Charlie Muffin is a terrific British spy movie scarcely remembered in the UK and even less so elsewhere, which is a rotten shame. After appearing on UK Television in 1979, it was barely released in the US under the title “A Deadly Game”. If you are among the many people who doesn’t know about this movie, let me try to persuade you to find this gem of an espionage thriller
The film is set at the twiilight of the cold war. Both the Soviet and British spy services are staffed by wily pros from the glory days who report to ineffectual careerists at the top. Among the old British hands is an insubordinate but brilliant agent named Charlie Muffin. In the title role, David Hemmings, prematurely aged well past his days of sleek beauty, gives us a character who is rumpled, raffish, boozy and extremely charming (Yes, perfect casting there). Working class Charlie is at war with his upper class twit superiors, but finds kinship with the equally clever General Berenkov (Clive Revill), a Soviet spy whom he helped capture.
Meanwhile, a Soviet General shows some interest in defecting to the West. As Charlie’s boss Sir Henry Cuthbertson (Ian Richardson, who assays cold-hearted bastards as well as anyone) and arrogant CIA Director Ruttgers (Sam Wanamaker, giving off just the right mix of parody and malice) struggle to respond, they realize they must reluctantly turn to Muffin for help. As the complex plot plays out, with double and triple crosses aplenty, the suspense mounts until the film comes to an extraordinarily satisfying conclusion.
The best thing about this movie is Jack Gold’s direction and the uniformly outstanding acting by the cast. The scenes between Berenkov and Charlie are emotionally complex, fascinating and perfectly played. Pinkas Braun, as the defecting Soviet General, has the right air of command leavened by moments of vulnerability and wit. And Ralph Richardson, as a great actor can do, makes a tremendous impression as Charlie’s former (and better) boss, despite being on screen for only a few minutes.
Based on a novel by Brian Freemantle, this intelligent and gripping movie richly merits the time it may take to dig up a copy that you can rent or buy. And in my opinion, it’s even better the second time through.