Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Episode Analysis: Mission: Impossible – The Town

(As you’d expect, this contains SPOILERS)

Paralysed and confined to bed
Evil nurse, Grandpa Walton (aka the Doc) and a worried Rollin
What do you do when you have a character who is always very much in control? You put him out of control. That’s precisely what this episode does to Jim Phelps. On his way to meet Rollin at a hunting lodge, and arriving in a small town with an overheating car, he stumbles (because this is the kind of thing that happens to the IMF) across an entire community constructed for the purpose of sabotage and assassination. When Jim sees a woman stumble over her own suitcase in the pharmacy and accidentally set off her ‘prescription’ – a gun containing a gas capsule – he is apprehended by the local sheriff and turned over to the town doctor (Will Geer, of Waltons fame) who happens to be the mastermind of the entire community. Deciding it is too risky to simply kill Phelps, the doctor devises a yet more dastardly and entirely medical plan.

Poor Jim...
Paralysed by a combination of curare injected into the back and an anaesthetic to the lower cranial nerves (involving a most unpleasant injection to the back of the neck), Jim is locked in his own body, confined to bed and the ministrations of the corrupt doctor and his nurse, Liz, who is as poker-faced a nurse as you would ever love to have ministering to you in your drugged paralysis. When Rollin arrives, concerned about Jim’s non-appearance at the lodge, he is told that Jim has suffered a stroke which has led to complete aphasia. It’s possible that Jim isn’t even conscious of his presence. Wordlessly, Rollin demonstrates a wonderful display of the affection between him and Jim in his shocked and distraught reaction, and in his tender stroking of Jim’s brow and hair when he is admitted to see him. This is the first season that the characters have been in together, but it’s quite obvious that the two have built up a close friendship during that time.

Rollin shows his concern

Off-vertical camera angles and the devious nurse
It’s once Jim enters the sick room that the beauty of this episode gets underway. Directed by Michael O'Herlihy, this is a masterful episode. Visually it is a treat of the kind that you only seem to get in the sixties and earlier. The green patterned wallpaper of the sick room is a perfect decorative flourish against the clinical white of both the sick bed and the nurse’s starched white uniform, while Rollin’s predominately red, threaded with blue, plaid shirt is aesthetically perfect against the green background. The green of the wallpaper is echoed in the natural green of Rollin’s eyes while the red of his shirt is echoed by his skin tone. Visually, the effect is perfect. Jim is in a blue shirt under the white sheets, marking a kind of half-way house between the sterility of the hospital aspects and the homely feel of the wallpaper and Rollin’s presence.

Rollin's always beautiful, but he looks great in this setting

As Rollin tends to Jim, the camera is still off-kilter
To further this aesthetic display, the filming in the room and in the rest of the doctor’s house is done at unusual angles and slightly off-vertical, emphasising both Jim’s loss of control and Rollin’s anxiety. Later in the episode, when the team assemble and take over the house, the camera angles come back to normal, showing the restoration of control. These shots in the sick room are interspersed with footage of the car containing the two assassins, a man and a woman, on their way to L.A. to target their victim. These drawn-out, dialogue-free shots help to pace the episode well, and the cameraman makes use of the technique of zooming in while pulling out, long before Jaws ever used it. To put it succinctly, the camera-work in this episode is slick, and it holds together a story with less dialogue and less movement than usual, inserting the motion into the visual frame rather than the actor’s movement.

Jim realises he can communicate by blinking
The pivoting point of tension in this episode is the knowledge the Jim holds and the question of whether or not he will be able to convey it to Rollin in time to save two lives – his own, and that of Mosneyvov, the rocket-scientist defector who is the target of the assassins. It’s easy to see time ticking down for Mosneyvov through the shots of the car steadily getting closer to L.A.. For Jim, his time is marked by the slow passing of the hours, and the doctor’s determination that each night will bring a more severe ‘stroke’, until the final one kills him. We see his frustration on the few occasions that we hear his thoughts, willing Rollin to listen to him and understand, despite his inability to speak. He begins to claw back control of the situation as he realises he is able to control his eyelids and starts to blink a S.O.S. in Morse code. Rollin finally catches on and we breathe a collective sigh of relief as Jim communicates, through blinking ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to Rollin’s questions, that he is not ill, but drugged, and that the entire town is hostile.

All in all, this episode is class, and watching it will be well rewarded.

Other notable scenes and features –

Cinnamon - always chic.
  • Rollin phones Cinnamon on a tapped phone. Her only clue that something is wrong is that Rollin asks for ‘Mrs Phelps’, and she catches on to the urgency of the situation, understanding that Rollin’s suggestion that she bring a driver means Barney (automatic assumption in the sixties that the driver would be black?) and that a reference to baby Willy seeing his Uncle Rollin soon is a request for Willy to come along. Cinnamon’s shock and concern about Jim is obvious, and her white-faced reaction works very well visually against the backdrop of her classic, chic apartment.

The nurse prepares the curare
  • As Jim’s medication wears off, in the middle of the episode. You really get the sense, as movement comes back to him and the doctor unceremoniously rolls him over and bares his back for the first injection, that Jim is in a great deal of discomfort. He has been immobile and sweating for at least a day, and he really has the look of someone who had been confined to bed and unable to move. The degradation of his situation is heightened as the gas station man comes in mid-treatment without so much as knocking, and carries out a conversation with the Doc. Despite this, Jim takes the opportunity while he can speak to get necessary information from the Doc, discovering what he is being injected with and who is to be assassinated. Well done, Jim!

