Thursday, September 25, 2014

Man in a Suitcase: The Best Spy TV Series You May Have Never Heard Of

By 1968, the British spy craze in film and television was on a downward trajectory. Sean Connery had departed (temporarily) from the Bond films. Patrick McGoohan's long-running Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) TV series had ended. The Avengers had moved on without Diana Rigg. Still, ITC Entertainment, best known for producing Danger Man and The Saint, believed there was life remaining in the genre--especially if it came with a built-in appeal for American audiences. The result was Man in a Suitcase, a sharply-played, well-written series starring American actor Richard Bradford as a disgraced former espionage agent known only as McGill.

Branded a traitor by U.S. intelligence, McGill makes a living doing free-lance work in Europe and Africa--dealing with blackmailers, protecting stool pigeons, finding kidnapped victims, recovering lost art treasures, etc. He charges $300 to $500 a week, depending on the job, plus expenses. When a potential client gripes about the high fee for a "disgraced American agent with a gun for hire," McGill quips: "I'm expensive...I call it my self-respect bonus."

McGill's backstory is revealed in the series' sixth episode (originally intended as the first and best viewed that way). It explains that his government superiors framed him as a traitor to protect a mole behind the Iron Curtain. Proving his innocence is not an option--McGill recognizes that his false disgrace is a price that must be paid. These kinds of difficult decisions and realistic conclusions elevate Man in a Suitcase above its more conventional rivals. It's not unusual for clients being guarded by McGill to be murdered anyway. And in one episode, after McGill fails to secure blackmail evidence, the victim sacrifices his ethics to protect his reputation.

Much of the show's success, though, can be attributed to Bradford, a relative unknown when ITC signed him for Man in a Suitcase. A graduate of the Actors Studio, Bradford's previous biggest part was as a cheating husband and bigot in a small Southern town in Arthur Penn's The Chase (1966). The role provided Bradford the opportunity to play opposite one of his acting idols, Marlon Brando (in one scene, Bradford brutally beats up Brando).
McGill's Hillman Imp.
Bradford brings a quiet intensity to McGill, a complex character who is outwardly calm but prone to quick bursts of anger and whose cynical perspective is balanced by his innate desire to do the right thing. With his gray hair and a cigarette often dangling from his mouth, McGill even looks different from his contemporary TV rivals like John Steed and Simon Templar. In lieu of a distinctive car, he drives a Hillman Imp sedan. He carries a gun only if the situation requires; his only apparent possession is a beat-up brown leather suitcase. But the most remarkable aspect of the character is his consistency across the 30 episodes. After watching McGill for half a season, one can almost predict how he's going to act in specific situations.

In an interview in Acorn's second DVD boxed set, Bradford criticizes the quality of some of the scripts. There are a handful of weak episodes, such as the first one, which features a brainwashing plot that goes on too long. However, for the most part, the plots are inventive and the writing is very strong, as shown in this dialogue in which a politician's wife (Barbara Shelley) reveals to McGill that she has long been aware of her husband's illegitmate son:

Guest star Barbara Shelley in the
episode "All That Glitters."
"I know about Steve. I haven't been officially informed...but I knew when he was born, when his mother died. I knew when he was ill. I know from the expression on my husband's face whether his monthly visit with the boy has been satisfactory or not. Oh, yes, I know all about Steve."

The production values in Man in a Suitcase are higher than most ITC productions of the late 1960s. Exterior locations and stock footage are well integrated with the studio-shot scenes. Ron Grainer composed the incredibly catchy, jazz-infused title theme (hummed in my household for weeks). The Acorn DVDs look sharp and, surprisingly, the color shows little fading.

Checking for broken teeth after a fight.
Unfortunately, Man in a Suitcase lasted just one season. Still, one has to be thankful for the opportunity to watch such excellent episodes as:  "The Girl Who Never Was" (McGill tracks down a painting stolen during World War II); "Dead Man's Shoes" (a town protects a wounded spy returning to his home); "Burden of Proof" (a man of integrity mysteriously embezzles a fortune and hires McGill for protection);  and "The Whisper" (McGill learns a priest in a small African village was a ruthless mercenary). Stylish and well-acted, Man in a Suitcase is a must-see for conoisseurs of vintage television drama.

Acorn Media provided a review copy of Man in a Suitcase Set 2.

18 comments:

  1. Never seen this one, Rick. I do like McGill's attitude, though. It seems very late 60s.

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    1. Kim, except for the groovy 1960s fashions, the episodes date very little.

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  2. I am not certain how many people will have seen "Man in a Suitcase" but I have and enjoyed it quite a bit. Richard Bradford's McGill is quite interesting. If McGill liked someone he went well above the call of duty. But if he didn't care for someone he did what had to be done. The episodes are set around the globe and that made for interesting scenarios. I hope your excellent post might intrigue people to check this out.

