I had long wanted to watch this British thriller because it was entirely filmed in Malta; now, it followed on the heels of two other films shot over here – THE LAST SHARK (1981) and the somewhat similar TRENCHCOAT (1983). Naturally, all three were proudly shown on local TV when I was a kid but, back then, I had only caught Enzo G. Castellari’s notorious JAWS (1975) rip-off.
The plot of EYEWITNESS (released in the U.S. as SUDDEN TERROR) is inspired by the classic low-budget noir THE WINDOW (1949), which I only watched for the first time some three months ago – that of a boy with a very vivid imagination who’s not believed by his family when he tells them he had witnessed a murder but, of course, the villain can’t leave anything to chance and decides to eliminate him. While the earlier film worked because of its intimate nature – it was set in an apartment building – this one (adapted for the screen by future Oscar winner Ronald Harwood) involves a more elaborate set-up, since the murder (of a visiting African leader) was committed in broad daylight and in plain sight of the authorities!
Actually, the perpetrator is immediately revealed to be none other than a policeman – which takes the whole clearly into Hitchcock territory; while there are plenty of suspense sequences typical of the Master, director Hough put his own stamp on the material by a surprisingly flashy style (all zooms and odd angles) as well as a rather vicious streak (no one, not even a little girl and a priest, who’s unlucky enough to get in the way of the killer’s ultimate intent is spared!). This, however, is the film’s main flaw (though it’s equally hampered by gaudy 1970s fashions – especially the oversize dark glasses and tacky clothes sported by an associate of the murderer who comes himself to a sticky end at the latter’s hands): too many turn-of-events feel decidedly implausible, not least police chief Jeremy Kemp’s all-too-sudden realization that the real target of the assassination was himself – which brings him to narrow the search for the assassin down to dissidents within his own ranks…and, just as quickly, is willing to take the young boy’s tale at face value when no one else does (which, naturally, puts him on the trail of the killer and is thus able to save the kid and his family in the nick of time)! Incidentally, my father (who is a film buff himself and used to work as postman) once told us that he had personally handed a letter to the craggy-faced English actor and, I presume, that occurred sometime during the shooting of this film!
The casting, apart from that of blond-haired adult hero Peter Bonner (as a character named Tom Jones!), is quite effective: Mark Lester – riding high on the success of the multi Oscar-winning musical OLIVER! (1968) – is the boy, Lionel Jeffries his typically eccentric grand-father (a former General who has taken to living inside a light-house!), Susan George as Lester’s elder sister (looking lovely as always, though her trademark earthiness is bafflingly – and disappointingly – kept under wraps) and Peter Vaughan as the dogged and sinister killer cop (he and George would be reteamed not long after for Sam Peckinpah’s controversial STRAW DOGS ). By the way, John Hough kept the Maltese connection going for his subsequent effort – since the TWINS OF EVIL (1971) of his notable Hammer outing, Madeleine and Mary Collinson, were of Maltese origin!
Incidentally, of the myriad films shot in my country over the years, this is surely among the ones to make the most judicious use of our locations – the sea-shore (with prominent salt-flats set against an amazing sunset: indeed, cinematographer David Holmes is to be congratulated for his sterling work throughout), old expansive buildings turned into offices, public gardens (a notable chase on foot just after the initial assassination was filmed at the Upper Barrakka Gardens in our city of Valletta, which is where the Bank I work for holds its yearly Summer cocktail party for staff members!) catacombs, military forts (for the scene in which the villains are kept at bay via a flurry of Molotov cocktails) and cliffs (to where the exciting climactic car chase leads for the grand finale). Typical of the era, too, the film is given a pop/rock soundtrack – with the result (despite the involvement of cult band Van Der Graaf Generator) being pleasant yet unremarkable.