November 20, 2019

Additions to the Top Ten: Man in a Suitcase

I'm not what you'd call an Anglophile; I don't scour newsstands looking for magazines with one of the Royals on the cover, I don't give a rat's you-know-what about what Meghan and Harry or William and Kate are up to (I'm not even on a first-name basis with them), and I root for the home team on the Fourth of July.

When it comes to television, however, I'm more than willing to look across the pond, especially the shows from the 1960s that migrated to American TV: Doctor Who, The Prisoner, The Avengers, The Saint, The Persuaders, and—Man in a Suitcase.   

Man in a Suitcase ran for only one season (1967-68 on ITV; 1968 on ABC), but it's more than worthy of being mentioned with those other series. It stars American actor Richard Bradford in a galvanizing performance as McGill ("Just McGill," he brusquely tells people), a former American spy who's been dismissed from the service, and prevented from returning to the United States, for having allowed a scientist (accidentally, or on purpose) to defect to the Soviets. As befits his role as series protagonist, all is not what it seems: McGill's the victim of a frame-up, and he's determined to clear his name, even though it's unlikely he'd ever want to return to the service after the way he's been treated. In the meantime, he's holed up in London, taking various assignments as an unlicensed private detective, accompanied always by the battered suitcase that holds the remnants of his life. He's hard and cynical, and in the first episode*, "Man from the Dead," we see why: the service knows he's innocent. It turns out the scientist is acting as a double agent, passing information back to the Americans, and McGill was targeted to take the rap in order to make the whole thing convincing to the Reds (as well as keeping him from figuring out the truth). In other words, while everyone else thinks he's a disgrace (and possibly a traitor!), the people who know better, who could with one word restore his reputation, are perfectly content to let him twist in the wind to provide cover for their larger deception. No wonder he's bitter.

*As you watch the series, don't follow the broadcast order of episodes, which lists "Man from the Dead" as Episode #6; it is, in fact, meant to be seen first. One could make an argument, however, that it could equally function as the final episode.

There's a lot to like about this series. It has that stylish Sixties feel, from the pitch-perfect theme by Ron Grainer (who also did The Prisoner and Doctor Who, among others) to the fashions, the style of cinematography, and the Cold War tension. The series has a dark, cynical feeling, right out of shows like Secret Agent and The Prisoner, and McGill is the perfect protagonist: a loner, sardonic, brittle, and suspicious; a mercenary who doesn't let his fee stop him from biting the hand that feeds him, whether it be a client, the authorities, or someone who might be an ally. And yet he also has the proverbial Heart of Gold, a strong sense of justice that causes him to put his own life on the line in order to help those he sees as true victims—people like him, although he never drifts into self-pity. (It also shows the value of casting an American actor as an American character, rather than a British actor with a bad accent.)

Certainly these are the elements that one sees in traditional noir stories, and in lesser hands it could fall into cliché. Bradford's performance ensures that it never happens, though. A classic method actor, he's thoroughly invested in his character, determined to play him as realistically as possible. When McGill's slugged, he bleeds; getting sapped in the head leaves him woosey and uncertain; and he makes it clear he doesn't always have all the answers. This kind of dedication made Bradford difficult to work with (and perhaps explains why Man in a Suitcase was his only starring role), but it results in a charismatic, convincing portrayal of a man who's honest, dedicated (often in spite of himself), as must have been one hell of an agent.

Even when the stories are relatively straightforward, there's a perpetually unsettling feeling about Man in a Suitcase: no guarantees that the good guys will win, that everyone will survive, that McGill won't be (once again) betrayed by someone he's reluctantly decided to trust. There's also a sense that not everything is as it seems, and indeed the story rarely unfolds all at once. McGill's background is only occasionally mentioned (usually by prospective clients who take the opportunity to remind him that beggars can't be choosers), but it's never far from the surface, and never far from McGill's thoughts. It's a subtle, unspoken element that hangs in the air throughout the series.

It's too bad that Man in a Suitcase only ran for one season, but perhaps that's really a good thing; like The Prisoner, it may have been impossible to sustain the premise and the quality of the series for more than the 30 episodes that were made. I watched Man in a Suitcase right after having finished Coronet Blue, a series from roughly the same era with a similar look; but Man in a Suitcase quickly underlines the missed potential of Coronet Blue: the atmosphere, the subtleties, the distrust, the sense that the ground could shift under your feet at any moment. A little mystery, done well, can go a long way, and while we never find out who Michael Alden was, just as we never know if McGill clears his name, it's clear which series offers the more satisfying journey. TV  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent synopsis. It's still my favorite show.


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