Pack of Lies (1987) / Drama-Mystery
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably PG for adult themes
Running time: 100 min.
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Teri Garr, Alan Bates, Ronald Hines, Sammi Davis, Clive Swift, Daniel Benzali
Director: Anthony Page
Screenplay: Hugh Whitemore (based on his play)
Pack of Lies is a made-for-TV drama based on Hugh Whitemore's one-act play that debuted in London's West End in 1983. Whitemore (Jane Eyre, 84 Charing Cross Road) provides the Emmy-nominated screenplay, under the pseudonym Ralph Gallup (it is reported that Whitemore didn't like some of the changes made to his original script and opted for the name replacement), revolving around the true story of Morris and Lona Cohen, two American spies working for the Soviet Union who were living under false identities in suburban London. Whitemore's play doesn't concentrate on the case as much as the psychological dilemmas that come into play as the authorities set up round-the-clock surveillance in the house of the spies friends and neighbors, causing a conflict for those who have come to know the alleged spies as friends, and even members of their own families.
Set in the year 1961, Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist, The Last Picture Show) stars as a repressed and quiet London housewife and mother Barbara Jackson, whose neighbor, a Canadian transplant named Helen Schaefer (Garr, Mr. Mom), has been her best friend and confidante, so close to her and her daughter, Julie (Davis, Four Rooms), that they've dubbed her with the nickname of, "Auntie Helen". Their insular world is invaded by a knock on the door by a man named Stewart (Bates, The Mothman Prophecies) who identifies himself as a British government agent looking to use the Jackson home to keep an eye on the neighborhood for a known KGB spy reported to having been in the immediate vicinity.
In order to get to the truth, everyone has to lie -- the agents to the family, the family to their daughter, their daughter to their neighbors, and the neighbors to -- well, everyone all along. As the walls of honesty begin to crumble so does the small life of Barbara, who is so conflicted between duty to the authorities and having the rug pulled from under the life she's come to know and love for so many years.
Originally airing on CBS in 1987 as the 'Hallmark Hall of Fame' TV presentation, the film feels like a smaller, lower budget production, but one that impresses due to a phenomenal Emmy-nominated performance by Ellen Burstyn at the core. Directed by Anthony Page (The Lady Vanishes, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden), the screenplay breaks from the singular act and local of the stage play, though judiciously and for only short key scenes. The direction is perhaps a bit too claustrophobic at times, with some extreme close-ups and oversaturated lighting, but it's really the dramatic turns in the story that keeps the interest growing throughout. Alan Bates deserves a special mention as Stewart, the government agent that rides the fine line between sincerity and sliminess that makes you wonder who the true antagonist of the piece really is. Teri Garr provides a good and readily recognizable screen presence, though she is miscast in playing a potentially duplicitous traitor.
With the exception of an abrupt and unsatisfying narrated epilogue, this is a solid television production that fans of Cold War era thrillers, and of Ellen Burstyn in particular, should find highly worthwhile film. Though small in scope, this is a rare film that explores intriguing questions regarding the casualties of the Cold War on a much more personal level than would have been delved into in a major motion picture release.
©2012 Vince Leo