MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1966) Reviews: Pilot
Beginning my repostings of Mission: Impossible reviews originally published on the Ex Isle BBS in this thread. (I’m reposting them here because I’d like to have them archived on my own site. Also, once I’m caught up, I’ll probably do the subsequent reviews here first. At least for now, it’s a handy way to generate blog content without too much work.)
Anyway, the pilot contains the nascent form of all the tropes we know, and in a way that makes them more interesting. Over time, it became more and more routine. Here, it feels fresher, more rough-edged, more dimensional. I found myself wishing I could’ve seen this episode without having seen any of what followed, so the formula would be entirely fresh to me.
The opening has Dan Briggs coming up a freight elevator (a location used amazingly often in the series) into a curio shop, where he asks for a specific recording. He’s about to ask a young woman who works there, when a furtive-looking guy says he’ll take care of this customer. This is the contact, and it’s interesting that Briggs doesn’t immediately know the right person to approach. The contact’s attitude helps convey a sense of significance and secrecy to the scene.
The record is sealed in plastic, and is designed to degrade a minute after the seal is broken, a nice touch. The Voice’s spiel is a little more complex than usual, adding the line, “As always, you have carte blanche as to method and personnel.” That helps underline the impression I discussed in the previous post: that the point of setting up the missions this way was deniability. The government’s staying out of it; they’re hiring an independent contractor to get the job done by whatever means necessary, and the less anyone official knows, the better.
An interesting touch is at the end of the recording, where the voice says, “I hope it’s ‘Welcome back,’ Dan. We’ve missed you.” Wikipedia’s episode list just interprets this as Briggs having been on sabbatical from the IMF, but I wonder: could the intent have been that Briggs was a retired CIA agent, say, who decided to set up his own operation called the IMF to help the government out with off-the-book missions? Maybe it was “welcome back” in the sense of “welcome back to the spy game,” rather than to a specific agency? Could this have been the IMF’s first assignment? And does that maybe suggest that “Your mission, should you choose to accept it” wasn’t meant to be a weekly thing, but just for this, before they knew whether they’d succeeded in convincing Briggs to return to the game? A fascinating question.
The scene of the team meeting in Briggs’ apartment is more fleshed out too, less routine. It’s not just “I’ll do this part,” “I’ll do that part,” “I’ll do the other thing,” like that. It’s more tentative. Briggs has brought these people together for this assignment, but they haven’t fully committed yet, and he asks them individually if they can handle the requirements of the task. In addition to the usual gang, the team includes Wally Cox as safecracker Terry Targo, needed to break into (or rather, out of) a Latin American general’s vault and steal his nuclear warheads. He comes off as the weak link, admitting his nervousness could be a problem.
Things get really interesting when we get into the mission. Again, it all feels a lot less routine. A lot of things go wrong, forcing the team to adapt — notably Terry getting his hands crushed and requiring Dan to go into the vault in his place. Also, an accidental encounter with the General forces them to knock out a couple of guards, whose disappearance makes the General’s aide suspicious and almost scuttles the whole thing. There’s more banter between the characters, particularly Rollin and Cinnamon (played by a real-life married couple, and it shows), and more insight into how they’re reacting to the caper (not so much with Barney and Willy, though; Willy’s just there to be strong and has only two or three lines). Rollin in particular is nervous about his ability to pull off his impersonation of the General.
I guess it makes sense that the team became more a well-oiled machine later on, that they didn’t need to talk to each other as much about the mission or express emotion and uncertainty. The more accustomed they got to these missions, the more routine it would become. But it’s more interesting to watch them at this nascent stage when they’re still getting a feel for things, still unsure of themselves. They’re more humanized, more relatable. Also, in the later scenes where Dan confronts the real General in the vault, we get to see him out of character, no act, no facade, and he’s pretty interesting to watch that way, more so than he’s been in the later episodes I’ve seen.
Although, granted, the personality Cinnamon shows here is basically pure vamp; she’s defined by her sex appeal. But then, nobody here was particularly multidimensional. And it was a ’60s spy show. At least she managed to come off as an intelligent, self-possessed seductress. And they kind of pushed the envelope for TV sexiness. There was a scene where, to throw off the General’s suspicious aide, she had to do a quick-change and come out of the other room wearing nothing but a towel. Once the aide was gone, Rollin commended her from her performance — and we saw an angle through the door of the two bound-and-gagged guards who’d been in the room with her while she changed, and she said, “You should’ve seen it from those seats.” Yowza.
As for Rollin, they had Martin Landau play both him and the General, making it plausible that he was chosen specifically for his resemblance to the target. Of course, it becomes less plausible when they keep using him more and more later on. Ironically, there’s a portion where Rollin has to imitate Dan, and it’s clearly depicted as an imperfect job; he’s wearing sunglasses to hide the mask and using his own voice. Indeed, I’m not sure, but I think it actually may have been Landau in a Steven Hill mask in those scenes; his mouth looked more like Landau’s than Hill’s. And given that the makeup was by John Chambers and Dan Striepeke (the team that did Planet of the Apes), I’m willing to believe it’s possible.
The ending of the mission is less smooth too; their deception is partially discovered as they’re on their way out, and they’re chased all the way to the airport before they make their getaway in a small plane. Definitely an edgier ending, and giving it more of a spy-thriller feel.
One thing that felt like a concession to ’60s moral watchdogs: it was implied that the safecracker’s hands were ruined and he’d never yegg again. I can just see the network note insisting that the lawbreaker receive his comeuppance even though he’s one of the good guys.
The direction by Bernard L. Kowalski is taut and effective, with lots of short scenes and quick, matter-of-fact cuts creating a staccato, edgy effect as we see the various team members setting up their plans. The scenes with Terry in the vault are particularly effective, with the pitch blackness for part of the scene and Cox’s perspiration and wide eyes as he worked. I got claustrophobic just watching it.
The main title theme is used in two scenes of the episode proper, including the final chase. I recall reading somewhere that the cue was actually written for that chase scene and they decided to drop it in as the main title when they didn’t like what Lalo Schifrin originally came up with for that. Given that the story was in a Latin American country, I wonder if that explains the use of bongos and somewhat Latin rhythms in the title music.
Overall, this is the most effective episode of M:I I’ve ever seen, and a great way to kick off the series. This is what I wish the M:I movies had been like.
(Additional thoughts posted later:)
I watched the pilot again last night, and my take is that in the scene where Rollie-as-Dan was talking, it was Hill with Landau’s voice dubbed over him, but in the subsequent scenes during the checkout from the hotel and the getaway, it was Landau in a Hill mask, keeping his face very immobile and not talking, because the mask wasn’t very flexible in real life. Except it wasn’t the same mask we saw unattached in earlier scenes and the final shot of the episode, because that mask included eyelids and lips. If you look closely, you can see that the Hill mask worn by Landau has the mouth cut out to accommodate Landau’s own, and undoubtedly it had the eyes cut out so he could see. So they were taking some poetic license there.
While watching the pilot again, I started to question the security system they had on the nukes. The idea was that if you entered the wrong combination on their lockbox, you’d set them off. I have a hard time believing this dictator would be willing to blow up his own capital — indeed, devastate the bulk of his tiny country, which was shown on a map as an imaginary Caribbean island no more than 50 km wide — in order to keep American agents from stealing his nukes. Isn’t that pretty hugely self-defeating?