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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews (S2): “The Survivors”/”The Bank”

“The Survivors”: Jim gets the briefing tape on a rooftop, in some sort of maintenance storage locker or something bearing the rather tautological instruction “Use key to unlock.”  The mission: enemy agent Stavak (Albert Paulsen, previously an IM team member in “Memory”) has kidnapped two scientists and their wives and is holding them hostage in San Francisco (this will be significant).  He’s going after a third scientist, hoping to gain a McGuffin formula for an unspecified secret superweapon.  (I begin to understand why J.J. Abrams made a point of not explaining what the “Rabbit’s Foot” was in Mission: Impossible III.  It may have been an homage to the original show, where the McGuffins were frequently given little explanation and had little actual relevance to the story.  Which is the whole point of a McGuffin, really: that it doesn’t matter what it is so long as the characters are driven by its pursuit.)  Conveniently, Stavak doesn’t know what the third guy looks like, so Jim can impersonate him.

First, though, they publicize the alleged death of his wife’s mother, so that the “wife” Cinnamon can be abducted along with Rollin, whom Stavak’s men assume is the scientist but turns out to be his separated wife’s “good friend.”  The soon-to-be-ex-missus turns out to be quite vindictive toward hubby and willing to sell him out in exchange for money and freedom.  The whole thing being a ploy to get Rollin inside so he can make measurements of the facility and then get them out to Barney, while Cinnamon convinces the hostages to play along with the masquerade.

Once Cinnamon lures Jim into captivity, the purpose for the measurements and other preparations becomes clear.  After calling in a fake gas leak and getting the area around Stavak’s Chinatown hideout evacuated, the team uses a sonic device to shake up the building, allegedly the “same principle” of resonance demonstrated by Barney in the apartment scene when he shattered a glass with a tuning fork.  (So essentially they’re using an electronic equivalent of Tesla’s earthquake machine, though with more success than the Mythbusters were able to achieve.)  They also use a dump truck full of rubble to block the elevator shaft that’s the only way out.  The fake disaster comes just in time to save Jim and the scientists from being shot when Stavak’s expert sees through Jim’s fake equations.  (The physics-speak is almost right here.  Jim cites the “half-life of the K meson” as 1.2 x 10^-8, which is the correct value in seconds of the kaon/K meson’s mean lifetime.  However, the mean lifetime isn’t the same thing as the half-life.  The half-life is the time it takes for half of a sample of a radioactive substance to decay; the mean lifetime is the reciprocal of its decay probability per unit time, and comes out to 1.44 times the half-life.)

Now that they’re all trapped, with a (faked) gas leak giving them a deadline, Stavak cooperates with Jim in devising an escape.  Jim rigs a radio and picks up a fake news broadcast from Rollin, with keywords that direct him to a storm drain they can use as an escape route.  Jim has one of the scientists empty the powder from ten bullets and MacGyvers up a flashlight into a trigger device, covering it with mattresses so the blast won’t set off the natural gas in the corridor (ooh, let’s see the Mythbusters test that!).  In contrast to what you’d probably see in a modern show (or MacGyver for that matter), the blast is believably small (though the sound effect is too big) and only loosens the mortar enough to let the stone wall be disassembled with muscle power and a crowbar.

Once they dig to the storm drain, Stavak holds the hostages at gunpoint (a weak bluff, since as he himself admits on the way out, he doesn’t dare shoot because of the gas) and escapes with his own men into the drain, collapsing the tunnel behind him so the hostages are doomed.  Except that Barney and Willy have already cleared the elevator shaft of rubble so the hostages can get out easily.  Stavak and friends emerge on a calm, un-destroyed Chinatown street and get hauled away, realizing they’ve been had.  Jim tells the ex-hostages that they were in no danger since the gas was faked (it was probably just butyl mercaptan, the additive that gives natural gas its smell).  Or rather, it was “just as real as the earthquake.”

A decent episode, though the kind of M:I caper where they go to implausibly elaborate lengths to achieve a fairly simple goal.  Albert Paulsen is oddly sympathetic as a villain who isn’t written sympathetically at all.

Walter Scharf (“Old Man Out” and “The Ransom”) returns as the composer, and as usual his work has a distinctive and intriguing sound, with an interesting ethnic flavor when the Chinatown location is established.  His score here isn’t quite as impressive as his first-season work, however.

