The Offence Review
Sidney Lumet, who died in 2011, has one of the most impressive bodies of work among the directors of its generation spanning genres as various as drama, mystery, comedy, thriller and musical over fifty years. One genre he particularly excelled in was police dramas. The Offence, which he directed in 1972, could well be regarded as the precursor for his string of masterpieces in this genre (Serpico, Prince in the City, Q&A). The movie is quite unknown for obvious reasons: its subject (child molestation and police brutality), the fact that it didn’t do well at all at box-office at the time (it didn’t make any profit for nine years and went unreleased in several countries), or the fact that Sean Connery, at the time a major movie star, plays a moustached bear-like violent policeman without an ounce of sex-appeal, right after reprising his most famous role after a 4 year absence. It is now part of Eureka Entertainment’s inestimable collection of classics and absolutely deserves to be discovered or rediscovered.
Two decades into a career marked by fraught investigations into murders and sex crimes, Detective-Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) loses all composure whilst conducting an interrogation with a suspected rapist (Ian Bannen), assaulting him. The lead-up to this moment is charted across the course of the film in a careful flashback structure... and the lines between guilt and innocence, protector and sadist, become ineradicably blurred.
It is interesting to note that the movie was not instigated by Sidney Lumet but by Sean Connery with whom the director had already worked 2 times before on The Hill and The Anderson Tapes (they will work together again on Murder on the Orient Express and Family Business). Even after having been replaced in the title role by George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service in 1968, in the eyes of the world, Sean Connery IS James Bond. Eager not to be imprisoned in the role, but conscious of everything that it has and can still bring him, Sean Connery negotiates his return in Diamonds are Forever in 1971 if United Artists accepts to finance 2 of his personal projects, The Offence, the adaptation of a play by John Hopkins (This Story of Yours) that he wants directed by one of the best, if not the best, directors he has worked with, and a version of MacBeth, a role that he has played in a TV adaptation in 1961, which will never see the light of days.
In The Offence, he reveals himself amazing in the role of a policeman haunted by 20 years spent in the world of crime. The actor has often stated that Johnson was his best role and, despite Sean Connery having been excellent in many other roles, and bagging an Oscar for Brian De Palma’s marvellous adaptation of The Untouchables, you can only agree with him seeing how impressive his performance in the movie is. However, whereas the film is carried by its star from start to finish (he is in all the shots), The Offence constantly outlines Sidney Lumet cinema (for instance the quest for truth like in 12 Angry Men). A quest made impossible by the multiplicity of points of view, the complexity of the world and man’s society. There is no unique truth in Sidney Lumet’s cinema, the limit between good and bad is always blurry, and appearances are deceptive. Sidney Lumet constantly plays with doubt: is Baxter guilty? Is Johnson a schizophrenic criminal? What is the part of reality and fantasy in what we see? The director doesn’t give explanations but leaves the doubt work on us, thus creating a strong feeling of uneasiness
Sidney Lumet leads the film very intelligently, playing on the realism of the places and with a constant attention to the details of daily life, while inserting violent visual inserts which give the impression that Johnson’s psyche goes to shred. This gives the feeling of being in front of a fractured wall which threatens to break at any time and free Johnson’s wrath, madness and hate. The director doesn’t describe a clinical case of police brutality but lets us witness the sense of a humanity which crumbles in contact of evil.
Sidney Lumet, like all great directors, sets the stakes of the film from the first minutes and puts them in a formal system which conditions the means of direction he will use throughout the movie: a music which plunges us in nightmarish conditions, the circular white motive repeated throughout the movie which gives it a circular form, people and shouts in slow motion. An impression of nightmare, Johnson’s nightmare. Various elements of direction which define the idea that The Offence happens in Johnson’s head. It’s his nightmare and he cannot get out of it. And these elements of direction will be reused by Sidney Lumet throughout the movie.
This inventive direction can only have been meticulously thought. Sidney Lumet has always been seen regarded as an interesting director but somewhat limited (he is actually one of the most underrated) maybe because his movies often take place in closed spaces and have a lot of dialogue. This is the case in The Offence, which is based on a play, but Sidney Lumet doesn’t want to use any tricks to make us forget this. What interests him is what happens between the protagonists, the human side of it, and each element of his direction is conditioned by what goes on in the characters’ head, and hence relies a lot on actors.
When we see Sean Connery for the first time in the movie, he gives the impression of being like a lion in a cage. This allows Sidney Lumet to give the audience 2 clues: Johnson is a potentially violent man and he is trapped into something. The wonderful slow motion opening sequence ends with a tracking shot to his face, and a ringing sound which brings him back to reason. Reality takes over and he seems to come out of the nightmare he was trapped in as we hear the first intelligible line of the movie “God! Oh my God!”. However, if he seems out of the nightmare, it is only to plunge into it again right after the credits. He seems condemned to wander in this circular temporality and the audience is impregnated from the beginning by an ineluctable sense of tragedy, of a world without horizon.
