Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Spy Who Flubbed Me: INNOCENT BYSTANDERS

Could it be possible that in 1972, after a mere seven installments, the world could have been getting a little weary of James Bond?

The previous year Sean Connery made his first of two returns to the character in DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER (1971), after the otherwise capable George Lazenby botched the job ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE (1969). Even before that, the same year that the fourth Bond film, THUNDERBALL (1965), saw the light of day, Sidney J. Furie released his single masterpiece THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) which made a major effort to turn against the glib, glitzy adaptations of Ian Flemming and instead go for a gritty and realistic secret agent film with oblique camera angles and paranoid atmosphere. Again, that very same year, Lindsay Shonteff started his series of low-budget secret agent outings with LICENSED TO KILL (1965), which walked the line between aping Bond and satirizing him. Only a few scant years later the careening train-wreck CASINO ROYALE (1967) spoofed the then seemingly long-in-the-tooth series with over-the-top star-studded slapstick and way too many directors. This was the same year that Alberto de Martino came up with the brilliant plan to not only send up the James Bond films, but to do it with the help of Sean Connery's real life brother Neil Connery in OPERATION KID BROTHER (1967)! Does the genius of Italian exploitation filmmakers know any bounds? I think not.

So after all that here we are in '72. Where do you go from here? For Director Peter Collinson, coming fresh off of Hammer's PSYCHO (1960)-inspired STRAIGHT ON TILL MORNING (1971), it's all about busting those 007 cliches while keeping a hard stare and a, for the most part, straight face. Based on James Mitchell's 1969 novel Collinson makes it his mission to go for a gut-punch espionage thriller with some weird touches of humor that are drier than 007's martini (provided mainly by the always fascinating Donald Pleasance).

Stanley Baker stars as John Craig, an aging, washed-up British Department K secret agent who was brutally tortured by the KGB in his last assignment. Unfortunately for him, he knows far too much to be allowed to retire into civilian life, and there are too many pencil-pushers working in the offices already. Because of this his department head, Donald Pleasance in one of his superbly eccentric turns, decides to give him one last shot at glory. The CIA wants to get their hands on a Jewish scientist named Kaplan who has recently escaped from a Russian gulag. Department K wants to get their hands on a particular document that the CIA has, and have decided that the best way to get it is to grab the scientist and make a trade. That is where Craig comes in. He is to find Kaplan and hand him over to Department K in exchange for a peaceful retirement while the two young hotshot agents (Sue Lloyd and Darren Nesbitt) act as decoys for the KGB, who looking to reclaim their prisoner. Of course this is nothing but a screw-job designed to leave Craig riddled with bullets and Kaplan safely in Department  K's hands.

Collinson seems to take great delight in portraying members of the intelligence world as either severely broken or outright twisted people. Nobody in the film is smooth or remotely well adjusted. Pleasance's turn as Loomis is stiff, arrogant and pompous to the point of caricature; Baker is quite convincing as a man who has been damaged beyond repair, but still has the wits and experience to allow him to barely squeeze through the tightest of spots and Nesbitt turns in a wonderfully slimy performance as a nasty, petty sociopath in a three-piece suit. Even the side characters are damaged goods; the contact that Craig uses to get to Kaplan is a frail, seemingly insecure young woman (Geraldine Chaplin) who has deep issues that are only alluded to, particularly when she puts the moves on Craig. Warren Mitchell, a veteran British actor with decades of British film and TV work under his belt, shows up as a Turk who spent most of his life in Australia and in spite of being a somewhat tongue in cheek role is no less a mentally scarred killer. The only character who appears to be somewhat intact is the CIA head, Blake (Dana Andrews), who strangely comes off looking far more professional and in-control than his British counterparts. That said, even he reveals a nasty side where he appears very eager to get into some serious torture when a more psychological approach is available.

Collinson keeps this collection of misfits on a short leash and drives the plot along at a brisk pace, throwing in nice little twists, great character bits and enough action to keep it from slipping into a political drama. This was Mitchell's final book in the four volume series starting with "The Man Who Sold Death" in 1964. It's a shame that this never became the launching pad for a series or at least inspired the adaptation of more books in the series, it would have been great to see Baker reprise this role at least once before his untimely death in 1976.

Collinson's career is one of those roller-coasters that may occasionally hit bottom with insufferable misfires like YOU CAN'T WIN 'EM ALL (1970) and PORTRAIT OF AN ASSASSIN (1976) but easily wins us back with outstanding films such as THE ITALIAN JOB (1969) and this one, INNOCENT BYSTANDERS.

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