Ziggy (Mark Lester) is just a kid who likes to play, and on the Mediterranean island of Malta, there is plenty of opportunity for that, and to let his imagination run wild. He lives with his grandfather (Lionel Jeffries) and his older sister Pippa (Susan George) who tolerate rather than indulge his fantasy-prone nature, but don't really see any harm in it, he'll probably grow out of it anyway. But one day, when an African head of state arrives on an official visit, Ziggy's ramblings become a lot more important, for there are sinister forces at work who wish to assassinate the leader, posing as policemen. Ziggy and Pippa go along to see the parade, but get separated when he wants a better view - and gets more than he bargained for.
Mark Lester was first noticed in vulnerable roles as a child, first in the oddball drama Our Mother's House where he played the most pathetic of the abandoned children, then of course in 1968 his fame exploded in the title role of the Dickens musical Oliver! This made him one of the highest-paid child stars in the world, but the problem was, what to do with him? Never the most robust of actors, that Oliver Twist interpretation tended to follow him about, so he ended up in sweet romance Melody, fair enough, yet also a bunch of peculiar melodramas and thrillers, even horrors, where his lack of a steely screen presence was employed with downright strange results. When Eyewitness was one of the most conventional of these, you do wonder.
Wonder what a strange cultural place Britain and indeed the world was in during the transition from the nineteen-sixties to the seventies, which threw up all sorts of entertainments that would be considered inappropriate in the twenty-first century. Take Jeffries as the kindly grandpa: when Tony Bonner as the well-meaning tourist/love interest for Pippa takes her and Ziggy home, Grandfather sizes him up with some jokey banter culminating in "You're not one of them poofs are you?!" which all these years later would not mark him out as a benevolent figure, more leaving him on a par with one of the assassins. Speaking of which, there was a real nasty streak of malevolence to the way the villainy was presented, which certainly offered the proceedings an edge that would be more fitting for a juvenile audience if it had been toned down.
Part of that was thanks to director John Hough plainly being more interested in the action than the drama, in those latter scenes simply allowing his cast to do their thing while reserving his real enthusiasm for the bits where guns were fired, characters hightailed it down Maltese streets, and cars were chasing each other with violent energy. The climactic car pursuit was a definite highlight, advertised as the best since Bullitt, which was overstating it, but it did impress for its vigour, and before that Peter Vaughan made a relentless foe as he hunted Ziggy who naturally nobody believes that he is a witness to the assassination thanks to his crying wolf the rest of the time. In fact, so enthusiastic were the bad guys that any hope of keeping this crime as a covered up conspiracy would appear to have flown out the window the second they began to messily tie up the significant loose ends. But if you liked muscular thrillers of this era, Hough was adept enough at them to have Eyewitness be rewarding. Bizarre Hitler punchline, too.
[Network release this on Blu-ray as part of The British Film, in a clear print and with these features:
Mark Lester interview
Isolated music track for main feature