Friday, 4 March 2011

The Offence (1972)

Country: UK/USA

Something Like the Truth

Director Sidney Lumet and actor Sean Connery collaborated a number of times on some interesting and diverse projects. Lumet would be the filmmaker to which Connery would return most often, and his trust in Lumet’s abilities is best exemplified by the director being invited to helm this harrowing tale of brutality and psychological breakdown. The territory wasn’t entirely new for both men. In 1965 Connery appeared in Lumet’s sadistic war drama The Hill, and Lumet would return to the theme of police corruption in the Al Pacino vehicle Serpico (1973). The Offence however is far more interesting than either of these films. It was made at a time when Connery had finally severed his ties with the James Bond franchise, in fact this film directly followed Diamonds are Forever (1971). It seems interesting to me that Connery would pursue a role that explores a crisis in identity and motivation due to exhaustion and mental fragmentation at a time when his own iconic screen image was in a state of flux. The Offence is without a doubt a self-conscious attempt on the part of Connery to distance himself from the role for which he would forever be known. To be fair to Connery he is a revelation here. His Detective Sergeant Jonhson is a very disturbing creation indeed. Early in the film we see him treat his colleagues with contempt, bully his way through a crime scene and show a singular lack of patience and empathy for his fellow human being. This is a police officer on the edge, and an ineffectual investigation into a series of horrendous child molestations is the event which tips him over the edge.

From the offset the filmmakers offer a skewed and unbalanced view of the world. The burnt out broken down mental state of Johnson is reflected in both the mise-en-scene and the narrative structure, which leaps back and forth in time. Although shot in Berkshire, the filmmakers contrive to create a terrifying and alienated landscape of bland modernist architecture which is as restricting as any prison cell. The police headquarters are a monstrosity of brutal concrete, and the interior is equally harsh, offering a merciless space within which corruption and police brutality can be meted out. The tasteless and insipid corridors are claustrophobic, and the spatial possibillities are ironically opened up by the interrogation room, which comparatively speaking is vast. The landscape, architecture and interior decoration tells us that there is something wrong with the world. But little prepares us for the disease that is eating away at the mind and psyche of Johnson. The innocence of youth is destroyed by adult molestations, but part of the problem is an absence of parental responsibility and the unwilligness of a local community in getting involved. For this reason Johnson feels he is totally on his own. This is compounded by an unhappy marriage which offers no distraction for Johnson who is left instead to dwell on the images that haunt his mind.

The arrest of Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) who is only suspected of being the molester gives Johnson an opportunity to exorcise the demons that are plaguing him. But Johnson doesn’t bargain on the fact that Baxter is able to see through the anger and aggression and conclude that they are very much alike. The film revolves around three major set pieces of dialogue exchange - the interrogation of Baxter, Johnson attempting to explain his malaise to his wife (Vivien Merchant) and Johnson’s interrogation at the hands of Detective Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard). Although these sequences betray the films theatrical origins (it is based upon a play by John Hopkins, Hopkins also provided the screenplay) they are magnificently tense and incredibly convincing due to the pitch perfect performances. Ian Bannen deserves special notice for his eccentric and odd Baxter, a wheedling little man, who slowly works his way into Johnson’s cancerous mind and eventually reduces his aggression to pleas for help. It is at this point that Johnson realises that his identity and that of the criminals he despises has become blurred. He continually pictures himself molesting the child he found earlier in the film. I don’t think this is intended to suggest that Johnson is the molester, but merely illustrates the extent to which is mind has been polluted by the murders, rapes, and suicides he has witnessed in a twenty year career.

Unfortunately the death of Baxter at the vicious fists of Johnson does not relieve Johnson of his mental burden. In a perverse way it makes him more of a criminal than Baxter, who after all is only a suspect. The most disturbing aspect of this film is that we are never allowed to know if Johnson’s suspicions are accurate. Few films dealing with police corruption conduct their journey’s within the mind of the protagonist, and few actors would have agreed so readily to such a vulnerable role. For this Sean Connery deserves enormous credit. Lumet’s direction struggles against the theatrical nature of the story, but the structural audacity and the nightmarish rainy locations add much atmosphere. Some may criticise The Offence for being talky, they would be justified in this, but the minds under discussion are fascinating. The film does lack a certain emotional pathos, and the hard hearted, bleak, and depressing nature of the narrative made this a very hard sell which ultimately failed to find an audience.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. One of Connery's greatest, and most overlooked, roles.

  2. A bizarre cult oddity although very much a product of "THE TIME OF SEXUAL REPRESSION".

  3. I found this film amazingly powerful and Connery's performance shattering,on a level with Rod Steiger's in The Pawnbroker. Dark and downbeat to be sure but to the viewer of appropriate taste,an unforgettable,devastating film deserving of greater exposure. Until recently unavailable in Region one DVD.
    I just discovered your blog a few days ago Shaun and find it most enjoyable and intelligently written,including your occasional "dissenting view." Many thanks and best wishes for the future!

  4. Many thanks for the kind words Dale, its always an ecnouragement to get positive feedback and I appreciate it greatly. I haven't seen THE PAWNBROKER, but I have duly added it to my absurdly enormous list of movies to track down and view. I couldn't agree more with your succint opinion of THE OFFENCE, which for me at least, is Mr. Connery's best performance. It's probably not Lumet's best picture, but then he was a filmmaker of an unusually high and consistent standard....Thanks for stopping by :-)

  5. From your writing I suspect you will find The Pawnbroker worthwhile viewing (ALSO directed by Sidney Lumet!)The man had a knack for getting the most intense work from a given performer,didn't he? It makes with The Offense a blistering double feature of brutal human drama. I'm not a hardcore Lumet fan (lost track of him after The Verdict!)but he has more than a couple of films seared into my memory,which isn't such a terrible accomplishment. Take care


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