Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Opening Titles and Song: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

As we’re now knee-deep into what I refer to as The Slide1, am trying to clean out my drafts bin before the year runs out. This one will be given over to another fine opening titles sequence2 by an English film director-producer-screenwriter noted for them. Guy Ritchie is also a favorite of mine due to his well-known British gangster films, and later Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. Here, we’ll look at his translation of an old American TV program, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

For those among you who’ve not heard of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.3, it was a television series4 inspired by the sudden popularity of the James Bond OO7 novels5 and movies of the early ’60s. The organization’s primary adversary was THRUSH6, whose sole aim was to conquer the world. It was considered so dangerous that even governments who were ideologically opposed to each other7 cooperated in forming and operating the U.N.C.L.E. organization.

Ritchie’s film adaptation and script concentrated on the organization’s origin, story-wise.

That put the 1963 proceedings solidly at the height of the Cold War, which is what the sequence highlights via its graphics and fitting music. Title designer Michael Bruce Ellis8 set everything in motion with red-on-black illustrations of the studio and production company logos that transition into a single thin band that angles to supplement those viewing. One that expands to display the duotones of the time that put the European post-war terrain into context.

Intermixing its movie credits among the historical newspaper headlines and maps denoting the tension of the new political landscape9 of former WW II allies.

The segment elegantly showcased the legacy of the war, along with J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project that birthed the threat of nuclear annihilation. Once the hostility is attested to via its monochromatic images and clips, the title designer’s intent of graphing those lines comes into clearer focus. Sharply emphasizing the boundaries of the East and West that symbolized the Cold War as the crossroad of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie materializes.

All the important historical facts juxtaposed to Henry Cavill’s character making his way through Germany with the KGB (care of Armie Hammer) hot on his trail.

Am saddened to hear Roberta’s wonderful voice has been silenced due to ALS.

Which brings us to the timely, if not contemporary10 for ’63, needle-drop that vocalizes the sequence to an extraordinary degree. Compared to What the Jazz/Soul/Protest number made famous later in the ’60s by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, given a sultry but a no less impassioned cover by Roberta Flack11. While the song’s original target was the Vietnam War and President Lyndon B. Johnson with its searing lyrics, the use of Flack’s rendition in the sequence shifted the perspective intuitively.

While the titles’ intro oozed Sixties cool, its artful pictorials and heartfelt music took simultaneous aim at the present peril while giving one hell of a history lesson the audience won’t soon forget.

  1. The cosmic phenomenon that is the beginning of the end for whatever year you or I happen to be living through. You know the one where the space/time continuum accelerates to the point that the annum is suddenly over. And all of those things that happen between now and the end of the Rose Parade are just a blur. A fleeting memory. October 1st… January 2nd. 
  2. See Art of the Title‘s breakdown of his other film inception segments: Snatch and Sherlock Holmes
  3. An acronym for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. 
  4. The series consists of 105 episodes originally broadcast between 1964 and 1968, produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Arena productions; the first season was produced in black and white, the remainder in color. ~ Wikipedia 
  5. Ian Fleming contributed to the series after being approached by the show’s co-creator, Norman Felton. ~ Wikipedia 
  6. Short for the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity; or whatever works as a catchy title for a dastardly organization. 
  7. The United States of American and the then Soviet Union, primarily. 
  8. The title designer also did the end credits sequence that’s equally compelling, fleshes out the character background even more, and previews their Istanbul assignment.
  9. After the Potsdam conference, Germany was divided into four occupied zones: Great Britain in the northwest, France in the southwest, the United States in the south and the Soviet Union in the east. Berlin, the capital city situated in Soviet territory, was also divided into four occupied zones. 
  10. Written by Gene McDaniels in 1966, the song exploded when McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris performed it at the Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. They were joined by trumpeter Benny Bailey and bassist Leroy Vinnegar on the extended jazz jam, which featured on the accompanying live album Swiss Movement. ~ Songfacts 
  11. It was picked up by Roberta Flack as the opener for her 1969 debut, First Take. Les McCann has connections to both McDaniels and Flack. McDaniels was a member of his trio in the ’60s, and he discovered Flack at a Washington nightclub and secured her an audition with Atlantic Records. ~ Songfacts 

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