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    1. Toto, you're absolutely right about McGill's attitude toward his employers. He works hard for those he likes or admires. Conversely, in a couple of episodes, he quits working for the people who hired him because their motives turn out to be less than ethical or moral.

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  3. This show and THE OUTSIDER are two of my favorite shows ever--top 3 is filed out by HARRY O. A shame it lasted only one season, but it was a season of about 36 episodes, and I have the boxed set. Only half of them were show in the US. Bradford went on to do the pilot of Medical Center, but when the show was picked up he was replaced by Chad Everett.

    RJR

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    1. I remember THE OUTSIDER fondly, too (didn't Darren McGavin make coffee in his crappy apartment over the opening credits?). I haven't seen HARRY O in years--not since I became a big Janssen fan after watching all four years of THE FUGITIVE on DVD. I'll have to check out Bradford in OPERATION HEARTBEAT. I think Warner Archives released it on DVD and part of it may be on YouTube as well.

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  4. I didn't catch this one when it was on, Rick, but your description of the odd-man-out type of spy is most intriguing. I wonder if Hulu has this? I had to get rid of Netflix. Anyway, your article was wonderful and I'd like to see the show.

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    1. It's a marvelous show, Becky. I think you'd enjoy it. Alas, MAN IN A SUITCASE isn't on Hulu. I'm just glad Acorn Media released the full series on DVD! Here's a fun clip on YouTube, though the video quality is poor (plus the guest star is Donald Sutherland):

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWXdvREYI2c

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  5. Thanks for the cool clip, Rick! Are you a fan of the movie Fahrenheit 451? I am -- one of the killers in the clip, the guy in the red tie who puts the key in the door, had a part in that movie at the very beginning. He was the guy eating an apple who gets a call to get out of the house, takes another bite of apple, then runs!

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  6. I haven't seen this one, either, Rick, but your review is most excellent, and now I'm anticipating an obsession in finding this to watch. I sincerely believe that the title is one of the coolest ever. I'm glad that it's on DVD, but -- especially if I can't find the show anywhere -- I greatly appreciate your informative and enjoyable write-up.

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  7. The series is far better known here in the UK. It was repeated in the 70s and 80s, and the title theme was re-used for a well known talk show. MIAS is still very highly rated, and considered amongst the best of the 60s ITC series (although it might also be worth viewing something like the early 70s JASON KING, with its ridiculously flamboyant hero, which deliberately parodies the sorts of things that MIAS takes totally seriously). A friend of mine was at a cult TV festival, and said that when he asked someone involved in the making of MIAS how he enjoyed working with Richard Bradford, the poor man buried his face in his hand and shook his head. Seems that method actor Bradford regularly had stand up arguments with Writers/Producers/Directors, which led to certain episodes going very over budget. The show's creators were adamant that they never wanted to work with him again, which explains why there was never another series.

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  8. Thanks for the insight from a British viewer. In an interview on the second DVD set, Richard Bradford describes some of the friction with the producers. As a method actor, he went to great lengths to make the action look realistic. When McGill got hit by a bad guy, Bradford would crash to the floor--only sometimes the cameraman wouldn't expect that and wouldn't tilt down. Bradford was frustrated with that. Still, regardless of what happened behind the cameras, the result in front of them was impressive.

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  9. Rick, That's a Sunbeam Imp, I should know I dove one. BTW can you name the feature film that features one (very briefly)?

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    1. Paul, yes, the Hillman Imp was marketed under the Sunbeam brand name in the US and some other markets. I'll guess BULLITT on the movie, but I have no idea!

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  10. RickHillman and Sunbeam were both part of The Rootes group .The car was infamous for blowing head gaskets, a slant overhead cam 4 -998 cc buzzbomb, that had to burn 100 octane fuel , the anti mini cooper. As for the film it was F.451

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  11. Very informative post. I watched Man in a Suitcase at the time, thought Richard Bradford was cool on a stick, bought the dvds when they came out and rewatched it, held up pretty well. To me, at the time, the British shows in the 60s--The Champions, The Avengers, Secret Agent, The Prisoner--seemed better than most US stuff, and I think some still hold up pretty well today. Harry O is a favorite of mine, as well as The Outsider, the pilot for which I have on dvd, wish the show itself was.

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  12. Any chance that The Police tune "Man In A Suitcase" (from the LP, "Zenyatta Mondatta) was influenced by this show of the same name? (having never seen MIAS I don't know what it's theme song sounded like) I could only guess that a young Gordon Sumner may have been a fan of the show.

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  13. I've never heard of this one. It sounds really interesting – shame it lasted only one season.

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