in that unusual detail without explanation.) He and Rollin make their way out, but — gasp — Jim is shot! Rollin has no choice but to drive away.
Jim awakens in a cell just in time for Nicole to try to break him out, but Valdas catches her in the act and locks her in with Jim, saying he’s suspected her of being a spy for some time. Nicole tells him that there’s no search underway for Rollin, and that she was allowed to see the list of double agents even though Valdas suspected her, so she and Jim conclude the list is fake — Valdas wants them to get away with it in order to feed false intel to the US. Jim plays dead to get the guard into the cell so they can escape. There’s a long montage of them running through the moonlit forest, with the same cloud passing over the moon three different times. Meanwhile, Rollin has handed over the list to a contact but stayed to search for Jim.
Jim and Nicole rest in a barn, but Jim passes out — and Nicole goes out to meet with Valdas in his car. She’s actually working for Valdas, trying to convince the Americans that the genuine list is a phony, because her name is on it. Valdas sends his doctor to revive Jim, since the plan is to let him safely escape — and Nicole has an insurance policy, dirt on Valdas that will be leaked if she doesn’t call Switzerland once a week, to protect herself. But once she leaves, Valdas orders that she be shot once Jim gets away. We see he has Nicole bugged and is listening in.
Jim recovers and Nicole goes to “check the perimeter,” but leaves her purse — and when Jim bums a smoke from her bag, he discovers her matchbox is bugged. Close-up on sad look as he realizes she’s working for the enemy. (And yes, smoking saved Jim’s life. How very ’60s.) They go on the run again, and Jim acts determined to push on at all costs, and seems to feign a fall that almost kills him. A distraught Nicole tells him he doesn’t have to strain himself because Valdas wants him to escape safely. She confesses the whole plot because she genuinely cares for Jim. And she doesn’t realize she’s bugged and Valdas has heard the whole thing. Now they’re really in trouble. They run some more, but Valdas and his men and dogs corner them — and Valdas has known the location of Nicole’s Swiss insurance package for some time, so he doesn’t need her alive. Rollin has disguised himself as a guard, though, and holds Valdas at gunpoint, getting him and the guards to drop their weapons. But Rollin conveniently failed to make sure Valdas was unarmed, so, predictably, the love interest gets shot dead. Rollin shoots back and Valdas dies, and the guards scatter long enough to give Jim a few moments to mourn over Nicole’s body before he and Rollin drive away.
This is the kind of episode I’ve been wanting to see all season, not only one where the villain is actually ahead of the heroes at almost every turn, but one that has actual emotional stakes for the heroes. Despite Peter Graves’s presence, it feels like a callback to the first season in many ways — the more character-driven storytelling, the unconventional team composition, the willingness to have things go seriously wrong with the plan. There’s a lot of reused Schifrin music from early episodes too, notably diegetic party music from “The Short Tail Spy,” one of the first episodes to be built around a romance for a team member. It’s a refreshing change of pace, with humor and emotion rather than just strategies and gadgets. The script is by Paul Playdon, who also did “The Glass Cage” and “The Bunker,” two of the stronger stories this year. The direction by Stuart Hagmann is top-notch too, with some very imaginative camera angles and compositions, notably in Jim & Nicole’s first conversation where they’re framed by out-of-focus crystals in a centerpiece (or something) that surround their faces with shimmering double images.
Overall, an exceptional episode — too exceptional, really, because they should’ve done stuff like this far more often.
“The Vault”: Jim gets the briefing in the booth at a card-entry parking lot; I think it’s stock footage, but I could be remembering it because I’ve seen this episode before. The mission: Costa Mateo’s president De Varo (Rodolfo Acosta) plans to use the money in his presidential vault to fund his country’s industrialization, but his aide Pereda (Nehemiah Persoff with a caricatured Mexican accent) has stolen it and put it in a Swiss bank, planning to frame De Varo for embezzlement and take power. The president’s private vault is supposedly impenetrable, since his perfect pitch lets him use an audio combination, but Pereda has a recording of the tones which let him empty the vault. This is one of those episodes where the leader trusts the villain implicitly and can’t be convinced of his crimes unless he’s caught in the act. So the team has to put Pereda in a situation where he’ll rob the vault again. There’s a dossier sequence to establish that the caper involves the help of an auditing firm, but this is barely relevant to the story.
Jim and Cinnamon play Eastern-bloc agents who want to build military bases in Latin America, a deal the moral De Varo rejects but Pereda’s willing to make. There’s a lot of money in it for him if he succeeds in taking the presidency within a day, so he has an incentive to make sure it happens. After De Varo leaves for a business trip Pereda has arranged to make it look like he’s fleeing, Rollin arrives as an auditor sent to check the books, which lets him stand guard outside the vault room while Barney breaks into it through its escape hatch which is supposedly unopenable from the other side. Barney stages a theft (of the other vaults in the room, not the sound-locked presidential vault which he still can’t penetrate) and sets off the alarm, and Rollin knocks out the guard and lets Barney hit him so he can later claim the thief escaped. Barney, though, hides back in the escape tunnel, concealing himself behind a fake rear door.
Rollin calls Pereda and pretends to be the president, notified of the theft and on his way back. Pereda fears his plan is ruined; the absence of money in the president’s vault will be blamed on the robbers, not on presidential embezzlement. But Jim and Cinnamon convince him he can still pull it off if he temporarily refills the vault from the main treasury to make it seem it wasn’t robbed, then removes the money again. There’s a fun scene where Cinnamon Fatale seduces the diffident accountant that Rollin is playing and coaxes him into coming to her hotel room for an hour or two, so Pereda can work unobserved. Although it’s really so Rollin can change into a De Varo mask, while calling the real De Varo with his accountant voice and alerting him to the theft so he’ll arrive shortly thereafter. Pereda uses his recording to open the sonic lock, and Barney records it with a mike he’s planted. This lets Rollin-as-De Varo open the vault and let Pereda think he’s been fooled. But he also rigs the vault door so that after he leaves, when Pereda begins removing the money again, Barney can trigger it to shut, trapping Pereda inside for the real De Varo to catch in the act minutes later.
This is a routine episode, the kind where the caper plays out exactly as planned with no significant problems, just fakeout cliffhangers in the “Oh, is Barney about to be discovered?”…”No, he hid just in time” tradition. There’s quite a lot of footage of Barney breaking into one vault door after another to set up the scenario, so it’s kind of slow-going until the second half. And it contains one of the most irritating elements of the M:I formula — following up the tape and apartment scenes where the villain’s plot is spelled out with a stilted dialogue scene where the villain and his assistant discuss the plan in order to spell it out a second time, even though they both already know this stuff and so does the audience. So this isn’t a bad episode — the seduction scene is very amusing, at least — but it’s as formulaic as they come. If you wanted to show someone what a typical, run-of-the-mill M:I episode was like, this would be a good example.