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May 23, 2014 11:21 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: The Offence

By Keith Humphreys

Howard Connery

The James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would get even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A child molester has been victimizing girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by Sergeant Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Vivien Merchant absorbs Connery’s brutality but is unable to reach her husband, making him even more rageful but also more pathetic. In a scene of fewer than 15 minutes the two actors let the viewer grasp everything about the long agonies of this unhappily married couple and how they have disappointed and torn at each other over the years. The scene with Howard is almost as good, but is topped by the astounding concluding act with Ian Bannen (who was also brilliant in prior RBC Recommendations The Hill and Waking Ned Devine). Bannen and Connery play off each other magnificently in a cat-and-mouse game during which each experiences fear of, hatred for and yet also some identification with the other.

Connery, one of the screen’s reigning sex symbols at the time, deserves credit for choosing to play an unattractive, sexually frustrated middle-age man who is having intrusive fantasies about the deeds of the perpetrators he hates. There is no movie star vanity here, nothing but brave acting as he truly inhabits a dark character and almost dares the audience to care about him. His performance is so magnetic that in the end you will, though you may experience conflict and pain in the process, as does everyone else in the film who cares about his character.

This film also employs the surround brilliantly to underscore its central themes. Although Britain is a beloved second home to me, I am fully aware of “the drear” that can descend there, and this film makes perfect use of it. Not just the rainy weather and the bleak natural environment, but also the depressing Soviet-esque era in Britain where crappy British Leyland cars filled the roads and bleak “workers’ paradise” housing complexes scarred the land. Everywhere you look in this film, whether at the natural or human environment, is ugliness and failure.

The Offence is not a date movie. It will not make you laugh or uplift you. But it’s knockout cinematic art and a triumph for everyone involved.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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