I found the dungeonesque setting of Stavak’s underground lair familiar, and I finally placed it — his office is the same set as the dungeon from Star Trek: “Catspaw.” Which, assuming the two sister shows began shooting at about the same time, would’ve been produced not long before this episode.  But the sets here were more extensive, with corridors and a cell, so maybe this one was done first?  Which would require M:I to have started shooting its season earlier.  Or maybe it’s a standard set that Desilu had in storage for use by various productions.  Still, I never would’ve expected to see ST and M:I share a set.  (Although there is a later episode of M:I where, in a scene with Leonard Nimoy, a Saurian brandy decanter from ST is used as set decoration in an apartment.)

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“The Bank”: Jim goes inside a “Junk Shop” and exchanges code phrases with the proprietor, except the camera remains outside and the dialogue is unheard.  The proprietor lets him try out an old hand-cranked phonograph in the back room.  The message is on a vinyl record, but unlike the first-season versions, it isn’t sealed away from the air; rather, it’s rigged to self-destruct “when it reaches the final groove” (a misnomer, since a vinyl record only has one spiralling groove, but that’s nitpicking).  Anyway, the mission: East Berlin banker Alfred Belzig (James Daly, previously seen in a triple role in “Shock”) is secretly a Neo-Nazi.  He’s tricking East Germans who want to defect to the West, convincing them to deposit their money in his bank (allegedly so he can deliver it to them once they’re across the Iron Curtain), then sending them down an escape tunnel with instructions to take a route that actually drops them to their death, whereupon he keeps their money to help him bankroll his new Nazi movement.  The team has to expose him and retrieve the money.  (Actually, in dialogue they only mention the “East Zone” of an unspecified socialist country whose occupants use German titles and accents, yet there are signs onscreen specifying the locations as Berlin and West Germany.  Odd, that.)

Jim picks the usual suspects plus Paul Lebarre (Pierre Jalbert), a known bank robber.  Paul and Barney case the joint while Jim, pretending to be an agent of the “federal police” (i.e. the Stasi), arrests Paul and makes Belzig fear a robbery so that Jim and Cinnamon can get in place within the bank.  The episode takes place mostly within the bank, with people constantly going back and forth between the main area, Belzig’s office, and the vault as the team goes through maneuvers to get the goods on Belzig.  Barney takes pictures of the vault, Rollin pretends to be a new patsy for Belzig to fleece and kill off, Jim arranges to get Belzig out of the office so he can steal a reel of vault security videotape and find out what deposit box Belzig’s ill-gotten stash is in… it’s all rather convoluted, with so much back-and-forth it’s hard to keep straight.

Anyway, Rollin fakes his demise, then goes back into the tunnel system with a load of bricks.  While Barney is attracting the bank staff’s suspicions, Cinnamon goes into the vault and uses a gizmo to make the video picture flip (like TVs used to do back then when the horizontal was out of sync) to disguise the fact that she’s sliding a photo of the vault in front of the camera, then she rigs a charge to Belzig’s box that goes off when Barney reinserts his.  Paul fires a gun at the same moment the charge goes off (how did he know?) to make it seem like the sound came from him.  Barney comes out holding Belzig’s box, which makes Belzig nervous when Jim’s “federal police” agents apprehend the thieves — and then the real Stasi shows up.  To keep them from opening the box, Belzig has his security hold them at gunpoint, then retreats into the vault with the money, planning to flee through the tunnel — only to find that Rollin has bricked it up.  Jim says that when the time lock opens in the morning, Belzig and his cronies will be happy to go wherever the Stasi wants to take them.

Not a great episode.  There are some weaknesses in the plot and execution.  It’s implausible that hundreds of people would’ve all fallen (literally) for the trap in the left tunnel, even if they weren’t forewarned as Rollin was.  When Rollin shows up, Belzig initially has him held at gunpoint, suspecting him of being a Stasi agent, until he verifies his identity by checking his signature against previous correspondence with the man Rollin’s impersonating — and somehow it never occurs to Belzig, a man with decades of banking experience, that there can be such a thing as a forged signature.  It’s implausible that they’d take Rollin into the vault to “kill” him when “federal policewoman” Cinnamon is right there as the vault clerk; wouldn’t she get suspicious when he didn’t come out?  And there’s a silly bit where Jim is checking the stolen videotape to find out Belzig’s deposit box number, and uses a magnifying eyepiece to zoom in on the video image — what we see is clearly a zoom in on the live set, with no trace of scan lines and impossibly high resolution for a ’60s video image.  It’s as silly in its own way as the CSI episodes where Archie is able to enhance a blurry video image and turn it into a perfectly clear close-up.  Also, it’s unnecessary to know the exact box number; it’s enough to know its position in the vault: second row, second column.

