"Pack of Lies" begins innocently as espionage stories frequently do.
Barbara Jackson (Ellen Burstyn) and her husband Bob (Ronald Hines) are a prim, somewhat drab English couple living quietly with their teen-age daughter, Julie (Sammi Davis), in the London suburb of Langley.
Then one day they are visited by a Mr. Stewart (Alan Bates) from Britain's MI5 counterintelligence agency who asks permission to return and briefly use their bedroom to observe the street below. Stewart tells them that he is looking for a man suspected of illegally entering the country. He appeals to their sense of duty.
The Jacksons agree, but the surveillance turns into a nightmarish marathon, for they soon are drawn into a suspenseful web of deceit and intrigue that consumes their lives and involves their best friends, Helen and Peter Schaefer (Teri Garr and Daniel Benzali), a Canadian couple living across the street.
Airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channels 2 and 8), "Pack of Lies" is proof that TV can be wonderful. This is at once a corking good thriller and a very human story about a shattered friendship and ruined lives.
The "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production is spun from a successful play by Hugh Whitemore, writer of "Concealed Enemies" for PBS and the current theatrical movie "84 Charing Cross Road."
Based on an actual 1961 case, "Pack of Lies" is clean, taut and highly charged, thanks to inspired acting, a good script by Ralph Gallup and superb directing by Anthony Page, who allows the story to suspensefully edge forward without being false or manipulative.
The Jacksons ultimately realize that the tight-lipped Stewart is as interested in their friends, the Schaefers, as in the mysterious stranger who visits the Schaefers on weekends. Are the Schaefers spies for the KGB? Innocent victims of guilt by association or mistaken identity? Has their close friendship with the Jacksons been a lie? You won't know until the end.
Although her accent occasionally slips, Burstyn gives a performance of enormous resonance and heart as distraught, guilt-burdened Barbara Jackson, whose sheltered, orderly world collapses when she is forced to chose between friendship and patriotism. She is a woman of her times, blindly accepting and ultimately obedient, but also admirably loyal.
The story turns on the shifting, fraying ties between Barbara and the brassy, flirty, seemingly free-spirited Helen, whom Garr plays with just the right hint of dark shadows. The efficient, patronizing Stewart is played with oily perfection by Bates, and Davis is an achingly true Julie.
The core of a play can still be spotted in this small movie, but location shooting widens the production while also providing a British texture and gray ambiance rare for American TV.
What a Sunday surprise. If this were a book, you wouldn't put it down.