JFR 017 | The Offence (1973)
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
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 (1971). The Offence (1973) 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 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 gritty war drama The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes 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.
The Offence 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.
Diamonds Are Forever 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 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 (1962-1978). 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.