In his new movie The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Guy Ritchie rewinds half a century to fill in the backstory of the 1964 TV series and explain the origins of both the international organization and the mismatched partnership/bromance between combative CIA and KGB agents. It's an unabashedly affectionate homage to the period when pop culture was rife with a new and exciting vicarious armchair experience: stylish spycraft, usually on the small screen.
Ritchie's movie celebrates the design, food, travel, fashion and lifestyle details of the era, which would be window dressing except that these elements weren't just a triumph of style over substance – much of the substance was the lifestyle. They were central to the genre, and that sensibility is now coming full circle in the espionage genre, this time on the big screen and wrapped around the comforting blanket of nostalgia, from Daniel Craig's impeccably tailored 007 to Matthew Vaughn's recent Kingsman: The Secret Service and the revamped U.N.C.L.E.
The aesthetics can be traced to the 1930s and 40s, when films such as The Saint, starring the debonair George Sanders, influenced Ian Fleming as he wrote James Bond. The Saint was later revived as a TV show (1962-69) starring a pre-Bond Roger Moore as the charming, pompadoured international rogue thief.
But the stylish spy phenomenon really began to take shape in the Swinging Sixties with the cosmopolitan TV series Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent in North America), namely Patrick McGoohan as John Drake, a smooth operative who worked for a shadowy division of NATO. The show came complete with a moody, swinging lounge lizard theme called High Wire by Edwin Astley, in the form of percussive, Henry Mancini-style orchestral pop – were we on a caper, or at a jazzy club du jour?
Danger Man was not reticent about its modishness, as Piers Britton explains in his book Reading Between Designs, whether it was Drake's gadgetry or his casual but increasingly daring and distinctive wardrobe – often in the form of interesting hats and not yet the spy-as-Savile-Row clotheshorse. (Later, in the original The Man from U.N.C.L.E. series, the entrance to the New York headquarters is through a walk-down of Del Floria's tailor shop, just as the entrance to the headquarters in Kingsman: The Secret Service is a Savile Row tailor shop.)
Coming out of a time when most spy shows were still dry (I Spy) or corny (Get Smart), this 1960s Golden Age of espionage fantasy suggested style and sangfroid went hand in glove. Series such as The Avengers (1961) elevated pulp action-adventure with wit and chemistry between fashionable and charismatic bantering leads, first pairing Patrick Macnee with Honor Blackman, then Diana Rigg. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. repackaged it again, in jet-set glamour fantasy and starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as the odd-couple pair fighting the forces of evil: the epitome of 1960s spy chic.
In Britain, where a number of the series were birthed, the era was moving from aristocracy to meritocracy but still had a preoccupation with what might be called a lifestyle gentility. It extended into the culture at large. For men who read Esquire, there were souped-up watches and beautiful cars, such as Moore's Volvo P1800 coupe in The Saint, or any one of Bond's Aston Martin and prototype vehicles.
When The Avengers, U.N.C.LE., The Saint and the Sean Connery-era Bond films originally appeared, interest in and knowledge of design and lifestyle were new, as were portable technology, recherché brand names and gadgets. Now, they're commonplace in the pages of the Brookstone or the Sharper Image catalogues.
Nostalgia is riper for analog gadgetry and traditional methods than for lifestyle – the satisfying click of gears and tumblers that open unopenable safes in complex capers is satisfying to witness today, because if nothing else these tools eschew the recent tedium of watching a data whiz solve the problem/crime by typing into a keyboard. Unfortunately Kingsman, set in the present day, labours because it focuses so much on the lifestyle elements – all Turnbull & Asser shirts and Lock & Co. top hats.
Indeed, Kingsman is basically an aspirational manual of lifestyle and manners for streetwise protégé and would-be agent Eggsy (Taron Egerton). The Kingsman, a group of suave secret agents, have their operative names lifted from the bygone code of honour and gallantry of Arthurian myth, and in the contemporary world that can be read to extend to taste, manners and martinis. "Oxfords, not brogues," for instance, is both a secret code and a distinction to be learned. The agency's dressing room is lined with souped-up weaponry in the shape of double-duty pens, signet rings, cufflinks, spectacles, umbrellas and deadly Oxfords – a literal arsenal of menswear accessories.
Ritchie's U.N.C.L.E. at least tries to get more into the spirit behind the stuff and the period. It still doesn't get much beyond retro-kitsch, but it is still onto something. The new film is split from the same sartorial atom as Kingsman, but it's less didactic about the accoutrements.
Like Bond, many of the quips are about clothes. Just as Austin Powers's endless closet of cravats and crushed velvet, the suitcase belonging to KGB star Illya (here played by The Social Network's Armie Hammer) seems to include several tweedy cap options and a wardrobe of zip bomber jackets. "That bow tie doesn't work with that suit," CIA stud Solo (Henry Cavill) tells his rival by way of a burn. (In the next scene it's clear he's taken it to heart – he has gone back and changed his tie.)
After a fatal explosion, Solo remarks, "Damn. I left my jacket in there." In the next scene Solo's wearing his tailored jacket again – it's a continuity error, unless the spy happened to bring several bespoke jackets in reserve while kidnapped. Given his taste and the occupational hazards, he well might.
"Mine's a guy in Washington," is how Felix Leiter once dismissed 007's Savile Row braggadocio. Dapper style and gourmet skills matter, but they shouldn't get in the way of getting the bad guys.