Also, it’s kind of weird politically.  Given that East Germany was already under an oppressive regime at that point, it’s a bit hard to see how much more harm Belzig’s Neo-Nazi movement could’ve done there, at least from the perspective of ’60s TV politics where Nazis and Commies were equally villainous.  I guess it’s evil enough that he was killing so many people — implicitly Jews, I suppose — but his larger political ambitions seem like kind of a nebulous threat, trading one set of bad guys for another.  But I guess it’s another McGuffin.  The politics don’t really matter; what matters is the specific goal of the caper.

There is an amusing touch when Jim is left alone in the office and has to try to figure out the fancy newfangled videotape machine so he can steal the footage he needs.  Usually everything runs so smoothly for the IMF, or else goes wrong in serious ways.  Jim’s fumbling with the machine is played subtly, not blatantly for laughs, but it’s a nice humanizing touch.

Walter Scharf provides his fifth and final M:I score here.  As with “The Survivors,” it’s not as memorable as his first-season efforts.  And it’s interspersed with a lot of reused Gerald Fried cues from the season premiere.  But it has its enjoyable moments, with orchestrations reminiscent of scores from The Outer Limits and Lost in Space (neither of which Scharf worked on).

The final shot of the episode features what I believe is the debut of a touch that was often used in the series: as the team is leaving, the camera flips upside-down to follow them, and the image freezes while still inverted.  I wonder if this was meant to symbolize the topsy-turvy, twisty nature of the capers.

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE Reviews: “The Traitor”/”The Psychic”

Now the final two episodes of the first season:

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“The Traitor”: Dan gets the briefing record in what I think is just an unused portion of a soundstage. Maybe they were getting lazy by this point. The mission: US agent Hughes (played unpleasantly by Lonny Chapman) has defected to The Enemy and is hiding out at their embassy, run by Malachi Throne. He’s handed over an important McGuffin document but doesn’t know how to decode it. The team must get it back before The Enemy deciphers it and discredit Hughes so The Enemy won’t trust anything he’s already told them.

Rollin impersonates the cryptographer The Enemy has called in, once stewardess Cinnamon delays him by drugging his drink off-camera (I guess they couldn’t afford a plane scene). His job is to create suspicion of Hughes. But the real work is done by special guest agent Tina, a dancer/acrobat played by future Catwoman Eartha Kitt. Willy sneaks her into the ductwork in a piece of replacement pipe, and she does all the catburglarish stuff that the Mythbusters discredited a couple of years ago — crawling silently through ducts (which would be absurdly noisy), using mirrors to deflect photoelectric beams (would set them off) so she can slide slinkily across the floor under the mirror rig, and just generally being all lithe and catsuity. (Hmm… prophetic casting?) Not that it’s played for glamour; Jerry Finnerman’s photography has none of the soft focus on women that was one of his trademarks elsewhere. I guess the M:I producers wanted him to cleave to their more matter-of-fact style (though he did get to use another Finnerman trademark, heavy noir-style crosslighting, on Hughes to make him look more eeevil). And Eartha’s pretty sweaty and dusty by the time she’s done.

The coolest gadget Tina uses is when she breaks into Hughes’ room after Rollin has sleepy-gassed him. As he’s lying dead to the world, she unrolls a sheet from her belt, drapes it over Hughes on the bed, and inflates it; it flattens out and creates the illusion of an empty (though unusually high) mattress. Thus, when Ambassador Malachi Throne comes in, it looks like Hughes has fled the coop to meet with Dan, who’s set himself up as a higher bidder for the secret plans. After Catwoman’s stolen the plans, she removes the inflato-mattress and plants payoff money in Hughes’ pocket. Discredited, Hughes flees the embassy, and Dan is waiting with the cops to arrest him for treason.

