MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “Old Man Out”
“Old Man Out,” Part 1: Dan gets his mission in a closed movie theater, a silent newsreel with a tape-recorded description. His mission is to rescue an elderly cardinal and peace-movement leader from a prison that no one has ever escaped from, and to do so before his execution. His plan is for the team to impersonate a travelling circus troupe, and to this end, he recruits Crystal Walker, a trapeze artist played by the lovely, pixieish Mary Ann Mobley (aka Miss America 1959). We see something I’ve never seen before in this show: a recruitment scene. Instead of cutting right to the team assembled in Dan’s apartment getting the briefing, we see Dan coming to Crystal to ask for her help. Though she’s happy (in a flirtatious way) to see her old friend, she categorically refuses getting dragged into another mission, since she’s at an important point in her own career and doesn’t want to have to give that up. Dan eventually convinces her by telling her what’s at stake and giving her puppy-dog eyes. It’s the clearest indication yet that these aren’t professional agents but people Dan recruits from all walks of life. Although I’m forced to wonder what kind of missions would’ve required Dan to call on a trapeze artist at least twice in the past. Well, maybe missions calling for agility and the ability to handle heights. Or maybe he just really likes playing circus?
It sure looks as if Mobley does her own trapeze stunts, which are quite impressive. (And so is she. I’m not sure they could’ve found a stunt double who looked quite as stunning in that skimpy outfit.) I vaguely remember her being a recurring player on the annual Circus of the Stars specials in the late ’70s (that’s right, back then “reality TV” included celebrities doing circus acts, which makes the modern celeb-dancing shows seem downright dull), and IMDb confirms that she performed “death-defying high-wire acts” on those specials.
And Dan shows he can be a real hardcase. When informed that Crystal’s safety net will slow down their getaway, he decides right on the spot that she’ll perform without a net. Old friend or no, beautiful young woman or no, he’ll put her in greater danger if the mission requires it. And he won’t even ask first this time; now that she’s committed, he just tells her what she has to do.
The plot of part 1 is kind of a fakeout. Rollin gets himself arrested and manages to sneak a lockpick past the metal detector. He breaks out of his cell, reaches the cardinal, breaks him out, and gets him to the roof — only to tell him that this was a dry run to get the timing right (using the calliope music from the nearby circus as his timepiece). The real breakout will be later, at a time he specifies to Cinnamon using code phrases when she visits him. (There’s a clever use of the code-phrase gimmick, first set up as the trick to the mind-reading act performed by Dan and Cinnamon, then paid off as part of the actual mission.) However, when the time comes and Rollin gets to the cardinal’s cell, the old man is gone, taken away for intensified interrogation. “To Be Continued Next Week.” Wow, how’s Rollie gonna get out of this one?
In retrospect, the story seems a bit padded to make it a 2-parter. The “dry run” thing seems implausible; he might’ve only had one shot at freeing the cardinal, so they should’ve set up a plan that let him do it when he had the chance. And they sure spend a lot of time showing Mary Ann Mobley twisting around on the trapeze. Although I sure as hell wasn’t complaining about that. Even aside from the sex appeal, she was a very impressive athlete (although that just makes it sexier). As for the rest, the direction is effective, especially with the eerie irony of the cheery calliope music juxtaposed with the somberness and tension of the prison scenes. (And for the first time, the music is by a composer other than Lalo Schifrin, in this case the similarly-named Walter Scharf.)
These early episodes are especially fun because we get to see the characters being themselves more. There’s more focus on the initial planning, more scenes where the team members are out of character and discussing the plan or just joking with each other. A lot of this was lost later in the series; in most of the episodes I’ve seen, the team members spend almost the entire episode in character and their personalities are essentially ciphers. Even when they are out of character in the later seasons, they’re a lot more serious than this early group. I’m really beginning to think that the first season was the show’s best, even without Peter Graves. Indeed, I’m starting to warm up more to Steven Hill as Dan, maybe just because I’m enjoying these episodes so much.
“Old Man Out, Part 2”: Watching the recap of Part 1 at the beginning of this episode really drives home how much cinematic storytelling has evolved since 1966, becoming much more concise. Maybe it’s just that Part 2 ran really short, but it took them just under six and a half minutes to recap 48 minutes of story from Part 1. These days, a recap is typically more like 30 seconds, 1 minute, maybe as much as 2 minutes if it’s really involved. It’s as if audiences back then weren’t as accustomed to seeing only part of a discussion or action and being asked to extrapolate the rest. Even so, there were so many ways they could’ve shortened this, say, by having scenes from the mission itself playing over the soundtrack of the Voice on Tape giving Dan the assignment. Interestingly, they even put the episode credits inside the recap, essentially replaying most of the dossier scene from Part 1 (and as it happened, Part 1 was the first episode of the series where they showed the producer, writer, and director credits at the end of the dossier scene).
