Fabienne (Marlène Jobert), an Anglo-French schoolteacher living in London, is swept off her feet by charming James Fenton (Patrick Mower) unaware he is actually a spy. The newlyweds spend their honeymoon in Bucharest where a shifty Hungarian waiter (Kirk Douglas) hides a mysterious package inside James' suitcase. The next thing they know James is arrested on espionage charges and handed to the Russians. Fabienne cajoles her uncle Sir Trevor Dawson (Trevor Howard), a British minister, into trading a captured KGB agent for James. Unfortunately the exchange goes awry when the fat Russian falls into an icy lake. Distraught, Fabienne endeavours to use her feminine wiles to entrap the 'waiter' who is now active in London and seemingly up to no good.
British comedy scribes Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais have an impeccable track record on television (e.g. Porridge, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Lovejoy) along with an impressive run of film scripts including The Committments (1991), Still Crazy (1998) and The Bank Job (2008). Alas, Clement's directing career is largely a catalogue of misfires that includes Catch Me a Spy. Adapted from a novel written by George Marton and Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray, this meandering farce aims for something along the lines of Stanley Donen's delightful comedy-thriller Charade (1963). Unfortunately that kind of effervescent tone was much harder to pull off in the dour and gritty Seventies. Much like Cary Grant in Donen's movie, here Kirk Douglas portrays a charming but ambiguous character who inveigles his way into the heroine's life but whose actions keep her and the audience unsure as to whether he is friend or foe. Rarely able to pull off light comedy, Douglas' steely-eyed intensity does not gel with the lighthearted tone the film seems to strive for. Whenever he barks at Fabienne the viewer feels genuinely concerned for her safety.
Most critics seem to agree that Douglas was miscast but Catch Me a Spy has other problems besides him. The plot meanders here, there and everywhere in search of suspense, romance and laughter that never sparks. Clement and La Frenais throw in some mild satire of bumbling British diplomacy but despite a handful of dry witticisms much of the humour falls flat. Or else descends into trite bedroom farce or heavy-handed slapstick. Tom Courtenay, sporting a shaggy mane and reunited with the team behind his previous spy comedy Otley (1968), wrings some mild amusement from his role as an MI6 file clerk turned reluctant field agent briefly smitten with Fabienne. As was the case with her role in René Clement's (no relation to Dick, one presumes) similarly-themed Rider on the Rain (1971), French actress Marlène Jobert is a charmingly winsome presence despite an unflattering 'shag' haircut and succession of eccentric early Seventies outfits. Among the ensemble cast she alone seems to grasp the playful nature of the script.
However too much of the humour serves as a sobering reminder of how long ago the Seventies truly were, including throwaway rape jokes, homophobia, stale observations about the supposed unattractiveness of Russian women and a cavalier attitude to adultery. Cult film fans may have more fun spotting familiar faces among the supporting cast who include French New Wave staples Bernadette Lafont, Bernard Blier and Sacha Pitoëff and Hammer horror starlet Angharad Rees who gets to make out with Kirk. On the plus side Claude Bolling contributes a lovely score.