Color, 1972, 111m.
Directed by Peter Collinson
Starring Stanley Baker, Geraldine Chaplin, Donald Pleasence, Dana Andrews, Sue Lloyd, Darren Nesbitt, Vladek Sheybal, Cec Linder
Olive Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
A particularly brutal spy film unleashed during the James Bond series' transition from Sean Connery to Roger Moore, Innocent Bystanders marked the eighth film in just under six years by the prolific director Peter Collinson. A specialist at slick, twisted entertainment, the late Collinson had proven his action mettle with The Italian Job and the underrated You Can't Win 'Em All, with a quick intermission to turn out two atmospheric British chillers, Fright and Straight On Till Morning. Here the challenge of coming up with a film for the 007 crowd meant enlisted a trio of actors from the Connery era -- Donald Pleasence (the first onscreen Blofeld in You Only Live Twice), Vladek Sheybal (the wily Kronstein in From Russia with Love and future Mr. Boogalow in The Apple), and Cec Linder (the screen's second Felix Leiter in Goldfinger).
Sheybal is really the center of the story here as Aaron Kaplan, an agronomist who's revolutionized a method of producing vegetation in desert wastelands. Now the Russians, Americans, and British all want him in their hands after he escapes from a KGB stronghold, so enter our hero, John Craig (Baker). Taking a page from Ian Fleming's novels and certainly not the films, he's deeply damaged goods: over the hill, psychologically scarred, and held in dubious esteem by his superiors. In this case his boss is Loomis (Pleasence, way before he played another Loomis in Halloween), who offers to give Craig a chance to escape a fate behind a desk by taking on the assignment of tracking down the runaway scientist. However, it's really a sneaky ruse to throw the scent off the two younger agents on the case, Royce (Lloyd) and Benson (Burke and Hare's Nesbitt), and when Craig winds up teamed under duress with the supposedly innocent witness Miriam Loman (Chaplin), loyalties flip back and forth as secrets are revealed.
Laced with a potent sadistic edge (particularly surprising given the PG rating) and some oddball comedy, Innocent Bystanders certainly isn't your average secret agent film; however, it's certainly a fascinating one with a truly surprising cast (including Dana Andrews as a CIA chief, shortly before he hopped aboard Airport 1975), and the story moves along at a quick and sometimes disorienting clip. It's certainly an unexpected starring vehicle for Baker, who's hardly in the mold of other screen spies like Michael Caine or James Coburn. A very busy actor, Baker was mainly known for his exotic action films like Zulu, The Guns of Navarone, and Sands of the Kalahari, though he also showed his perverse side by appearing in a few curve balls like Lucio Fulci's A Lizard in a Woman's Skin and Joseph Losey's Accident. At first his character is difficult to really size up as he seems to be something of a schlub and a mess, but Baker's weary intensity manages to pull it off. Chaplin, daughter of Charlie, was being prepped as an offbeat leading lady at Paramount with this and the sci-fi film Z.P.G., and while she's good here (and nothing like the supermodel depicted on the film's poster art), she ultimately proved to be more effective at supporting character roles in a batch of films by Robert Altman and Alan Rudolph.
Missing in action on home video in both American and the UK since its theatrical release (with a few token, subpar VHS editions briefly scattered in a handful of other countries), Innocent Bystanders debuts on both Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films in a movie-only presentation comparable to their other '70s catalog releases like Child's Play. There's the usual minor 35mm debris found here without any clean up, but it looks quite healthy with more vibrant hues than you'd expect given how washed out this has appeared on TV airings. The DTS-HD mono sounds fine and does a respectable job with the final of only three solid scores by Johnny Keating, who also composed the music for Hotel and another underrated Baker vehicle, Robbery.
Reviewed on August 10, 2013.