"I always almost get it right. "
Cheap, undeveloped--but still promising--pilot for the later TV spy series. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment, the 1972 made-for-TV movie that eventually served as the pilot for the following year's series, The Delphi Bureau, one of three rotating series ABC put under the umbrella title, The Men. Starring Laurence Luckinbill, Celeste Holm, Joanna Pettet, Dean Jagger, Cameron Mitchell, Bradford Dillman, Bob Crane, David Sheiner, Lucille Benson, Kevin Hagen, Dub Taylor, Frank Marth, and Pamelyn Ferdin, The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment does have that light, smart-assed Sam Rolfe touch from his The Man from U.N.C.L.E. days, along with an amiable lead in talented, likeable Luckinbill. What it doesn't have is a tightly-constructed script--or even a firmly-grasped concept--or an impressive-enough production to make us forget all the plot holes and scene cheats. Still...if you're obsessed with 70s made-for-TV movies like I am, you're not going to pass this one up. No extras for this excellent fullscreen transfer.
Researcher (...or is he a spy?) Glenn Garth Gregory (Laurence Luckinbill), blessed with a photographic memory and total recall, is on the trail of some missing USAF fighter jets, when he's almost tagged at a D.C. airport--with the help of spotter April Thompson (Joanna Pettet)--by assassin Stokely (Cameron Mitchell). Returning to the capitol, he meets up with his contact, Sybil Van Loween (Celeste Holm), a Washington socialite (...or is she a spy?) who heads-up (...or is she just another agent?) the ultra-secret Delphi Bureau, a fact-finding division (...or is it a covert counter-espionage unit?) that answers directly to the President of the United States. Channeling something between Bond's "M" and Auntie Mame, Sybil banters with Gregory while sort-of instructing him/asking him/suggesting to him that he check out former arms dealer Matthew Keller's (Dean Jagger) experimental farm...coincidentally where April Thompson works...because it's coincidentally close-by to Danvers Air Force Base, where all the jets are missing. Gregory is frankly flummoxed by this request, because he knows that everyone else involved knows he's not the Department of Agriculture fact-finder she suggests as his cover, but she pooh-poohs this and instructs/asks/suggests he go, anyway. Once on the Kansas farm, it's a game of cat-and-mouse for the unlikely-but-resourceful spy/researcher, as he tries to figure out who his friends are, and who knows what, about the missing materiel.
As I've written numerous times before, growing up on network television in the 1970s, the made-for-TV movie was a (now unaccountably) exciting concept. The idea that you could tune into a brand new movie several nights a week made specifically for the tube--and remember, TV was truly "free" then, save for the toothpaste, automobile, and FDS commercials--seemed like a bounty of riches for the TV lover who also loved movies, as well. Of course the gold standard during this MTV ("made for TV") heyday was The ABC Movie of the Week, which debuted in 1969, where viewers were routinely treated to well-written, tightly directed--and highly entertaining--little screen gems: The Night Stalker, Duel, Bad Ronald, Tribes, The California Kid, Brian's Song, Dying Room Only, Killdozer, Killer Bees, The Stranger Within, Satan's Triangle, Where Have All the People Gone?, Pray for the Wildcats, Something Evil. If it eventually dawned on viewers that an increasing number of these MTV offerings were either discarded or potential series pilots, well...who cared, as long as they were entertaining (and quite frankly, most TV viewers at the time wouldn't have connected up that aspect of combined production, anyway).
I haven't been able to pin down exactly if The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment pilot, which premiered on March 6th, 1972, was specifically intended to be a part of the wheel formatted The Men series, which premiered the following season on September 21st, 1972, or if that umbrella series was conceived afterwards, with ABC then searching around its production schedule for suitable MTVs that could fit into The Men's loose "rebellious loners in peril" unifier (I tend to think the latter, since the three separate series come from three different production companies, an atypically untidy arrangement for these umbrella outings). Obviously trying to capture some of the same ratings' magic that NBC was generating with its smash hit, The NBC Mystery Movie, where rotating series Columbo, McCloud, and McMillan and Wife were pulling in huge viewing numbers, ABC's The Men also featured three similarly-themed outings, two of them having an espionage element: Jigsaw, with James Wainwright as a California State Police Department's Bureau of Missing Persons' special investigator; Assignment Vienna, where adventurer Robert Conrad aided the U.S. government in nabbing spies and crooks; and The Delphi Bureau. Airing initially on Thursday nights at 9:00pm, The Men got creamed by NBC's Ironside (10th for the year), before ABC yanked the umbrella at the winter break, and put it in The Sixth Sense's former death slot--Saturdays at 10:00pm--where it fared no better against first Mission: Impossible and then The Carrol Burnett Show on CBS, and NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies. With only a handful of episodes produced for each series (The Delphi Bureau only managed 7, not counting this pilot), The Men was canceled in the spring of 1973, with the remaining episodes burned off throughout that summer.
