Six Damn Fine Degrees #121: Your mission, should you choose to accept it…

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Last week, Alan talked us through the Mission Impossible films. And long before Tom Cruise donned his latex mask in those, there was the TV series, which started in 1966. The series is notable for its theme tune, as Sam pointed out and also for the pre-episode montages warming us, the audience, up for the show to come.

The series, of which I re-watched the first season, works exactly like a heist film such as Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), with which it has a great deal in common. We do not get extensive character development, we do not get much insight into the dynamics within the group. The caper itself is the point – whether it be a plot to rescue a churchman with a crossbow, some rope, and a trapeze artist, or a plot to, well, steal some jewels with a rope and a trapeze-artist. The pleasure in watching these is seeing the plan unwind, each specialised team member performing their part. Unless they’re Peter Ustinov’s Simon Simpson in Topkapi, who is merely there to comically gum up the works.

Elizabeth Lipp (Melina Mercouri), desirous of the emeralds in the dagger of Sultan Mahmud I in the Topkapi museum in Turkey, enlists the help of master-thief Walter Harper (Maximilian Schell). He then assembles a crack team to steal the jewels from the Palace itself. Cedric Page (the always fabulous Robert Morley), is the mechanic, Giulio (Gilles Ségal), an acrobat, and Hans (Jess Hahn) is the strongman. They also enlist the help of small-time fraudster Simon Simpson (Peter Ustinov), who is made responsible of driving a 1964 Lincoln Continental full of weapons and explosives over the border. Hijinks inevitably ensue.

Mission Impossible‘s “Impossible Missions Force” is not peopled with thieves, but with secret agents hired for a mission. The famous sequences in which Dan Briggs (Steven Hill in season 1) gets his communications from a mysterious superior, warning him the message will self-destruct in Inspector Gadget fashion. In the pilot the message is on a vinyl record which starts smoking after the message is read. Or the sequence in which he receives his directions in an empty movie-theatre. Elizabeth Lipp from Topkapi, in contrast, prefers to address the audience directly, explaining that she just loves, nay is obsessed with, very expensive sparklies. Both in Topkapi and in Mission Impossible‘s pilot episode, the plan is nearly foiled by a character getting his hands caught in a door. A safe-cracker in the first case and the strongman in the latter. The tension comes from how the respective shows deal with this, and other glitches in their otherwise immaculate plan.

The joy in watching these films, and this goes for many good heist-films, from Ocean’s to Inside Man, is the caper itself. We don’t need to hear about how Topkapi‘s Lipp and Harper met, or what their affair was like. It is sufficient to know there was something between them at one point and she likes and trusts him enough to allow him to lead this team of thieves. The team is assembled, a meeting is held, and the plan unfolds.

In Mission Impossible, now more than five decades old, we have “mini” computers, which require an entire rigged vest to operate, and a strongman to be able to carry it about. Oh, and its range is about a metre. Rollin’ Hand (Martin Landau), as the man of a million faces, impersonates the villain in the pilot by the simple expedient of having the villain played by Martin Landau smothered in facial prosthetics. Whether the series holds up in terms of our modern sensibilities can be questioned. But its very quaint make-believe technologies are still a lot of fun.

And, as usual, this message will decompose one minute after breaking the seal…

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