It takes a long seventy-five minutes to get there, but How to Steal the World does have some good moments in its finale. World is a theatrical release of a “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” television two-parter. It leads to an often boring ninety minutes, which improves in the second half just for momentum’s sake, leading up to the finale’s potential pay-offs. Director Roley misses all that potential as he’s an astoundingly disinterested director. Some of the framing and composition issues are just because it’s for at most a twenty-three-inch television set, but a lot of it’s just Roley. He doesn’t care.
The film’s opening credits are over an action sequence. Peter Mark Richman’s bad guy escapes from Robert Vaughan and David McCallum. Richman escapes with Eleanor Parker’s help, something Vaughan and McCallum don’t notice. If Vaughan and McCallum are anything, they aren’t observant. They also don’t get much to do in World, supporting cast intrigue of mad scientist plotting and T.H.R.U.S.H. office sex dominates the first half of World.
Parker is cuckolding runaway U.N.C.L.E. agent Barry Sullivan with T.H.R.U.S.H. up-and-comer Richman. While everyone’s looking for Sullivan and the world’s greatest minds, Parker and Richman are hanging out at his office. They take turns lounging on the sofa after they have to close the blinds because they’re too rowdy. The best part is Parker’s wardrobe changes almost every scene during the sequence, implying it takes place over some time. Meaning she just spends her time hanging out with her global villain boytoy. It’s fun.
Meanwhile, Sullivan is doing his unit the seven thing (there are seven of these great minds). Sullivan’s kind of flimsy. He gets this second half subplot where he bickers a lot with his head of security, Leslie Nielsen. It should be better, given where writer Norman Hudis takes it in the end, but it’s not. Maybe it’s an issue related to the TV-to-movie conversion, since it’s not all Soley’s responsibility. Hudis’s script isn’t paced well in the first half.
Anyway, Albert Paulsen is better as the main mad scientist collaborator. He doesn’t get anything to do, but he finally gets to have a great moment where he and Sullivan slap each other’s hands in the finale. He’s also the way Hudis throws in the young lovers subplot. Inger Stratton is Paulsen’s daughter, Tony Bill is Dan O’Herlihy’s. O’Herlihy is one of the kidnapped scientists; Bill teams up with McCallum to get him back. Maybe the scene of Bill pointing a gun at McCallum and telling the secret agent he’s got a new partner played better on TV.
O’Herlihy is fine. Richman and Parker get to be kind of fun. Parker gets a little more to do because she’s grieving, confused wife–Vaughan and McCallum are investigating Sullivan’s disappearance; they, of course, miss all her suspicious behaviors. Stratton’s not good. Bill’s bad. Nielsen’s lacking. He has a handful of all right moments, but it doesn’t pay off. More because of Roley’s direction. He’s not just humorless, he’s anti-smile.
And he misses this amazing finish for Richman and Parker’s affair. Hudis seems to get it. Maybe not. TV two-parters aren’t features, after all.
The finale almost elevates World. It seems like it should, with opportunity after opportunity. It just never happens. It’s fortunate. A lot of the cast deserves better.
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