Harry Lomart (Oliver Reed) is in jail for armed robbery with violence, destined to spend a long time inside, and pining for his beloved wife Pat (Jill St. John) who hasn't been to visit him in all the months he has been incarcerated. But today she has been allowed to see him, and the guards take Harry down to the meeting room where they can speak with a layer of glass between them. He has questions, but is very glad to talk with her once again as she explains herself, that is until she tells him she not only wants a divorce, but is pregnant with another man's baby. Harry is not best pleased...
Sitting Target was one of those tough thrillers that the United Kingdom produced in the seventies, the natural progression leading from a way that country's filmmakers had with a crime drama, except by 1972 they could be as violent as they wanted what with the easing of restrictions on censorship and what you could get away with onscreen. That said, plotwise there wasn't much difference between what was happening here and what had happened in the nation's cinema for the past thirty years or so, it was simply the approach that had adapted. Nevertheless, you could notice the landscape of the style changing.
Director Douglas Hickox was more prone to artier compositions than those of the previous decades, though don't go thinking this was Performance Part 2, because he never lost sight of the action and the need to keep things moving along briskly. With Oliver Reed rejoicing in the position of Britain's biggest homegrown movie star at this point - the self-styled Mr England could do no wrong in the eyes of his legions of British fans - Sitting Target was guaranteed an audience, yet somehow as the years passed its profile dropped and it became lost in a morass of similar thrillers, some not as good, some better, but all ploughing the same furrow to reveal a dark heart in seventies Britain.
First Harry has to get out of prison, so rather than waiting till he has served his time, he and his buddy Birdy (Ian McShane) form an alliance with a criminal further up the pecking order, MacNeil (Freddie Jones), who sees to it that all three of them can escape. Rather than leaving this to a minute of footage, the prison break was turned into a setpiece in itself, with the trio negotiating guards, a vicious dog, barbed wire and a precarious journey along a rope suspended high above the yard, a decision by the filmmakers which paid off nicely because it not only makes for an exciting sequence but illustrates Harry's possessed determination to reach Pat. But what is he going to do when he meets her?
The answer to that is in the fancy gun he picks up from a dodgy dealer, a weapon which the movie fetishises, raising the stakes for the lead character's behaviour and an emblem for his obsession and danger to others. Appreciators of London at its dingiest will find much to divert them here as Harry and Birdy make their way through streets where it seems as if the populace have either abandoned the area, or are living in fear if they have stayed behind, and little wonder when there's bad guys such as these two around. Reed made as convincing a man of violence as he ever did, and McShane was a conniving enabler, though St. John was lumbered with a posh English accent dubbed over her, distracting from what could have been a decent performance, but was rather obscured. Edward Woodward showed up as a copper trying to protect Pat, and Frank Finlay had a bit as a rich source of cash, but what you took away was the atmosphere of threat, that this was a world where law did not apply. Music by Stanley Myers.