And in the suburb where the movie takes places, there is no horizon. There is only a desolated environment featuring either common suburban houses or tall building blocks. The anxiety created by this environment is superbly rendered by Gerry Fisher’s photography which gives a sense of cold with shades of grey and green. This is no place for redemption.
It is in this scary environment that the little girl dressed in white is attacked. This is also where Johnson finds her and when he does his gesture is ambiguous: not really one of a policeman but more of a rapist. Again here, Lumet introduces the idea that Johnson might have a split personality reinforcing the character’s duality. Whatever happens at the end, we understand that the horror is definitely anchored in him.
Subsequently, the movie continues to close in on itself with the police station. This starts with Baxter’s arrest. Seeing his behaviour, we imagine he can only be guilty in Johnson’s eyes. The Detective Sergeant cannot live with the horror and he desperately needs an exit. And this exit is Baxter’s arrest. From the beginning, Johnson knows he is guilty even if Sidney Lumet leaves doubt by showing Baxter more like a tired, confused and frightened man. The interrogation at that stage shows us Johnson under a different light: paranoiac and psychotic. We think we know what’s coming when Johnson manages to be left alone with Baxter. Johnson colleagues come running, Baxter is on the floor and evacuated. This is the opening of the movie again, but there are elements missing, for instance, we don’t know how Johnson’s colleagues end up on the floor. This creates a feeling of discomfort which will intensify with the rest of the movie.
When Johnson is asked to go home, seemingly disconnected inserts of dead people and very disturbing sounds continue to intensify this discomfort. Everything is getting mixed up in Johnson’s head and 20 years of violence and horror are being exposed to us by the director in this fascinating and disturbing montage which emphasises again how Johnson sees the world. And we now see how this has contaminated his home via the confrontation with his wife. But is it only the horror of 20 years of crimes or what Johnson really has in his head (“filthy, swarming, slimy maggots... eating my mind”)? This is a cry for help but when he shares it with his wife for the first time she doesn’t have the strength to listen. He knows that he is alone and, more importantly, condemned.
Sidney Lumet gave us another potential clue in this montage in which the colors are more vivid than in Johnson’s daily life: images that have maybe become more fascinating or attractive to him. This helps us understand what Baxter represents for him: his dark side. And the violence he unleashes against him is all the more justified: it is only a desperate way for him to smother this dark side which grows inside him.
There would be many more things to analyse in The Offence but let us just conclude that it is a work of absolute blackness which explores the depths of the human soul, the ambivalent nature of man, and his inability to resist the horror. By the intelligence of its direction, Sidney Lumet has transformed an exciting script into an intense cinematographic experience. The Offence definitely deserves to sit amongst this great director’s best work.
The Offence was released on 20th April by Eureka Entertainment, as part of its Masters of Cinema series, in a dual format edition. As usual with Eureka, this is a very strong presentation.
The movie is featured in a new 1080p presentation, respecting the 1.66:1 original aspect ratio, which although not amazing represents the best one available on the market at the moment and a significant step forward compared to previous DVD editions. Details are good in general for a nearly 35 year old movie but what is really important is that the transfer allows to perfectly feeling the grim and dark atmosphere of the movie. Gerry Fischer’s cinematography is adequately rendered and allows witnessing Johnson’s mental turmoil in optimal conditions.
On the audio side, this disc only offers on option: English LPCM 2.0 (Mono) with optional English SDH for deaf and hard-of-hearing and optional isolated music and effects track.
On the bonus side, as always with Eureka, you get interesting supplements covering different aspects of the movie: new video interviews with stage director Christopher Morahan, with assistant art director Chris Burke, with costume designer Evangeline Harrison and with composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle.
Christopher Morahan (director of Clockwise and Paper Mask) recalls his work with John Hopkins (The Offence’s screenwriter) on Z Cars and on the original adaptation of the play This Story of Yours and its subsequent screen adaptation which he was briefly considered to direct (9 min).
Chris Burke, who was unofficially assistant art director on The Offence, offers an interesting insight on his work with art director John Clark on the Twickenham set of The Offence. He noticeably mentions the size and structure of the set, Sidney Lumet’s attention to details, his work with director of photography Gerry Fischer and a funny anecdote about Sean Connery (9 min).
Evangeline Harrison sheds lights on Sean Connery’s toupet, or rather lack of, in the movie. She also mentions Ian Bannen and Trevor Howard (5 min).
Finally, Sir Harrison Birtwistle reminisces his only experience in music composition for the cinema (11 min).
There is also the original theatrical trailer and a 36-page booklet featuring a very insightful new essay on the film by our own Mike Sutton, a vintage interview about the film with Sidney Lumet, and rare archival imagery.