So we left off with Rollin in mid-breakout, discovering that Cardinal Vassek was no longer in his cell, having been moved to solitary confinement prior to his execution. But the team outside doesn’t know that — they’re already getting things underway for the escape. So Rollie gets to the roof and waves them off, forcing them to switch gears and set the carnival back up — drawing the suspicion of the local colonel, the ever-malevolent Joseph Ruskin (who a year from this point will be on Triskelion enslaving Kirk, Uhura, and Chekov with his glowy evil eyes). He’ll be watching them, so Dan coldly decides he must be taken out (although this amounts to little more than a roundhouse punch, and his ultimate fate is unestablished).
The new plan is for Rollin to break out alone so that Dan can dress up in the colonel’s uniform, “recapture” him, and insist that this cunning escape artist be placed in solitary, so that they can get to the Cardinal and break him out. So the lovely Crystal is called upon to distract the guards twice, once for each breakout. The main guard in question is overacted by a young Monte Markham, who’s been the recipient of flirtation from both Cinnamon and Crystal, who have been sniping at each other in character, though behind the scenes their girl talk is all friendly. (Crystal tries to get Cinnamon to admit she worries about Rollin, but Cinnamon dodges the question.) Anyway, Crystal’s first diversion is to feign an accident, nearly falling from her trapeze, and milking the appearance of danger for several minutes while Martin Landau’s stunt double makes his way off the prison roof. (If this was the most escape-proof prison in Eastern Europe, the prisoners must not have been trying very hard. Why aren’t there guards on the roof?)
The second diversion is where it gets really interesting. To cover for the big escape, Cinnamon and Crystal get into a prolonged, epic catfight — and naturally Monte Markham makes no attempt to break it up, instead just watching and laughing. The catfight got as much screen time as the escape (ratings!). And there was also a lot of screen time given to the two women laughing and hugging afterward.
There was one subplot that unfortunately never really went anywhere. William Wintersole played a captain on the prison staff who turned out to be rather sympathetic. He had a nice scene with the Cardinal where he begged Vassek (Cyril Delevanti) to give him some scrap of information that could delay his execution, with Vassek ultimately divining that what the captain really wanted was forgiveness. As I watched the scene, I was thinking that maybe the captain would find out about the escape plan and help it along at a key moment. But there was no such payoff. I guess it was just to give the cardinal another scene.
Finally, at the border gate, Dan has Barney play the calliope loudly so the guards can’t hear prison warden Oscar Beregi calling to tell them to stop the escaping circus troupe. Walter Scharf’s music in the final minute is a clever, well-done blend of the calliope music and orchestral variations of the M:I themes. Overall, the music in this 2-parter was very effective, rich, and enjoyable, and Scharf’s motifs are a nice departure from the Schifrin motifs that dominate most of this show’s scores. It’s disappointing that Scharf only did three more episodes of M:I. I looked up Scharf, and it turns out he’s the man who wrote the National Geographic Society theme from the TV specials! I’ve always loved that music. He did the Jacques Cousteau specials too, though I don’t remember the theme to those. (Appropriately, the person who cut the end titles together showed the music credits over a shot of Barney playing the calliope from that final scene.)
The one thing that bugs me is how Dan, Cinnamon, and Barney all knew how to play the calliope. I mean, in the preparations in Part 1, we saw Dan practicing, and he was kind of awkward at that stage. They sold the idea that he taught himself to do it for the mission. But here, all of a sudden, Cinnamon and Barney pull the same skill out of their hats when Dan is needed elsewhere.
I’m also disappointed that Crystal’s whole function on the mission was merely to be a sexy distraction. True, she served a secondary purpose in teaching Rollin how to do the wire-sliding stunt for the escape, but the episode kind of subverted that by having Dan end up doing the same stunt with no prior training. I was kind of hoping we’d see Crystal put herself at risk to help in the actual breakout. But I guess her faked accident was fairly dangerous. Still, it’s just so ’60s. It doesn’t seem fair that Dan persuaded her to give up a great opportunity in her own career just so she could be sexy and distract a guard or two. But on the other hand, she was awfully sexy to watch, so I can’t complain too much.
It’s kind of weird. Mary Ann Mobley is a name I remember from my childhood, but until now I never knew just how hot she was.