Charlie Muffin (1979)

Director: Jack Gold
Starring: David Hemmings, Ralph Richardson, Sam Wanamaker, Pinkas Braun, Ian Richardson, Shane Rimmer, Jennie Linden, Clive Revill
Music: Christopher Gunning
Based on a novel by Brian Freemantle

Charlie Muffin is a film out of time. It could be considered a late entry into the ‘hard bastard’ cycle of spy films of the 1970’s, but it also mixes up a few other styles as well. The Charlie Muffin character is a bit of a dinosaur. He is a throw back to the sixties. He’s a lot like Harry Palmer. He’s a working class spy, operating in a haughty gentlemen’s club. But like Palmer, he knows his tradecraft and continually infuriates his superiors with his insubordinate ways.

Even the casting of David Hemmings as Muffin, and Clive Revill as his opposite number, Berenkov, reinforce the sixties links. Both actors were at their prime in the sixties. The film that Hemmings is most identified with is Antonioni’s Blow Up, and Revill starred in a whole swag of swinging sixties films, including Modesty Blaise, Kaleidoscope, The High Commissioner, The Double Man, Fathom and The Assassination Bureau just to name a few.

At the other end of the scale, in a more modern mould, playing a head of the service is Ian Richardson. Richardson has almost made a career of playing officious bastard’s, and this role is no exception, coming straight after Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy. He also revisited this style of character in The Fourth Protocol.

Despite the time travelling and variance in style, Charlie Muffin has a good Cold War story to tell. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, it may seem a little dated now, but this TV movie is pretty entertaining.

The film opens in East Berlin. Charlie Muffin is a scruffy looking British spy with dirty shoes. But he has captured Russian spy Alexei Berenkov (Clive Revill). Helping Charlie with the coup are two younger but ambitious upper-class agents, Harrison (Tony Mathews) and Snare (Christopher Godwin). Harrison and Snare have very expensive and clean shoes. Now the three men have to get back to the West. It is agreed that Muffin will drive out, while the other two cross the checkpoint on foot.

Harrison and Snare go first and make it safely. Charlie, on the other hand is cautious. Rather than drive across, he offers the car and papers to a East German who wishes to defect. The East German gladly jumps at the opportunity and drives the car up to the checkpoint. As the car moves up, bright spotlights are flicked on. It appears that the sentries at the checkpoint were waiting for this car to attempt a crossing. The driver panics and tries to escape. This is met with a volley of machine gun fire, that kills the unwitting pawn. The tragedy is watched from the shadows by Charlie. He is not a happy man. It looks like someone had set him up.

Back in London, Charlie’s boss, Cuthbertson (Ian Richardson), despite the success of the mission, is embarrassed to see Charlie return alive and well. And as further insult to injury, Charlie gets demoted and sent on leave. You see, Muffin isn’t from the right class. He isn’t a ‘gentleman’ agent. He was a tool (or if you’ll pardon the Bond analogy – a blunt instrument) used by British Intelligence’s former Head, Sir Archibald Willoughby, (Sir Ralph Richardson). But times have moved on. A man like Charlie is no longer needed. He is expendable.

Meanwhile is Russia, a plan is being put into operation to get Berenkov back. This involves General Valery Kalenin (Pinkas Braun), one of the top men in the KGB. Kalenin’s plan is simple. He needs somebody to ‘trade’ for Berenkov. So he has to capture a high ranking British spy. He does this by coming out into the open. First he turns up at a reception at the British Embassy in Moscow. The British and CIA all believe he is about to defect and send agents to broker a deal. Cuthbertson sends Harrison and Snare, but their attempts end in failure. Reluctantly, they ask Charlie to take over the mission.

Charlie Muffin even though it is a TV movie, is a very good cold war spy drama. It is aided considerably by a great cast. If it has a slight weakness, it is the ending, which is a bit too up beat. Not that I want all the characters to die, but this veers off towards a caper film, which was completely unnecessary. But still, this production is better than a lot of the other dross that is out there. Highly recommended.

The Charlie Muffin books by Brian Freemantle are:

Charlie Muffin (1977)…aka Charlie M
Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie (1978)… aka Here Comes Charlie M
The Inscrutable Charlie Muffin (1979)
Charlie Muffin’s Uncle Sam (1980)…aka Charlie Muffin U.S.A.
Madrigal for Charlie Muffin (1981)
Charlie Muffin and Russian Rose (1985)…aka The Blind Run
Charlie Muffin San (1987)…aka See Charlie Run
The Run Around (1988)
Comrade Charlie (1989)
Charlie’s Apprentice (1993)
Charlie’s Chance (1996)…aka Bomb Grade
Dead Men Living (2000)
Kings of Many Castles (2001)

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