Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Innocent Bystanders (1973)




The cinematic spy boom of the 1960s was without doubt a prodigious affair yet also one that proved relatively short lived. What worked in the 1960s and continues to feel fresh and exciting upon rewatches today became stale and naff in the subsequent decade of the 1970s. What more proof do you need than to compare and contrast The Avengers with The New Avengers?

Innocent Bystanders was made in 1973 and follows the same rule. From the pen of James Mitchell, on paper it has much going for it; Mitchell had created the seemingly ruthless but increasingly weary assassin Callan for television in the 60s - a peerless production that cast a downbeat light on the spy boom and starred a superlative Edward Woodward. The film was given to director Peter Collinson, coming off the back of some very strong work such as Up The Junction, The Long Day's Dying and The Italian Job and he cast his net in the full and promising waters of actors often associated with the spy drama - there's Donald Pleasance (You Only Live Twice) as the coldfish British spymaster, Sue Lloyd (The Ipcress File and TV's The Baron) Derren Nesbitt (The Naked Runner and TV's Special Branch) Warren Mitchell (whose hapless KGB agent became something of a semi regular in The Avengers) Cec Linder (Goldfinger) and Vladek Sheybal (From Russia With Love and Billion Dollar Brain). There's even veteran US actor Dana Andrews whose brother Steve Forrest had played The Baron opposite Lloyd. In the lead role of John Craig, Collinson secured Stanley Baker. Again it must have felt full proof - I've often believed Sean Connery effectively stole the niche Stanley Baker had created in British cinema and as Craig is a spy in the Callan mould (psychologically damaged, bitter and weary) Innocent Bystanders looked set to offer us an alternative to the Bond franchise, with the man who could out Connery Connery at the helm.




But it's not to be. Primarily the main issue with Innocent Bystanders failings is it doesn't seem altogether sure what it wants to be; is it a more sober and bleak account of international espionage like Callan or even The Ipcress File? Or should it be a freewheeling caper that embraces all the tropes associated with the spy boom and Bond films in general? The torture scenes and hints at Craig's mental health suggest the former  but there's ill advised attempts at comic relief alongside the offensive chauvinistic bullshit suggestion that Geraldine Chaplin (as the primary 'innocent bystander' of the title) could happily drop her knickers for a stodgy looking Baker who, just moments previously, had pressed a double barrel shotgun into her head and promised to kill her in front of her guardian, that suggest the latter wholeheartedly. It makes for a tonally off piece, a failing that would continue to dog Collinson's 1970s work as his penchant for brutality became increasingly and uncompromisingly clear.




Baker may indeed seem to be picking the gauntlet up from Connery in his depiction of a haggard and somewhat past it hired killer (should they have had the nerve to age Bond and allow him to grieve after OHMSS instead of hitting the reset button) but the script and its presentation - essentially the stringing together of cliches accompanied by cheesy and intrusive '70s waka waka guitar by way of a plot - doesn't feel that different from the Moore Bond movies of the time. Well it does, it just feels grubbier and more low budget, not helped by a clearly middle aged Baker wearing his hair long, sporting a Zapata moustache and wearing a white suit and black shirt that makes him look like a negative. It's low rent and I don't think that's what they had in mind.

Occasionally there's a glimmer of things in the script and I must admit there's something quite promising about the Lloyd and Nesbitt double act - a kind of sophisticated yet sadistic golden couple, a twisted Hansel and Gretel eager to please their MI6 paymasters in a manner that is not that dissimilar from the character of Meres, 'the Old Etonian Al Capone' played by Anthony Valentine and representing the next generation of spooks that so disgusted the moral code Callan possessed in Mitchell's TV drama - but the material just isn't good enough to sustain them, or indeed any of them.




By the 1970s the spy boom was as washed up as the character of Craig is suggested to be here and after a few more tepid affairs was finally terminated. It's new home was of course television (barring the largely misfiring New Avengers of course) who showed us such stories could still be told albeit in a different and more mature manner thanks to the continued presence of Callan and the arrival of The Sandbaggers and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. These may have been more cerebral and realistic, but even The Professionals would show us the genre could still be done with a boyish elan that was missing from this production.

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