The 1960s were a golden era for spies on TV and in film. Perhaps viewing imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, spy movies in the following decade amply display their reverence for established templates. Innocent Bystanders (1972) is a film that plays upon 1970s audience expectations: Agency heads who cannot be trusted, a love interest with secrets of her own, and double-crosses galore. The derivative and very much of its time music score pay a cheesy “homage” to Bond films. There is an adequate peppering of well-known (London) settings and exotic (Turkey and Cyprus) locales to maintain interest in visuals, although much of the filming was done in Spain. The box for obligatory torture scenes is also checked. Despite its predictability and a rather disjointed narrative, Innocent Bystanders is still worth a watch. Some unusual performances and quirky dialogue give the film an engaging odd quality.
The movie stars Stanley Baker, an actor who reached his career apex in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It is rather appropriate that in Innocent Bystanders he portrays John Craig, a formerly respected secret agent whose career achievements have become eclipsed. In a previous assignment, Craig was severely tortured. He indicates that “What they did to me would ruin anyone’s love life,” a statement that reinforces a hypothesis by his superior suggesting that Craig has been rendered sexually impotent. Said superior is played with wry appeal by Donald Pleasence, in what would be the first time he enacted a role of a character named Loomis. As horror fans will note, actor Pleasence subsequently played Dr. Loomis in the Halloween movies franchise beginning in 1978. In 1987’s Prince of Darkness, he performed the part of priest Father Loomis; the character’s name perhaps being a wink-wink link connected to director John Carpenter.
Pleasence as Loomis expertly deadpans bits of acerbic dialogue throughout Innocent Bystanders. One of the most frequently quoted exchanges is with his American counterpart played by Dana Andrews. Loomis says near the start of their meeting: “Blake. Good to see you. Can I get you something?” Blake asks with a bit of deliberation: “Could I have a dry martini?” Loomis drolly responds: “I shouldn’t think so.” This delicious bit of banter exemplifies the cultural differences and rivalry between the British and American intelligence agencies. In the verbal warfare to establish the upper hand, Loomis makes clear that Blake is now on English turf. This is familiar territory for actor Andrews who in 1957’s Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) portrayed a skeptical American professor engaging in a battle of wits with a dangerous British occultist. Andrews reliably projected what audiences perceived as a quintessentially American screen persona. In Innocent Bystanders, he is not as entertaining as Pleasence but does hold his own, largely because of the facility with which we can accept him as a credible representative of his country.
Credulity can be an issue in spy films. Female roles are frequently underwritten, relying on the simplistic premise that any attractive woman is probably a double agent who may be destined to die—after foolishly falling for the protagonist. In Innocent Bystanders Miriam Loman, played by Geraldine Chaplin, invariably follows the trajectory of becoming enamored of John Craig. She manages, with a mere touch of her hand, to instigate the cure for his post-torture impotency. Although intimacy does not alter Craig’s awareness that she is untrustworthy. Despite camerawork that lingers on Chaplin’s adorably freckled visage and the longing in her eyes, the core substance of Miriam remains elusive. The winsome sincerity of Chaplin’s performance seems a tad out of sync given how sketchily the character is written. Screenwriter James Mitchell (who also wrote the series of John Craig novels under the name of James Munro) is among the multitude of screenplay writers in the spy genre who follows the most facile path when it comes to women’s roles.
Indeed, the story line is at its best when it shifts into slightly bonkers mode. The sequence, for example, when Craig’s duplicitous fellow British agent Joanna Benson (played with reckless abandon by Sue Lloyd) theatrically mimes for an uncomprehending policeman is quite entertaining. The comic rendering has little to do with the plot but, like the bits of business between Pleasence and Andrews, is amusing by simply being off kilter in tone. Lloyd’s other work in espionage on the big and small screen includes The Ipcress File (1965.) In the same year she played a secret agent in the British ITC television series The Baron and was in an episode of The Avengers TV series. She went on to star as Mrs. Peel in the short-lived 1971 London stage play of The Avengers.
Along with Lloyd, Andrews, and Pleasence, there are other actors whose quirky turns in Innocent Bystanders enliven the movie. Horror film staple Ferdy Mayne and reliable portrayer of villains Vladek Sheybal, who most notably essayed the role of Kronsteen in From Russia with Love (1963), play brothers central to the storyline. With formulaic directing by Peter Collinson (best known for the 1969 version of The Italian Job) and a plot that cruises by on conventions, Innocent Bystanders could have been relegated to the dung heap of cinematic mediocrity. Fortunately, the novel performances by its actors salvage it from that fate. It, therefore, merits a look from ardent aficionados of espionage movies.