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Savant Guest Review - Region 1:

Danger Man -
The Complete First Season

Danger Man - The Complete First Season
A&E Home Video
1960-61 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 975 min. / 99.95
Starring Patrick McGoohan
Cinematography Brendan J. Stafford
Art Direction Frank White
Film Editor Derek Chambers
Original Music Edwin T. Astley
Written by Ian Stuart Black
Produced by Ralph Smart
Directed by Julian Amyes, Terry Bishop, Anthony Bushell, Clive Donner, Charles Frend, Seth Holt, Patrick McGoohan, Peter Graham Scott, Ralph Smart, Michael Truman

Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith

Despite a goofy, unfortunate title that suggests a parody, Danger Man is both one of the first and best of the secret agent TV shows. This Danger Man, 39 half-hour episodes spread out over five discs, pre-dates even Dr. No (1962), the first James Bond movie, though the influence of '50s spy fiction, and likely Fleming's stories in particular, is nonetheless felt.

Produced in Britain during the 1960-61 season, Danger Man was intended for but never sold to the American TV market. However, once the Bond craze swept the world, the program was revived in 1964 in a one-hour version, with star Patrick McGoohan reprising his role as NATO agent John Drake. That show was sold to American television and retitled Secret Agent Man, and given the memorable if incongruous theme song by Johnny Rivers. However, Rivers' lyrics, especially "They've given you a number, and taken 'way your name," turned out to be prophetic, as McGoohan's next series sent John Drake to 'The Village,' and the Kafkaesque world of The Prisoner, by far the best-known of the three shows.

Danger Man quite unlike The Prisoner, is a straightforward spy show, but within the limitations of a weekly, formula series, it's very good, exceptional even. Each 30-minute show plays very much like a chapter of an engrossing spy novel, and the dozen or shows I looked at were consistently clever, well-produced, and occasionally suspenseful. To what degree, if at all, Ian Fleming's Bond novels directly influenced the show's scripts is unknown to me, but they do have a similar flavor.

Each week, McGoohan's John Drake is sent to investigate an agent's murder, smuggle a political refugee from behind the Iron Curtain, uncover gun-running plots, and so forth. The series itself is not linear - that is, the episodes are self-contained, with no continuing story arc from one episode to the next. The only other continuing character is Drake's M-like boss, Hardy (Richard Wattis), who appears in about every fourth or fifth show.

Like the early Bond novels, the scripts are believable with none of the outrageous fantasy of the later Bond movies. There are occasional gadgets, but they're always believable and even quaint by today's technological standards - miniature cameras, listening devices, a Day of the Jackal-like rifle, etc. More importantly, the show's scripts are intimate and singularly character-driven, with Drake's thoughts frequently heard via narration (just as Bond's thoughts were expressed in the novels). The crisp dialogue of the shows reminds one of a taut radio drama. Most episodes are set in some far off country, with stories in Europe, South America, and Asia. In a practice common to politically-leery television of the period, the scripts usually give fictitious names (or archly avoid names altogether) to what are obviously supposed to be communist or politically-corrupt countries.

In any case, one of the show's best assets is how exceptionally well Danger Man succeeds in reproducing these locations on a TV budget. The program was filmed mostly on the backlot of M-G-M's British Studios in Elstree, but a second unit crew (which included future director John Schlesinger) shot a lot of footage throughout Europe. Other episodes cleverly turn British castles into Chinese ones, and various parts of the countryside into Sicilian farms, Balkan villages, etc., and good use is made of both stock footage and the yellow sodium vapor matte process.

At 32, McGoohan was already well on his way to establishing his famous, somewhat eccentric style. With his crooked smile, steely gaze and staccato line delivery, McGoohan plays Drake as an intense man amused by his own shrewdness. In The Brothers, for instance, there's an excellent moment where Drake, having previously bugged a pair of Sicilian mobsters, toys with them mercilessly by making them believe he can read their minds.

Danger Man makes no attempt to turn Drake into a ladies' man, but like the Bond novels the scripts do a good job illustrating the darker side of the spy game. In Position of Trust, Drake sets up a meek, minor clerk (Donald Pleasance) with access to secret documents. Though the show ends with the clerk happier than he was before, Drake's manipulation of him is downright cruel.

For those who enjoy British cinema, Danger Man is chock-full of wonderful character actors. Guest stars include Barbara Shelley, Laurence Naismith, Ferdy Mayne, Michael Ripper, Duncan Lamont, Ronald Fraser, Hazel Court, Patrick Troughton, John Le Mesurier, Nigel Green, Jean Marsh, and Finlay Currie, among many others. Americans turn up as well, including blacklisted actor Sam Wanamaker in an episode involving kidnapping; and Beverly Garland, in another good show that also features a very young Robert Shaw.

The discs:

One of the best things about Danger Man is its excellent black and white, noirish photography. Unlike a lot of British shows which were done on tape or 16mm, or a combination of the two, Danger Man was filmed entirely in 35mm, and looks nearly flawless on DVD. The mono sound is crisp and clear.

Bonus material is meager. The fifth disc contains a brief biography and filmography of McGoohan, but it's nothing special, and uses a font and background that makes it hard on the eyes to boot. A supposed 'photo gallery' is nothing more than a lengthy series of frame grabs, and not very well chosen ones at that. I turned to The Danger Man Website to learn more about the show, and kept a print-out episode guide that site provides at the ready.

Considering the number of terrible spy shows that littered the airwaves during the mid-1960s, Danger Man, despite that silly title, is admirably restrained and surprisingly engrossing. Its star-making performance by Patrick McGoohan, fine camerawork, handsome production values and, most importantly, good scripts, make it memorable and eminently watchable.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Danger Man - The Complete First Season rates:
Shows: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: frame grabs, short bio
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 16, 2003

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Text © Copyright 2007 Stuart Galbraith
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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