Wednesday, December 23, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK #96: Mission: Impossible: "The Seal" (1967)


Although this Bruce Geller series is mostly devoid of character development (at least as it is understood in today's television milieu), Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) nonetheless remains one of the most dynamically visual TV series ever created.

Not only that, but many episodes of the espionage classic are damn near perfectly-executed in terms of generating suspense and thrills.

One good example of this "perfection" is the second season episode, "The Seal," which aired originally in 1967. IMF leader Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) is assigned another crazy mission by his unseen government superior. As usual, if he, or any of his IMF Team "are "caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of his action."

The mission: arrogant American Industrialist J. Richard Taggart (Darren McGavin) has unscrupulously purchased the highly-prized "Jade Seal" statue, the mascot of the small but strategically-vital nation Kuala Rokat, on the Chinese/Indian border. This "priceless, 2000-year old statue" must be returned to the country, or the American government feels the small nation could be driven "into the communist camp."

With Cinnamon Carter (Barbara Bain), Barney Collier (Greg Morris), Willy Armitage (Peter Lupus), Rollin Hand (Martin Landau) and a cat named Rusty (!) as his partners in crime on this impossible mission, Jim sets out to recover the the Jade Seal from Taggart.

But it isn't going to be easy.

The Jade Seal has been locked up in Taggart's personal gallery, which is equipped with a "sonic alarm system," not to mention a pressure-alarm system in the floor, calculated to be tripped at any weight over four ounces. And the doors leading to the gallery are electrified. 500 volts.

Negotiation is out of the picture, naturally. Taggart is a smarmy, self-important bastard. He arrogantly recounts the entire history of the Jade Seal. It was once owned by both Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, and now Taggart likes that he's in the same club at those hisotrical figures. He openly acknowledges that the item was probably stolen, but all that matters to him is that he purchased it legally. He even ignores pleas from the State Department that he return the Jade Seal. "It happens to belong to whoever happens to have it," he says, calling the treasure "fair game."

And then Taggart really lays down the gauntlet. "If someone can steal it from me, it's theirs," he tells Cinnamon, who is masquerading as a newswoman, Mrs. Burton. "If they can steal it from me..."

The remainder of the episode involves an absolutely-inspired, complex strategy to retrieve that statue. The plot involves disguises, magnets, drills, personal trickery (Rollin's expertise; masquerading as an expert in comparative religions and a possible psychic...), and -- of course -- Rusty the Cat.

Rusty's part of the operation is particularly hair-raising. The feline must traverse a narrow bridge -- suspended from wall-to-wall in the gallery -- then open the Jade Seal's glass case. Finally, at Barney's coaching, Rusty must fetch the item (in his mouth...) and bring it back to Jim and Barney.

This scene with the cute orange tabby cat playing fetch with a 2000-year old treasure -- with life and limb in the balance for the IMF team -- is truly something of a masterpiece of suspense. The cat pauses on the bridge. It drops the Seal at one point. Then it picks it up. We watch the cat navigate the narrow bridge in extreme close-up; each footfall a nail-biter. The progress of the cat is inter-cut with close-ups of Jim and Barney as they perspire. Profusely.

The cat causes other problems too. The whole mission almost goes awry when Rusty breaks out of Jim's grasp and, unnoticed, makes a dash for the aquarium housing Taggart's prized fish. The fish begin to get jittery at the cat's proximity, and soon Taggart is paying attention to the fish, when his focus should be elsewhere if the con is to work. Cinnamon sweeps in, just in time...

"The Seal" finds Mission: Impossible in fine, unimpeachable form. The camera prowls, pans, tracks, zooms (and even acquires objects through the filter of the aquarium for a time...). Impressively, there's a minimum of dialogue (and explanation) to accompany what's happening on-screen. Instead, screenwriters William Reed Woodfield and Allan Balter, along with director Alexander Singer, trust the audience to keep up. Meanwhile, Lalo Schifrin's score creates mood, and serves as a drum-line beat right into your pulse.

One impressive sequence -- employing only extreme close-ups -- reveals Cinnamon (face only...) utilizing non-verbal, physical gestures (extremely small gestures, actually...) to relate critical and specific information to Rollin in real-time, as he pretends to be psychic. She does so right under Taggart's nose, and it's masterful.

I also love the "tech" in Mission: Impossible. It's all 1960s, space-race-style futurism. You know what I mean: computer punch cards and over-sized reel-to-reel computers. In fact, one computer in "The Seal" is so large that Barney and Rusty hide inside it for a while. But the focus on the technology -- and also on good old-fashioned American know-how and ingenuity-- recalls an age of optimism when we believed we could achieve anything, and more so, that we were the good guys.

"The Seal" features so many great moments, it's tough to enunciate them all. Barbara Bain (who won three consecutive Emmy awards for her performances on Mission: Impossible) is absolutely terrific here, feigning innocence throughout the con, and then delivering a final, derisive facial expression that serves as the episode's emotional punctuation. She delivers that metaphorical death blow to Taggart, saunters out a door (accompanied by Schifrin's theme...) and if you don't get goosebumps at the sight of this mission accomplished -- in such style -- you should go see a physician.

A boastful villain (courtesy of the charismatic McGavin), a brilliant "con," some terrific camera-work; and at least two scenes of jaw-dropping suspense (particularly in regards to herding that damn cat...): These are the elements that make "The Seal" an impeccable installment of Mission: Impossible.


If you love a good caper, this is one TV show that will keep you literally on the edge of your seat for 50 minutes. Rather than self-destructing (like Jim's instruction cassette), Mission: Impossible has survived for forty years by being damn ingenious.

7 comments:

  1. dave starry2:18 PM

    Great review; thanks for the heads up on this episode. I've got the first two seasons of M:I on DVD, but haven't had the time to plow through each episode in sequence yet. This write up will likely inspire me to pull out this particular installment and give it a spin.

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  2. Thanks, Dave.

    The cat adds an ingredient of the unpredictable, and McGavin is good as the bad guy.

    I need to watch all of season 2 now...

    best,
    JKM

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  3. You've brought out a great one from the memory vault, JKM. As I watched this show each week as a kid, I recognized it almost instantly by your post's title. The use of the cat had the audience scratching their heads at the start of the episode, and glued to the set during Rusty's caper sequence! Man, that was good. And you're so right when you talk about Barbara Bain's contribution to this installment, and the series. I always felt the show lost something after she departed the program. It was still very good, but she added something special when she was there.

    Thanks for highlighting this one, JKM. I have it on DVD and I think it'd be a great one to show to my kids - maybe after you-know-what, on the weekend ;-).

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  4. Hey LeOpard13:

    Happy Holidays, my friend! I agree with you about Barbara Bain. She did a great job as Cinnamon; a real multi-dimensional performance.

    I don't know why for sure, but I always remembered this episode for the cat...

    best,
    JKM

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  5. BTW, John, over the weekend I showed this episode to my kids (along with the wife). They LOVED IT! Now, they want more... Thought you'd like to know. Also, I gave you a shout out today in my Best's post. Happy New Year, my friend.

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  6. LeOpard13:

    That's fantastic! I'm so glad to hear that. The episode had the same effect on me: I wanted to go and watch about a dozen more shows. This is a really great episode, I think...

    Thanks for letting me know! And Happy New Year to you, my friend.

    All my best,
    JKM

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  7. Anonymous1:58 AM

    Great episode, and Rusty gets the last word (or meow).

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