Really cool use of the guest agent here. The last time we had a female acrobat as the guest agent, Mary Ann Mobley in “Old Man Out,” her job was basically just to be a sexy distraction and to train Rollin in doing the big physical stuff. Here, Tina is the linchpin of the whole operation, the one doing the hardest, trickiest physical work and putting herself in the most danger, while the others are in more of a support capacity. And her athletic skills and dainty build made her superb for this kind of burglary work. One wishes she could’ve become a recurring member of the team.

The set used for the embassy’s entrance hall and study is the same set used as Wilson’s house in “Shock” just two episodes ago. It’s probably been used plenty of other times, but I didn’t notice until now. I suppose it’s difficult to do a show like this, with no permanent locations other than Dan’s apartment. There are some sets they clearly reused over and over again, redressing them slightly to try to pass them off as different locations: prisons, hotels, hospitals, private apartments, and this private house set. It would’ve been more convincing when you saw only one episode a week, rather than one after the other on DVD.

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And now, the season finale, “The Psychic.” Dan goes to an empty drive-in theater to get the message on one of its speakers. The mission: Industrialist Alex Lowell (Barry Sullivan) has bought controlling interest in a company that provides arms to NATO and has fled to South America, where he intends to sell the stock and the concomitant military secrets, or something, to Enemy agent January Vornitz (Milton Selzer, not a Bond girl as the name suggests). The team must retrieve the stock before he can sell it and compromise national security in some vague and technically legal way. Dan briefs the team on the mission in his apartment as usual, but he doesn’t participate in the mission. The briefing scene is the last time we will ever see Daniel Briggs. Adieu, Mr. Briggs. We hardly knew ye.

First, a guest agent (Paul Mantee, star of Robinson Crusoe on Mars) approaches Lowell as a Syndicate heavy offering to buy the stock. He’s turned down; Lowell seems pretty committed to selling these secrets to The Enemy, though overall he just seems to be in it for the money, so it’s unclear why he’s so uninterested in the mob’s money. Anyway, this is to set up the fiction that the mob is out to kill Lowell for his rejection. This is paid off when Cinnamon arrives as a noted psychic (presumably adopting the identity of a pre-existing famous psychic, since Lowell has heard of her), introduced by a not-so-friendly friend of Lowell’s, a judge (Richard Anderson) who’s working with the team and helps sell Cinnamon’s psychic powers to Lowell. Barney plants a bomb in Lowell’s car and Cinnamon predicts the explosion. Somewhat ludicrously, instead of, oh, checking under the hood or something, Lowell goes to the trouble of MacGyvering up a remote ignition system, hooking some long wires into the car’s wiring and touching them together from a distance, blowing up his own car in the process. O… kay. And apparently the team knew he’d go to these ridiculous lengths, since Cinnamon has placed a sound-activated detonator on the window to break it when the bomb goes off, so Barney can sneak in and Lowell will assume the alarm was triggered by the bomb.

Anyway, Barney uses a magician’s mirror trick (impressively done for real, with no visual-effects trickery) to hide under a table until the room is empty (having a scare when Lowell’s dog almost exposes him). Then he sets up a card-cheating rig under the table and plants stripped cards in place of Lowell’s. Rollin shows up as a gangster who’s “killed” Paul Mantee for his failure and now wants to discuss the matter like gentlemen. Cinnamon, whom Lowell is now convinced is genuine, predicts that he will play a hand of poker for the stock and win, using Rollin’s cards. Meanwhile, Barney is discovered (intentionally?) by Lowell’s henchman (Michael Pataki, later to play Korax in ST: “The Trouble with Tribbles”), but Willy knocks out the henchman and Barney escapes. Investigating, Lowell finds that the cards have been switched. Forewarned, he’s confident he can play and win by cheating the cheater.

But the cards are just the first layer of deception that Lowell was supposed to master. The real trick is the switcheroo rig Barney installed under the table, allowing Rollin to switch the real stock certificates for forgeries and pass the real ones to Cinnamon, who walks out with them unsuspected. The team reassembles and drives off just as Lowell and Calendar Guy Vornitz discover they’ve been tricked, and the season ends.

There’s more of Jerry Finnerman’s style in evidence here. This time, Cinnamon is definitely shot in softer focus than the men. Overall, though, the lighting isn’t as noirish as usual for Finnerman.

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So that’s it for the first season. Next: an overview and post mortem for the season as a whole.

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