One year ago, in a Siberian prison camp, ten of the inmates were planning something: an escape. They had observed the guards and knew their routine, so one night managed to overpower a number of them, taking their machine guns, and making a break for the nearby woods outside the fences. Almost all of them got away, but most notable to the West was scientist Aaron Kaplan (Vladek Sheybal) who had devised a method of taking the salt out of seawater which could revolutionise those countries where fresh water is scarce. Now they must find him...
Although the sixties heyday of the James Bond-inspired spy movie was over by the seventies, they were still making them to an extent, and spies would be part of cinema for some time to come. Except there was very little of that sense of fun that the sixties had brought to many of its wackier espionage yarns, and the influence of John Le Carré on the image of such agents was being keenly felt, so when this adaptation of one of Callan creator James Mitchell's John Craig novels was crafted, it fell between two stools, as many of such efforts were wont to do. There may have been a humorous element, but they couldn't neglect the grit.
Stanley Baker would have made a great Bond, but it was not to be, and in his incarnation as Craig he found a character who might have allowed audiences to see how he would have played the famous hero. Sadly, he didn't have much time left on this earth so if they were planning a franchise it never happened, but he exhibited all the capability in his style that offered him a cult status which lasts to this day. Something about Baker suggested he understood a lot about how men have to carry themselves through this world that struck a chord in his fans, and even those who were not so familiar with him would find themselves responding to him should they catch one of his movies.
Thus here he was playing Craig as an agent who is fully ready to admit he is "past it", as the other characters are wont to describe him, therefore when he gets this final chance to prove himself and track down Kaplan he is only too eager to give it a try. His boss Loomis was played - downplayed in fact - by Donald Pleasence as the sort of man of power who has attained the position he has by getting others to do the dirty work for him; it's a remarkably still performance, but he manages a quiet insidiousness that suggests he is not to be trifled with. Thanks to their differing techniques, any scene with Baker squaring off against Pleasence lifts the movie to a significant degree.
Loomis (relative of Halloween's Dr Loomis, one wonders? You can see the resemblance) informs Craig that he has dispatched a couple of other agents (Derren Nesbitt and Sue Lloyd, making a good impression as the offbeat pair) to Turkey as a decoy so Craig can get down to the business of finding Kaplan's brother (Ferdy Mayne) who knows where the boffin is, but ends up kidnapping his daughter Miriam instead. This was another aspect distancing Innocent Bystanders from Bond: Miriam was played by Geraldine Chaplin, who wouldn't have been a Bond Girl in a million years, yet somehow fits into this spy milieu as someone who would be won over by Craig, though she pays a price. Everyone eventually shows up in Turkey, where we were also treated to one of Warren Mitchell's accents, this time Australian-Turkish if you can imagine that, and our hero proves himself to his own satisfaction. With more of a brutal edge than many of its ilk - including two curious torture sequences - this was fairly basic, but satisfying. Groovy music by Johnny Keating (great brass).