Janus Film Review Presents: The Offence (1973)

as reviewed by Dan

Format Reviewed: DVD/Optimum Releasing (2008).

Diamonds Are Forever (1971) would mark the final appearance of Sean Connery’s James Bond in an official EON Productions Bond film. Connery was lured back to his most iconic role by the promise of a thick wedge of cash, and the chance to involve himself in any two United Artists productions of his choosing. In Diamonds Are Forever, the signs of inducement are written all over Connery’s apathetic face. In the intervening four years since You Only Live Twice (1967), James Bond has apparently gone grey, got fat and all but mortgaged his enthusiasm. Diamonds Are Forever is a daft film, high on camp and low on credibility. Connery was described as ‘sullen’ and ‘moody’ on set, and desperate to escape the spectre - no pun intended - of James Bond. Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1973) was the first of the promised exit routes, and it came to be the initial step in what would be a near-twenty year odyssey for Sean Connery, as he sought to gain acceptance as a versatile and legitimate actor.

In assessing the general tone of The Offence, one could be tempted to perceive the less-than-delicate hands of intention. It is a mirthless and unremittingly bleak film; about as far removed from the glamour and luxury of James Bond as humanly possible. Connery’s Detective-Sergeant Johnson is a cynical, anhedonic and ultimately broken police veteran, on the verge of murder. He is the picture of seventies manhood, as he attempts to bear the psychological burden of horrors past, with nothing more than a fine moustache and cheap scotch, and doesn’t seek any sort of help until it’s too late. The screenplay is an adaptation of John Hopkins acclaimed stage play This Story of Yours, and was written by Hopkins himself. The script is uncompromising in its execution, and seethes with confrontational energy. This is a story without any semblance of levity. Every spoken word contains an undercurrent of dread, or rings as hollow and empty as an abandoned theme park.

Given Connery’s trite and listless performance in Diamonds Are Forever, it is quite remarkable to see him blend so seamlessly into the chosen grey aesthetic of The Offence. He imbues his character with his trademark sardonic wit, but also demonstrates an extraordinary dramatic range. During Sgt. Johnson’s confrontation with his wife Maureen (sympathetically realised by Vivien Merchant), he is embittered and borderline delusional; seemingly on the cusp of physical and sexual violence. Yet when momentarily acquiescing to her offers of emotional support, he is convincingly vulnerable, before resorting to verbal cruelty in the guise of a horrid honesty. The resultant exchange between them reads as the first of several confessions-come-confrontations within the film: in this instance, an ugly and graphic tale of woe, delivered in something akin to stream of consciousness. This entire scene represents a confident and proficient acting performance from Connery. It also lends insight into his understandable frustration at being repeatedly, and unfairly, viewed as little more than a walking tuxedo.

The Offence makes use of a non-linear narrative structure, which was still an avant-garde approach for its time. This allows the film to explore the story in a more discretional manner, as well as bookending the plot in suitably dramatic fashion. There is a gradually increasing - and entirely deliberate - tension suffused throughout the film. This intent is ably abetted by composer Harrison Birtwistle’s score, which is a fine illustration of the principle of less equalling more. Director Sidney Lumet was renowned for his direct and unencumbered style, and bearing in mind this is a story that essentially revolves around three long conversations, in three different rooms, there are no pacing issues. The film is never tedious. The use of lurid imagery (often mired in shrillness) is a simple yet potent device, and when allied to the juxtaposition of claustrophobic close-ups and voyeuristic tracking shots, engenders a pervasive atmosphere. At no point does the film allow you to settle.

Aspects of Lumet’s thinking are betrayed by the story’s origins as a stage play. He eschews a more traditional narrative not just for dramatic flair, but to better disguise the fact that this is a film that centres on the art of the conversation. Dramatically speaking, and also from a production design standpoint, the film feels overtly contrived. The police station represents the keenest instance of this. When Johnson is on the rampage against Ian Bannen’s foolishly malevolent Baxter, the interview room is necessarily vast, in order to facilitate physical violence. Johnson is then browbeaten and psychologically crushed by Trevor Howard’s methodical (yet diffuse) Cartwright, and the chosen venue is smaller and less imposing. This isn’t necessarily a criticism. On the contrary: these aesthetic choices deliberately telegraph the conversational dynamics, often to suitably dramatic effect. However, such deliberate choices in visual style tend to work better on stage than they do when applied to the screen. Furthermore, such intensely intimate conversations are best suited to the boards.

The Offence is a gruelling and at times, deeply unsettling journey into one man’s collapsing psyche. John Hopkins crafts a mostly successful cinematic version of his original story, by taking Dante’s Inferno and marrying it to Z-Cars. Sidney Lumet was a true master craftsman, and he created a tight and suspenseful film that avoids unnecessary excess in its visual composition, and provides a platform enabling the acting performances to thrive. Ian Bannen, Trevor Howard and Vivien Merchant collectively bring class and power to their supporting roles, but this is Sean Connery’s film (literally, considering he was a credited producer). It was designed to be a showcase for his abilities as an actor, and in this regard it is wholly successful.

The film itself is also possessed of daring, and this is never more pronounced than during Johnson’s emotional defenestration at the hands of Cartwright, and the depicted visions within his mind of the victimised young girl; transformed into a leering temptress in unholy white, willing and wanting to be had. This scene is downright scandalous in its potential provocation, and evokes the darkest imagery of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and in the visage of a corrupted child, offers something of a contemporaneous nod to The Exorcist (1973). Alas, in 1973 movie patrons were not prepared for the eternally rugged Connery’s rebirth as a proper thespian. Though a resounding commercial failure, it maintains a loyal critical following, and deserves to be seen and considered by audiences anew. The Offence is by no means a ‘fun’ film, but it is certainly a good one.

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