Friday, July 3, 2009

From Middletown - via Colony Three - to “The Village”: Five Fingers as Source for The Prisoner?

By Wesley Britton

“To the entertainment world on two continents, I am Victor Sebastian, theatrical agent. These are my offices, but the business I'm about to transact can never appear on the company's books, not if I'm to survive. As it so happens, I'm another kind of agent. Counter-espionage. My employer: The United States government, although sometimes I pose as its enemy. My Code name: Five Fingers.”
(Preamble to Five Fingers, 1959)

The year is 1959, and a double-agent for the U.S. government is on assignment in Rome. His name is Victor Sebastian, and his cover is as a theatrical booking agent looking for musical talent in Europe and the states. Sebastian is posing as a member of a Communist spy ring who, one morning, is ordered by his Commie contact to take a train from Rome to an airport from which he’ll fly to New York. Boarding the train, Sebastian finds it odd he’s the only passenger. Odder still, he falls asleep and wakes up—in a sleepy South Carolina town called Middletown.

Or so he thinks. In Middletown, everyone seems friendly enough, even if Sebastian can’t place a call to his girlfriend’s hotel in New York. How had he got here? The mystery deepens when Sebastian awakens again, finds the people are the same, but they’ve lost their Southern accents. Now, he’s told this Middletown is actually in New England.

Finally, Sebastian is taken to the town’s “mayor” who hopes Sebastian won’t mind the joke that has been pulled on him. The “mayor” reveals that Middletown is actually deep inside the Iron Curtain where everyone is a spy. Children and adults alike are immersed in everything American so they can be smuggled into the states without suspicion. (Later, Sebastian learns Middletown has been in operation for at least 16 years.) The “mayor” tells Sebastian that he has been brought to the town so he can be briefed on his next mission, to go to South Carolina and uncover one of their operatives who was a graduate of Middletown. This operative hasn’t been checking in—so Sebastian must find him and neutralize him.

This story, “The Unknown Town,” broadcast on October 24, 1959 in the U.S., was the fourth episode of the short-lived NBC series, Five Fingers. For 14 episodes (two further episodes were filmed but never aired in the U.S.), American agent Victor Sebastian was played by David Hedison, an actor who’d come to prominence in the 1957 sci-fi classic, The Fly. Later, Hedison would co-star in the television incarnation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea before appearing as American CIA agent Felix Leiter in two Bond outings, Live and Let Die (1972) and Licence to Kill (1989). His comely co-star for most of the Five Fingers dramas would also have an important role in the 007 canon. Luciana Paluzzzi, later the cold-blooded Fiona Volpe in Thunderball (1965), played a far different part in the character of Simone Genet, a talented singer who follows Sebastian around Europe and the states hoping their romance will become less mysterious, less subject to Sebastian’s unexplained comings and goings. Paul Burke played Robertson, Sebastian’s American contact.

Regarding “The Unknown Town,” fans of the ITV series Danger Man will no doubt have noticed striking parallels between that drama and one Danger Man episode, “Colony Three”—as well as the concept for Patrick McGoohan’s follow-up series, The Prisoner. Written by Donald Jonson, broadcast on October 27, 1964, “Colony Three” had British agent John Drake (Patrick McGoohan) uncovering a similar town behind the Iron Curtain with the same purpose—to serve as a training center for agents who would ultimately penetrate British society after having spent time absorbed in the culture they’re to spy on. As this town is a place where no one has the freedom to come and go at will and no one knows who is a spy and who is an innocent civilian kidnapped to help create the Britishness of the town, many speculate “Colony Three” was an obvious precursor to The Prisoner where “Number Six,” like Victor Sebastian before him, is gassed before waking up in a mysterious “Village.”

But did anyone involved with Danger Man or The Prisoner know about the Five Fingers story? It’s quite possible someone on the Danger Man staff saw “The Unknown Town” as Five Fingers was seen in the U.K. in its entirety beginning in January 1961 just as the first series of Danger Man was about to start production in Britain. Or perhaps Whitfield Cook, the writer for “The unknown Town” and Danger Man script-writer Donald Johnson both drew from another source describing such training towns. It’s clear one book, the 1951 Operation: Cicero, written by L.C. Moyzisch, was not the inspiration for this concept. While his memoir of historical double-dealing was turned into the 1951 film version of Five Fingers, the subject was a World War II operation with nothing to do with the Cold War. The TV incarnation, while crediting Moyzisch as writer, only borrowed the title with nothing else from the book or film beyond one episode, “Final Dream” (broadcast Dec. 5, 1959). In that story, one agent is code-named Cicero who leaks secret documents from his embassy, very like the original World War II account.

Another possible inspiration might have been print articles speculating about the existence of towns for spies. While both producer George Markstein and Patrick McGoohan claimed they read a book dealing with “retirement villages” that helped inspire The Prisoner, they were talking about places where ex-spies could be quietly stowed away, not as part of any training facility. Trying to determine if any source might have mentioned an actual facility with these characteristics, I contacted a historian at the CIA. While he’s an author for intelligence journals, one book, and daily briefings for various presidents, in this circumstance he prefers anonymity. Still, his observations are credible enough when he wrote me there are no records of any such training towns.

“I've always assumed that such things were the product of screenwriters' imagination. The idea that the Soviets, for example, would have a secret town of Germans to train agents in how to live in West Germany, or a secret town of Americans in order to learn how to penetrate America is, frankly, not sustainable. Even in totalitarian dictatorships such a thing would get out. Even in North Korea, the paragon of totalitarianism, what we know is that occasional Western defectors would be required to help train agents and also to make propaganda films, but not to populate a training town. The literature doesn't support it, either. The most fantastic writer on Soviet intelligence is probably Viktor Suvorov, an alleged defector whose works have largely been discredited, and even he doesn't describe such training towns. Unless you count Oleg Kalugin, whose book The First Directorate describes his learning about America while assigned as a student in New York City. Now that's a training town, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere . . . .”

So what inspired “The Unknown Town,” which preceded “Colony THREE” by four years?

As he passed away in 2003, it is impossible now to ask Whitfield Cook where he got the idea for his Five Fingers script. It is worth noting he was a prolific scriptwriter for television shows in the 1950s and 1960s including work for Playhouse 90, Have Gun Will Travel, 77 Sunset Strip, and another short-lived spy series, the 1961 Hong Kong. He is best remembered for writing the adaptation of the novel, Strangers on a Train, that Czenzi Ormonde, Raymond Chandler, and Ben Hecht turned into the screenplay for the 1951 Alfred Hitchcock film. So it would not be unusual for the idea of a training town to be a product of his own fertile imagination, and perhaps Donald Johnson too came up with the concept with no particular source to inspire him.

Oh, how did Victor Sebastian’s mission turn out? After a few twists and turns, he discovers a young man named Davey—played by Michael J. Pollard—was the Middletown-trained spy who’d decided he wanted to be American and hide his origins. Sebastian makes this possible—but this is no place for spoilers. It’s interesting to note another memorable actor, Alan Napier played the character of Wembley. In the 1960s, he played Alfred on the comic-spoof, Batman.

Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of four books on espionage, the most recent being The Encyclopedia of TV Spies (Bear Manor Media, 2009). Many of his articles, interviews, and reviews are posted at: