Action/Adventure British

Charlie Muffin

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, 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.

charlie ntsc muffin - YouTube

The best thing about this movie is Jack Gold’s direction and the uniformly outstanding acting by the cast. The scenes between Bernekov 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.

British Drama Horror/Suspense

Unman, Wittering and Zigo

I have recommended the film Flirting, in which sadistic masters torment the new students in a boys’ school. I now turn the tables by recommending a film in which a new teacher John Ebony (David Hemmings) and his wife Silvia (Carolyn Seymour) are terrorized by the fifth form from hell. The last three students on the class roll are Unman, Wittering and Zigo, but Zigo is always absent, even going back to the time when the teacher that Ebony is replacing, Mr. Pelham, fell to his death (by accident?).

Director John Mackenzie of Long, Good, Friday fame made this creepy, nasty, thriller in 1971. He was aided immeasurably by master cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, who contributed some dazzling and disturbing point of view shots in the opening sequence as well as during the most horrifying scene in the film (which I will not spoil by describing other than to say, don’t bring the kids to this one).

The nefarious school boys (who include some actors who went on to distinguished careers including Michael Kitchen and Michael Cashman) are hard for the viewer to keep straight but that actually works, along with skillful editing, to make them seem less a group of individuals than a multi-headed hydra snapping relentlessly at Mr. Ebony. Hemmings, who also produced, is good as the pitiable Ebony, including in those scenes where he starts destroying himself with alcohol (perfect casting there, sadly enough. Hemmings left us too soon).

Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1971) | Nostalgia CentralWhile struggling with the boys ostensibly below him in the hierarchy, Ebony must also cope with the headmaster, played by Douglas Wilmer with just the right amount of Old Brit unctuousness overlaying snobbery and cold-heartedness. Although the scenes with the boys are chilling, the pre-dinner drinks scene with the Ebonys, another master and his wife and the headmaster, make one’s skin crawl in an entirely different way.

The final third of the movie is not entirely satisfying in terms of logical plotting, but the film still delivers a consistent air of menace that gets under your skin. Certain ambiguities in the story invite debates about the interpretation of this film; to avoid spoiling the movie for those who haven’t seen it, I have placed my own nagging questions about this movie after the jump (i.e., Don’t read the rest of this unless you have seen the film, it will ruin it for you).