So...why didn't The Men, or specifically The Delphi Bureau, work for viewers? Not having seen the other series (being only seven, I probably wasn't allowed to stay up, so for the summer reruns, I'm sure I hit either the movie over on NBC or Mission: Impossible), I can only speculate on why umbrella The Men didn't fly...with the biggest reason being the most ridiculously obvious: not one of the shows appealed enough to viewers to carry the whole wheel grouping. Over at The NBC Mystery Movie, Columbo may have garnered the biggest ratings, and helped anchor viewership on the alternating weeks when it didn't appear, but McCloud and McMillan and Wife certainly weren't too shabby in the Nielsen's, either. With The Men, no one was watching any of the three alternating series, a fatal condition for an umbrella series. People forget that although NBC hit the big time with those first three series for its Mystery Movie, subsequent efforts, with the exception of Quincy, M.E., to clone and expand the umbrella format with entries like Hec Ramsey, Madigan, Cool Million, Banacek, Tenafly, Faraday & Company, The Snoop Sisters, Amy Prentiss, McCoy, and Lanigan's Rabbi, were met with audience indifference (it's not the format that appeals, but the alternating series themselves). As well, The Men's emphasis on espionage may have come at the wrong time for that played-out genre, with viewers that season preferring sitcoms or cop/detective outings to warmed-over Bondian shenanigans (even Bond himself wasn't so hot in '72, with a worn-out, overweight Sean Connery finally out of the series, and smartassed Roger Moore soon to take over...to initially underwhelming notices and box office). Perhaps that's why ABC included the cop series Jigsaw to the mix as back-up (they even led off with it, as the premiering element of The Men). Worst of all, when ABC pulled The Men in winter, they brought it back on a new night, and ditched the weekly rotating scheme in favor of broadcasting several episodes from each series in a row; so if you happened to only like The Delphi Bureau out of the bunch, you'd have to wait almost two months at a time for it to show up again.
And quite honestly...who was going to wait either weeks or months for The Delphi Bureau to come back on...to be fair: if this pilot is any indication of the rest of the series' quality? Written and produced by The Man from U.N.C.L.E.'s Sam Rolfe, The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment has a breezy, insouciant tone that is pretty ingratiating, coupled with Laurence Luckinbill's equally unaffected turn as Gregory, the researcher with the photographic memory who isn't really sure he's a spy. Those two elements are the only potentially intriguing components of an otherwise thoroughly ordinary, predictable spy romp; unfortunately, neither one are at all adequately exploited here. Perhaps the problems begin right at the source: the Delphi Bureau. What is it, exactly? Who is it, exactly? Who is Celeste Holm in the Bureau? How did she get recruited? Or does she do the recruiting? How did Luckinbill get involved? We never get a clear picture of not only what Luckinbill is doing for Delphi, but also never an idea of whether he even knows if Delphi exists. Now, one may be tempted to read that and exclaim, "Ah, this is deliberate obfuscation! It's existential, and cryptically vague on purpose. It's perfect for the shadowy world of espionage! " Well...no, it isn't, because The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment does nothing to play-up or comment on that ambiguity; if it had, we might have had something here worthwhile. Instead, the absence of any kind of grounding feels strangely negligent, like the whole thing was rushed through without any thought to initiating the viewer, or letting them in on the joke. It's the same for Luckinbill's character. If you want to play off the Bondian super-spy expectations by having him be a most-reluctant agent...then how come he's so resourceful inbetween his own outraged musings about what the hell he's doing in all these situations? You can't have it both ways, and you certainly can't explain away his skills by once or twice saying he has total recall of everything he reads--at least not unless you make that a central "gimmick" of the show, which The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment most decidedly does not. Maybe all of this is further explored in the series proper...but right here, right now, there's an unconvincing, hollow feel to The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment's core that distances the viewer right from the start. You can't have a spy show with a disengaged agent working for a shadowy bureau that may or may not even be real, if you either don't make that existential vagueness the whole point of the show, or if you keep compromising the premise by having the agent continually act so conventionally competent.
And that's too bad with The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment, because a few elements of it are quite fun. Directed with a distressing lack of dash by one of my favorites, Paul Wendkos (Gidget, The Mephisto Waltz, Secrets, the sublime The Legend of Lizzie Borden), a few scenes do manage to stand out, though, including a clever jail escape where Luckinbill holds a sheriff at bay with kerosene and matches, and the exciting (but too short) finale, where Luckinbill is dragged underneath a combine. The solid performers are well-cast, too, with the lovely Pettet approaching her character with far more seriousness than is needed or wanted, while the likes of Dillman (in a surprisingly small part) and Mitchell and Crane ham it up something awful...and awfully amusingly (none of whom, though, can hold a candle to the delicious Lucille Benson and Dub Taylor, who are both hilarious in bit parts). However, the plot hole-laden script (the central mystery of the missing planes is laughably resolved in a ridiculous fashion, while the entire Bob Crane subplot is pathetically obvious, as well as amateurishly integrated into the finale) can't survive the cheapjack production here, where everything is either backlot, or borrowed (jesus, when they kept cueing up the ripped-off Johnny Mandel themes from Paul Newman's Harper I wanted to scream), or bogus (if you mention a county fair over and over again...you better show one--even stock footage--rather than a single interior mock-up of a tent. And then they don't even show the end gag of Luckinbill's escape from that tent--by kicking out the center pole--because they obviously couldn't afford to. Cheats like that kill a movie). In the end, after too many production miscues and wonky thematic elements, the tangible value of MTV The Delphi Bureau: The Merchant of Death Assignment is as indeterminate as the fictional bureau it purports to spoof. Or celebrate. Or whatever.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.