Rolling Jim for his injection. Peter Graves does a great impression of discomfort.

  • Cinnamon and Rollin’s slick work in the doctor’s surgery to create Rollin’s mask and outfit so that he can impersonate the doctor. There’s no pity in them as they chloroform the doctor and cover his face in plaster of paris. It’s less than he deserves. Rollin, of course, ends up with a flawless disguise, as we would expect, and gets to practice the voice during an unexpected phone call from the male assassin.
Willy's fake arm injury, with Williams and Barney

  • Willy and Barney’s exemplary performances. Willy plays a truck driver and cunningly simulates a horrendous cut to the arm in order to get into the surgery. Barney plays the driver of Cinnamon’s car and mostly hangs around outside to warn the others of unwanted visitors. Willy’s concern for Jim is mostly non-verbal, but quite evident.
Williams (Eddie Ryder)

  • The man at the gas station, Williams (played by Eddie Ryder), is a great character in himself. While Doc is obviously the leader of the community, Williams is out-front, the man at the gas station that gets to greet all comers, and through the whole episode we can see him itching to have more control, and never quite getting it. You get the feeling that if he could, he’d quite happily cosh the doctor around the back of the head and take the reins himself.

Jim escapes in a coffin, with Willy cracking the lid to ask, 'You have enough air?' How fun!
  • The assembled townspeople in the underground briefing room are wonderful – a great mix of young and old, venerable looking women in odd hats who are still part of this (presumably) communist plot. They demonstrate kill techniques on a dummy that looks as if it’s died quite a few times already, and all in all are a very creepy lot. If you ever wanted to know about unheimlich, it’s all here.
    He looks like he's had a hard few days...
    There's no reason for this picture apart from to say 'awww'
The rest of the screenshots I took are dumped here because they're too pretty not to upload :-)


  1. This episode is so perfect. It's pretty much been my favorite M:I since the first time I saw it (but The Photographer is a close runner-up).

    I've always thought that the entire cast's acting visibly improved once Peter Graves joined the show. Of course, that could have been the benefits of the higher budget and better direction post-1967 Emmys, but I like to think they all just played up to his amazingness. ;D

  2. It's an awesome episode. I think I've got a few favourite for different reasons, but this one is right on top as the very best. I wish Martin Landau and Barbara Bain had carried on. Rollin and Jim make a wonderful team.

    Who wouldn't play up to Peter Graves's amazingness? XD I've always thought that his acting becomes more sublime with a good director, too - like in Night of the Hunter.

  3. I feel like you can read my mind!

    I especially love Rollin in this and the real affection he shows in tending Jim. *sigh* Strong, male friendships are so sexy.

  4. Thanks so much for posting all this detailed information. I was watching this episode on satellite TV this evening here in Kyoto, Japan, and it was just spellbinding for my wife and I. Unfortunately, we had to turn it off after about 20 minutes, as today is a holiday in Japan and we had to do a little family ceremony. I was dying to find out what happened, and Google led me to your little obsession site here. Lucky me! Thanks for all the details.

    1. Thank you! I'm so glad it could help you! It really is a great episode :-)

  5. I traveled Route 66 many times when I was a teen. I saw it transform from the dangerous two lane washboard type highway to the Interstate it is now. This episode was filmed during that transition. I agree that the 2nd unit camera work was good with an effective use of zooming and musical score. Some parts were shot on the new I-40 while some were the old highway. I recognized several of the locations as the two villains drove from the town to LA, including the Needles Valley and one in Victorville, CA. I noted in one instance when they were approaching the Hwy. 395 to I-10 interchange an intermixing of a shot with bridges on the left and a railroad on the right with a large black water tank. I scratched my head on that one for a while. That shot was actually filmed at the Colorado River taken on the Arizona side before entering California. A close inspection to left behind the trees (using your slo-mo on a DVD) reveals the old Red Rock Bridge that Rt. 66 used to use before I-40 was re-routed slightly to the north in 1967. The old Red Rock Bridge was demolished about 10 years after The Town was filmed.

    Here are some other interesting facts revealed by the slo-mo on your DVD or VCR. The Town itself, “Woodfield,” was actually the town of Calabasas, California, which is north of LA off of Route 101. You can see the town’s real name in some shots and the Doctors office was the Leonis Adobe Museum which is located in Calabasas and, I believe, open for visiting. That is where the water tank is also located you see in one of the shots where Barney is with his limousine. Comparing stills captured from The Town and compared to the museum today you can see they are remarkably similar verifying the real town where the exteriors were shot.

    1. Thank you so much for all that information! As a fan of Route 66 (the tv show, which never really actually touches the Route 66 road) I'm fascinated by all of that info, because I spend a lot of time trying to find out about the locations I blog about. (A completely different blog to this one. I hope I'm making sense.) I'll have to go looking on Google Maps at that town.

  6. PG was so pitiful in this episode. I loved when Rollin was wiping the sweat off of Jim. PG had a beautiful nose