Identity Crisis

A CIA counterintelligence “operator” creates a foreign identity to extort money from the United States, and kills a subordinate.

The script by William Driskill is an amazing masterpiece that compresses into a single evening the material of a serial, and in fact introduces one, Secret Agent X-9, by assigning that identity to the Agency Director. In the same vein, there is a line of thought extending from Perry Mason: The Case of the Unwelcome Well to Three Days of the Condor and The Formula.

Among the many other strands, a small theme can be traced from Harper to Big Trouble, with local influences from North by Northwest (A.J. Henderson’s dual identity) and Sleuth (Nelson Brenner’s living room games—cp. “The Conspirators”).

The grandeur of the construction can be seen at The Pike, which represents an ideal operation (shooting gallery, gifts, secrecy) to compare with the actual operational method (a currency scheme in Bananaland prefiguring the Steinmetz caper). McGoohan’s direction is masterful, with another echo of Cassavetes (Minnie and Moskowitz) as the setups carefully encompass this or that aspect of the amusement pier into each shot. Barbara Rhoades is in the middle background right as a strolling photog, behind her is a carny booth whose sign is partially obscured by the foreground, but the first word of BUST BALLOONS is clearly seen above her in the distance. This technique is used throughout to introduce material evidently without any effort (cp. “How to Dial a Murder”), and when at his mansion the operator’s penchant for Mah Jong comes up, you see the portrait of a mandarin.


Last Salute to the Commodore

A rare and perhaps unique whodunit with a Perry Mason-style mechanism from Jackson Gillis, and a Poirot finish. Combinations are the theme, in the Rockefeller sense. To be more precise, it’s a question of what happens to a man’s company when it’s swallowed up by a conglomerate. The Commodore (John Dehner) ran a sailboat-building business into success for his designs, now his son-in-law (Robert Vaughn) has a tax dodge for expansion, it’s all tiresome to the Commodore, who really wants to will his fortune to charity and sail away with an idealistic girl. Someone kills him, of course, and the false bottoms appear.

The first amusing feint is naturally supplied by the son-in-law (a touching performance by Vaughn), but he’s only covering up in his own mind for his wife, the Commodore’s daughter (Diane Baker), who’s somewhat temperamental and drinks very deep—it’s a humorous delusion of his that just borders on self-sacrifice. The real culprit, however, is the innocuous little gray-haired nephew (Fred Draper) who’s spent his every livelong day on an allowance from the Commodore, and feared losing it. This is a great gain of analysis even on Robert Wise’s Executive Suite, and even more hilarious to boot. That’s the tessitura of the whole production, hilarity of the frankest, deadest pan, sometimes addressed to the camera, as the formidable house of cards is drily examined.

Gillis works this out perfectly with McGoohan so that simple gravity animates the discourse, counterbalancing the sheer potential for laughs, and so that when the bottom is reached at last, the greatest variety of comic material has been presented with real ease, material from Keaton, say—crowding into the Peugeot for a ride in circles (to get a new man used to working chases), yelling across the din of a boatyard for information—while at the same time encouraging the actors with the camera to work in close at times for an almost tragic effect.

It’s the sense of a sad spree with nowhere in particular to go that sets the thing in motion, from a certain point of view, though the Commodore’s lawyer (Wilfrid Hyde-White) says laughingly, “what a sad story, enough to make you weep!” McGoohan’s elevated direction covers dry simple gags and open Laurel & Hardy in long takes, as well as the baroque high comedy of the conclusion, matching the performances and of course the script in fine, really expert style all the way to the dismal, nebulous convention that is the ultimate revelation, after which Lt. Columbo betakes himself to a rowboat for lunch with his wife at the Yacht Club.


Agenda for Murder

The first half of the crime is “selling off America”, as a politician puts it, whether a large corporation or a single document in the district attorney’s office. The second half, which takes place all of twenty-one years later (come to full maturity, as it were), is silencing a witness.

A man with ambitions thus bites the cheese, the trap is sprung, and a primary victory turns into “a night to remember”.

The direction is very astute on the trappings of political office and campaigning, also the strange impermanent look (campaigning in another sense) of a top-flight lawyer’s office in a certain genre.


Ashes to Ashes

A tale of Hollywood. The funeral director consigns his clients to the fiery furnace, and plucks a jewel from their entrails after...


Murder with Too Many Notes

The problem was to make the really complicated Rube Goldberg machine the script contrives (rooftop, elevator, tux rental) into a fortuitous arrangement of circumstances, and McGoohan may be said to have succeeded, in a film co-written by himself on a theme inspired by something in The Red Shoes about a plagiarist, here mechanized into a sort of mobile representing the sacred nature of inspiration.

This is pretty closely related to “Étude in Black”, and the precedent overall for murder as mechanism is almost certainly "The Bye-Bye Sky-High I.Q. Murder Case", another apotheosis of which is “Columbo Likes the Nightlife”.