The Offence (1972*)
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by Denis O’Dell
Written by John Hopkins based on his play This Story of Yours
Cinematography by Gerry Fisher
Edited by John Victor-Smith
Music by Harrison Birtwistle
Kino Lorber Blu-ray (1:52)
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see this film in theaters upon its initial release. Audiences would’ve known it starred Sean Connery – who at this point had made six James Bond films – and was directed by Sidney Lumet – who had directed 12 Angry Men, The Pawnbroker, Fail Safe and The Anderson Tapes (also starring Connery). But I don’t think anyone expected the absolute raw, unrelenting power of The Offence.
Lumet puts us off balance right from the opening shot: the darkened corridor of a run-down police station that urgently tells us something has gone terribly wrong. A police detective stands over suspect laying on a hard interrogation room floor, obviously beaten. Police officers come running into the scene in slow motion but we can’t see everything clearly: there’s a washed-out circular light beaming in the middle of the screen no matter where the camera takes us. Not only are our visual senses confused, our aural ones are as well. The entire scene is enveloped in a menacing low-pitched drone that nags at you like a swarm of flies that refuse to go away no matter how hard you swat at them. Then we witness the detective staring into space saying, “Oh God. Oh my God…”
Flashback to an earlier scene in which a young girl goes missing in a small town terrified by the presence of a pedophile rapist-murderer who has already claimed the lives of three girls.
Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery) is on the case, clearly obsessed with finding the culprit. When a man named Baxter (Ian Bannen) is picked up by the police after acting strangely, Johnson is convinced Baxter is their man, despite any hard evidence.
What happens next is an amazing character study of Johnson as he tries to gain a confession from Baxter, attempts to make his wife understand his obsession, and seeks to justify himself before a police superintendent (Trevor Howard). Each of these aspects of the film allow Connery to give a tour-de-force performance that is nothing like you’ve ever seen from him before or since.
The film is filled with masterful scenes, but perhaps the best is between Johnson and his wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) in their home.
Johnson: “Why aren’t you pretty? Why aren’t you beautiful?”
Maureen: “I never was.”
It’s the type of exchange we might find in a classic film noir, but the scene does much more than establish two characters. It gives us their backstory in dialogue, expressions, and delivery, providing us with a look at the brutality of their relationship, a brutality that Johnson has never learned to leave at the office. Maureen – after all these years living with him – longs to understand her husband and ease his pain, but she can’t. “Put your hand into my mind,” he tells her. “Hold it. Make it stop.” She urges him to talk to her and when he does, we realize that he’s actually talking honestly to someone besides himself for the first time in his life. But does it do any good?
The exchanges Johnson has with the suspect Baxter are absolutely riveting, a masterful cat-and-mouse game of seeking to get to the truth and the suppression of it. We don’t know whether or not Baxter is guilty of this particular crime, but he’s dangerous and smart, perhaps smarter than Johnson. Johnson only wants to hear one thing, a confession, which he presses for over and over. At one point, Baxter says to Johnson (eerily echoing Maureen’s pleas earlier in the film), “How can I help you if you won’t even listen?” Both men’s thoughts, motivations and psyches are laid bare. It’s not pretty, but it’s absolutely spellbinding. By the time the opening scene returns, repeating the utterance “Oh God. Oh my God…” we understand why.
After George Lazenby’s agent talked him out of appearing in any subsequent Bond films after his only appearance in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), United Artists was desperate to get Connery to return as 007. Before signing on the dotted line to appear in Diamonds are Forever (his first Bond film since You Only Live Twice in 1967), Connery demanded two things: $1.25 million (plus 12% of the U.S. profits) and the backing for two films of his own choosing. The first, a Connery-directed production of Macbeth, fizzled out after Roman Polanski’s production began filming. The second was The Offence.
The Offence is a brutal, seldom-seen neo-noir, so brutal that you could legitimately think of it as a psychological horror film. It is both unflinching and masterfully constructed. After having seen it, I guarantee you will never look at Sean Connery the same way. The film won’t be for everyone, but for those who have a strong inclination toward hard-hitting neo-noir, I highly recommend it. A U.S. edition is available from Kino Lorber and a UK Region B edition from Masters of Cinema, which includes more supplements than the Kino version as well as a 36-page booklet.
I also would like to recommend an outstanding review of the film by Ray Banks called “Prime Cuts: My Favorite Neo-Noir: The Offence” in the Noir City Annual 2015.
* Although Kino Lorber marks the date of this film at 1972, IMDb shows 1973 as the earliest release date.
Photos: DVD Beaver, chavirages…