By 1972 when Innocent Bystanders was released the spy movie craze had pretty well peaked. There would still be spy movies of course and some would do very well but the days when a modestly budget spy thriller was a guaranteed money-spinner were over. So it’s not altogether surprising that Innocent Bystanders has disappeared into almost total obscurity. Which is a pity because it’s not a bad movie at all.
Stanley Baker plays John Craig, a British agent who works for the ultra-secret Department K (which handles assignments that are too grubby for any other intelligence agency to touch).
The problem is that Craig is washed up. He’s middle-aged, weary and disillusioned, his previous assignment ended badly and there is considerable doubt as to whether he has fully recovered from a particularly brutal session of torture courtesy of the KGB. The head of Department K, Loomis (Donald Pleasence), gives Craig one last chance to prove he still has what it takes.
The basic premise is set up for us with a well-staged and very violent prison break from a Soviet Gulag. One of the escapees was an agronomist named Aaron Kaplan (Vladek Sheybal). Now the CIA has decided it wants Kaplan. The problem for the head of the CIA’s Group 3, Blake (Dana Andrews), is that there’s a leak in his section. So he wants the British to get Kaplan for him. Loomis is happy to do this, for a price. It’s a price the Americans are not prepared to pay but Loomis decides it might be advantageous to get Kaplan anyway. This will be Craig’s chance to redeem himself.
Craig will have the assistance of two other Department K agents, Royce (Derren Nesbitt) and Benson (Sue Lloyd). He doesn’t want their help, and with good reason. They’re young hotshot agents. Craig had been Department K’s top agent and they would both like to supplant him.
The mission takes Craig to New York, and then to Turkey. The KGB are also after Kaplan but Craig finds the Americans to be a bigger problem. To get to Kaplan he has to get to Kaplan’s brother in New York and to make things easier (as he imagines) he kidnaps the brother’s ward Miriam Loman (Geraldine Chaplin). Miriam doesn’t seem too bothered about being kidnapped. In fact she seems to be quite pleased to be kidnapped by a big strong macho British spy.
Of course this being a spy thriller there are going to be double-crosses. Lots of them.
This movie is a far cry from the Bond movies. There’s not a huge amount of action but there’s quite a bit of violence and this being the early 70s the violence is often quite graphic. There are no gadgets, no spectacular stunts, no large-scale action set-pieces. The budget wouldn’t have stretched that far but this is in any case not that kind of spy thriller. This movie is very much in the gritty realist mode. That’s not surprising given that it was scripted by James Mitchell from one of his own novels and Mitchell was the creator of the archetypal British cynical gritty realist TV spy drama Callan. Innocent Bystanders has more in common with Callan (and with the 1974 Callan movie) than with Bond, with the ageing violent disillusioned hero (almost an anti-hero), the vicious young hotshot agent who wants his job, the duplicitous and callous spymaster and the general tone of pessimism and betrayal.
Stanley Baker makes a fine tough, ruthless but psychologically damaged hero. Geraldine Chaplin was an odd choice for a leading lady in a spy thriller but her slightly offbeat performance works quite well - she’s no Bond girl but this is not a Bond movie.
A major bonus is the superb supporting cast. Donald Pleasence is chillingly reptilian. Dana Andrews can’t quite match him for cold calculating creepiness but he gives it his best shot and he’s very effective. The very underrated Derren Nesbitt (best known as the star of the superb British cop/espionage TV drama series Special Branch) is delightfully vicious. Sue Lloyd does well as the female spy Benson. What you don’t quite expect in a film written by James Mitchell is comic relief but that’s exactly what Warren Mitchell provides in a deliciously outrageous turn as Omar, a Turk with an Australian accent who becomes an unlikely ally for Craig.
Director Peter Collinson had a brief but interesting career before his untimely death at the age of 44. His best-known feature was The Italian Job and he brings a similar kind of quirkiness to Innocent Bystanders.
The Olive Films DVD is what we’ve come to expect from this company - slightly overpriced, totally bereft of extras but a satisfactory transfer of an obscure and hitherto impossible-to-find movie.
Innocent Bystanders never really had a chance in 1972. It just didn’t have the budget to compete with blockbuster spy movies such as the Bond movies. Spy fans prepared to accept it on its own terms will however find much to enjoy here. Recommended.