The Offence (1972)

One of a string of films Sidney Lumet made in Britain in the 60s and 70s, The Offence is not fairly well known. In fact, until recently, there had not been any home video release of the film in the United States at all (there is one now, but it’s an on-demand title). Partly this may be because it’s not a very Bond-like role for Sean Connery (it may, in fact, be the darkest performance of his career), and partly because of the movie’s subject matter. Or maybe it’s just the incredibly bland title; IMDB (plus Google Translate) inform me that the film has more exciting names in other languages (“Even the Gods Err” in Portuguese, “Reflections in a Dark Mirror” in Italian, “Holding His Life in My Hand” in German).

The movie starts with a number of disorienting slow-motion shots filmed through some kind of milky filter, accompanied aurally only by a persistent drone in the background. It takes three minutes for the scene to resolve itself and the filter to disappear: the audience can now see a shocked Sean Connery standing over a limp human body in a police station. The first words he utters and the first words we hear: “Oh God! Oh my God!”

The next 35 minutes of the film are a series of flashbacks leading up to this moment. A serial child abuser is terrorising an English town, with the police powerless to find and stop him. One of the policemen is Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery), who seems particularly affected by the situation. While interrogating a suspect (Ian Bannen), he beats him nearly to death.

The rest of the film can be neatly segmented into three acts, a structure left over, I suspect, from the play the film was based on (penned by John Hopkins). In each act, Johnson has a conversation with one other person in one room the camera does not leave. It gives the second half of the movie a distinctly stagy feel, somewhat offset by the fact that Lumet moves the camera around a lot and uses varied and dynamic compositions, just like he did on 12 Angry Men (1957).

The first of these segments is Johnson breaking down in front of his wife (Vivien Merchant), confiding in her about all the terrible things he’s seen people do to themselves and others, images in his brain he could never tell anybody about but that finally came bubbling to the surface. He does not give his wife much of a chance to respond, but even though she does not say much, their interactions, both verbal and nonverbal, paint a vivid picture of their relationship.

A lesser film might have stopped there and proceeded with a more conventional narrative of a troubled cop finding evidence about the child molester. That’s what I expected. Instead, the movie foregoes this path entirely and decides that, actually, we haven’t even started probing the depths of Johnson’s soul. His psychological profile is not exhausted by “simple policeman snapping from the pressures of his job”, something that becomes clear in the next scene, an inquiry led by a Detective Superintendent played by Trevor Howard. This conversation, which is really yet another interrogation in a film full of them, exposes Johnson’s defence of his actions to his wife as a pretence, or at most the top-most layer of resentment and perversion that makes up Johnson’s personality.

The movie’s final segment leads us back to where we began: the police station’s interview room. This time, we see the entire dialogue between Johnson and his eventual victim instead of just snippets, and it is quite enlightening, confirming suspicions that grew over the course of the film and adding an entirely new twist or two. After several interrogations with no satisfying conclusion, this act, finally, represents a confession; Johnson is honest with his dialogue partner, with the audience, with himself.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Sean Connery is sometimes not taken seriously today as an actor, due to the large shadow cast by James Bond, and many of his later roles not requiring much in the way of subtlety (or a change in accent). But this is Connery in his prime, with classic performances like The Wind and the Lion (1975), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and The Great Train Robbery (1979) still ahead of him.
Because he is in almost every scene and the distribution of lines in the dialogues is skewed so much towards him they almost turn into monologues at times, he must – and does – carry the film on his shoulders. The actors paired off with him do not suffer by comparison, however, whether it is the subtly suffering Vivien Merchant, the quietly authoritative Trevor Howard, or the weirdly unhinged Ian Bannen.

This film is not what I expected: a standard 70s police drama daring to broach a difficult subject (paedophilia) on screen. It does the latter, to a degree, but is really more interested in being a non-linear psychological thriller centred around examining and unravelling a complex personality. That the main character is a policeman is incidental, just as the case is, in the end, only a very marginal part of the narrative. That’s not disappointing, particularly in this day and age, where I can turn on the TV at practically any time of the day and choose between dozens of programmes about the police catching murderers and other villains. The Offence features something that television can’t offer, at least not in a typical weekly format: a self-contained story about the inner workings of one character’s mind. Of the films I’ve reviewed for this blog in the past few months, it is probably my favourite so far.

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