as reviewed by Tom
Format Reviewed: Blu-Ray/Masters of Cinema (2015).
At the beginning of the 1970s, Sean Connery was given free rein to develop two film projects backed by United Artists after having been successfully enticed back into the tux for his final EON 007 film Diamonds Are Forever in 1971. The Offence was the one and only result of this intended agreement. Infamously frustrated at being typecast as James Bond, Connery actively sought roles that would break those shackles. For those more familiar with the suave persona of his Bond days, a film like The Offence may have seemed a bit of a shock. In fact, Bond fans, and cinema goers in general, turned away in their droves and, although critically acclaimed, the film sank at the box office resulting in United Artists pulling out of backing the second film (an adaptation of Macbeth which consequently, went unmade).
The lack of an appreciative audience for The Offence in 1973 is a shame as there is nothing else quite like it in Connery's career. An adaptation of John Hopkins' stage play, This Story of Yours, it provided Connery with the opportunity to stretch his not inconsiderable acting muscle. With luminary director Sidney Lumet calling the shots (previously directing Connery in 1965's gritty war drama The Hill and The Anderson Tapes in 1971), and an intelligent, exceptionally well-crafted script adapted for the screen by Hopkins himself, the pieces were in place for a challenging and interesting psychological drama. And it certainly is that.
The Offence concerns cynical, straight-talking Detective-Sergeant Johnson (Connery), whose psyche is slowly unravelling after years of investigating murders and sex crimes. In a non-linear narrative, the film opens with a disorienting slow-motion sequence – the aftermath of events that have led up to a murder. The perpetrator is the Detective-Sergeant himself, and the victim is suspected child molester Kenneth Baxter (a mesmerising Ian Bannen). What follows is a harrowing examination of a man on the brink of a violent breakdown. Johnson is haunted by fast cut flashbacks of previous investigations. He is unable to switch off the memories of the dark crimes he has witnessed in the name of duty, and seemingly, the line between Baxter’s alleged despicable actions and Johnson’s own dark desires are beginning to blur irrevocably. The film peels back the layers of Johnson, slowly revealing the fragility of his mental state as he interrogates Baxter with increasing force and intimidation, and we begin to piece together the elements that lead to the titular 'offence' – Baxter's brutal beating at the hands of an unstable police officer. The film leaves an unsettling question hanging in the air – is there a distinct parallel between the accused and the accuser?
The Offence is expertly structured, often betraying its origins as a stage play through long, two-hander scenes. Connery is surrounded by a superlative supporting cast, including Trevor Howard as a superior officer sent to ascertain the state of mind that led Johnson to his actions, and Vivien Merchant in a key scene involving Johnson returning home to his wife after being suspended from duty. She cannot begin to comprehend the psychological torment her husband is going through, and thus comes becomes the brunt of his anger, belittled and humiliated as she is by a man who has kept his dark side bottled up for too long. The centrepiece is the final interrogation – short moments of which we have witnessed throughout the film – in which Baxter taunts Johnson that ‘nothing I have done can be half as bad as the thoughts in your head’. The interaction between Connery and Bannen in this extended scene is sublime. The inevitable outcome of this psychological battle of morality is as shocking as it is ultimately hopeless, as Johnson comes to the slow realisation of what he has done to the penetrating sound of alarm bells. Ultimately, The Offence is a film in which no one wins.
It is a shame that The Offence came about at a time that ushered in what is regarded as a distinct lull in Sean Connery's career. It is a film well worth re-evaluating, coming as it did amongst a notably eclectic period of activity in his output. It relies on an intelligent audience to join the narrative dots, and is a film to appreciate rather than enjoy as it is distressingly potent drama. And if anyone ever dismisses Sean Connery as a mere ‘movie star’ over and above being a heavyweight actor of the highest calibre, point them in the direction of this overlooked film. It is quite possibly his best performance.