Cine-East Film Club Presents #66: 1973, The Offence (Sidney Lumet)

by George_East on August 8, 2015

Kenneth Baxter: ‘Nothing I have done can be half as bad as the thoughts in your head’

Here at allthastleft a couple of days back we had a bit of discussion about Bond films (none have featured in the Cine-East Film Club yet, but at least a handful are worthy of consideration for the future).   That discussion turned into a bit of an exchange about Sean Connery and whether he had ever really impressed as an actor outside of James Bond. My view was that he didn’t really particularly excel as an actor as James Bond – it is not that kind of role, hardly requiring much by way of acting at all. That is not to say he is bad in it, he is still for my money the definitive Bond – it is just like other action heroes, Jason Bourne say, or Batman or whoever – they aren’t really roles which are about acting as such.

But to think of Sean Connery as an actor who peaked in his craft as Bond is to overlook a number of roles he played in the 1960s and 1970s (quite often as a deliberate counterpoint to Bond and in order to be taken more seriously) in films directed by top quality directors.   He is superb as millionaire Mark Rutland in probably Hitchcock’s most fucked up film of all (and that is saying something), Marnie.   But for me the best work he ever did was for Sidney Lumet, in particular as prisoner, Joe Roberts, in a brutal army disciplinary camp in North Africa in The Hill and best of all as Detective Sergeant Johnson in The Offence, which is this week’s Cine-East Presentation. These are films which show that Connery was not only a star with a star’s charisma, but also an absolutely top drawer actor.

The Offence is a film that is little shown these days – perhaps because it is not an easy watch. There are no heroes, there is no resolution and the film has an intensity, which at times makes it almost unbearable to sit through.

Sean Connery’s Sergeant Johnson is a career detective who has spent 20 years investigating the most heinous crimes. He has seen it all and has been brutalised and psychological worn down by the insight into human nature it has given him. The film is set against the background of a series of child rapes and murders (we never find out how many) that Johnson is investigating.   One of the few exterior scenes in the film towards the beginning has anxious primary school parents picking up their kids from school as police officers stand vigilant waiting for something to happen.

The film opens with an extraordinary slow motion sequence as officers move towards the door to the interrogation suite in a police station while Harrison Birtwistle’s discordant electronic score (years ahead of its time) plays over the images.   It is clear that something very bad as happened – we discover pretty quickly what that something is. A suspect has been severely beaten by Sergeant Johnson – a beating that will result in that suspect, Kenneth Baxter (in a wonderful performance by Ian Bannen) dying.

Save for the primary school sequence and some scenes around the disappearance and finding of a little girl, pretty much the rest of the film is structured around three confrontations, each between two individuals.   These are not taken in chronological order. The first is between Johnson and his wife, Maureen (in another sterling performance this time by Vivien Merchant); the second between Johnson and Detective Superintendent Cartwright, the officer assigned to investigate the killing of Baxter, a wonderfully cynical and world weary late career performance by Trevor Howard, and finally the interrogation itself between Johnson and Baxter, which leads to the killing.

The brilliance of the film and in Connery’s performance is showing what happens when a man starts to unravel. All of the things he has witnessed and seen through his career come bubbling over as he sets himself up as judge, jury and as it turns out executioner of Baxter. The film never reveals whether he is guilty or not – the suspicion is that he probably is (particularly given comments like the one at the top of this piece) but he has never even charged let alone convicted and is our view any better or more balanced than that of Johnson?

Connery at the time of The Offence was 43 years old, but plays a man 10 years older. It is the first film (and maybe the last for a fair while) in which Connery showed his balding hair. He is greyed up and although a large presence is a man whose best years are clearly behind him.

If the confrontation with Baxter with its cat and mouse psychological to-ing and fro-ing, which descends quickly into the physical is hard to watch, it is the scene between Johnson and his wife which is the most difficult of all. 18 years into a marriage which is now loveless and marked by mutual resentment, Johnson tells his wife in no uncertain terms about his disappointments and frustrations with her, her looks and how she is in bed – you feel though that this is almost unwatchable cruelty is mere transference as his self-loathing spills over, facing as he now is the end of his career. The ordinariness and drabness of the couple’s flat symbolising a life together which has been about lowest common denominator acceptance rather than anything joyful or fulfilling.

Although the film can be read on a clichéd level as an exposure of police brutality and yet another example of how the police and criminals are two sides of the same coin – equally violent, equally corrupt, equally amoral, this would I think not do either John Hopkins’ writing (the screenplay based on his own play) or Sidney Lumet’s direction justice. The film is not about equivalence, but rather I think the brutalising effect of exposure to violence. We expect our police forces to be objective and unemotional, but how can the officers who make them up not be psychologically scarred (perhaps beyond endurance) by the crimes and the effect of crimes they investigate. When those crimes are child rape, how do they not all become Sergeant Johnson.

If anyone ever tells you Sean Connery cannot act, point them in the direction of The Offence. It is simply not possible to hold that view after you have seen it.

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