The Offence

On Her Majesty's Secret Service may be regarded as one of the best Bond movies, but few people would argue that George Lazenby was a particularly good Bond. As such, United Artists was eager to get Sean Connery back in the role for another installment. Connery agreed to appear in Diamonds Are Forever, but only under certain conditions: United Artists had to fund two relatively affordable projects of Connery's choosing. The deal was struck, and Connery set his sights on two artistically ambitious theatrical adaptations: one of Shakespeare's Macbeth (which Connery planned to direct), and another of John Hopkins' This Story of Yours. The former was scrapped after Roman Polanski's take on The Scottish Play went into production, but the latter (made under the title Something Like the Truth, but eventually re-named The Offence) reached the finish line under the direction of the great Sidney Lumet. Alas, the film flopped at the box office and was quickly forgotten. Even so, it's a fine, gritty, ambitious movie which is well worth rediscovering.

Connery plays Detective-Sergeant Johnson, a lifelong policeman who's seen a few too many horrible things over the course of his career. One day, he finally snaps: while interrogating suspected child molester Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen, The Flight of the Phoenix), Johnson erupts in a fit of rage and beats Baxter to death. The film then proceeds to jump around in time, detailing crucial moments that led up to the event and equally revealing moments which occurred in the event's aftermath.

Hopkins' play was neatly divided into three acts, each of which offered an extended conversation between Johnson and another important character. Those three acts are faithfully recreated in the film, but Lumet and Hopkins (who adapted his own work for the screen) add a fourth. The opening forty-five minutes or so of the film offers a step-by-step recreation of the investigation that led to Baxter's arrest, and Lumet uses this stretch of the film to deliver some distinctively cinematic storytelling of the sort one doesn't usually see in stage-to-screen adaptations. It could be argued that this stretch of the movie relies a bit too heavily on flashy stylistic touches (particular a strange, orb-like filter used during specific scenes), but there's some undeniably potent stuff. In one scene, graphic, violent images from Johnson's entire career flash before his eyes in a free-associative waking nightmare, and it's the sort of wildly stylish moment that might startle those who think of Lumet as a straightforward, no-nonsense filmmaker.

The visually-driven segment of the film is engaging and effectively atmospheric, but the movie becomes truly gripping once the three extended dialogue scenes begin. The first takes place in the immediate aftermath of the murder, as Johnson engages in a frantic argument with his long-suffering wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant, Alfie). It's clear that Maureen has been subjected to a great deal of emotional abuse over the years, and at this point it's such a familiar part her daily routine that she doesn't even bother to put up a fight. Johnson sneers and snaps at her, lashing out at every minor action she takes and deriding her for her disheveled appearance. Unable to find appropriate catharsis in his work, Johnson takes all of his frustrations out on the one person who will actually permit him to do so. It's an ugly but powerful sequence.

The second conversation takes place a little later, as Johnson is interrogated by his imposing superior (Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter). It's an intense, slow-burning duel between two supremely gifted actors, ebbing and flowing between a respectful professional conversation and a hostile interrogation. Both characters have seen their share of awful things, but Howard's character has found a way to separate his professional challenges from his personal life. Johnson, on the other hand, finds that the walls he's tried to build have caved in. Everything bleeds together, poisoning Johnson's professional work, marriage and mental health.

The final conversation (and the film's most gripping sequence) takes place in the moments leading up to the murder, as Johnson probes Baxter for clues. It's a morally complex scene which foreshadows the confrontation between Batman and The Joker in The Dark Knight, but things are even murkier here. In this bold, savage sequence, Lumet and Hopkins dive straight into an emotional abyss, culminating in a devastating scene in which Johnson recognizes that a broken, perverted human being might be the only one capable of understanding what he's going through. “We're not so different, you and I,” is a commonly used refrain, but The Offence takes that notion beyond surface-level psychology. It's dark, unsettling stuff which manages to make Lumet's cynical follow-up (the groundbreaking cop drama Serpico) feel positively optimistic in comparison.

Connery is often regarded as more of a movie star than an actor, but he plunges into this challenging, complicated role with vigor. It's one of the strongest performances of the actor's career, and Connery manages to sell us on the notion that Johnson is both a monster and a victim of circumstance. It's a striking snapshot of police brutality that feels as relevant now as ever, and a convincing argument for why so many men in Johnson's position find themselves acting as bullies. Serpico examined the corrupt actions of police officers, but The Offence digs into the mental corruption which leads to those actions. The movie pushes too hard on occasion, and Lumet's visual flourishes occasionally feel like overcompensation, but the film's strongest moments are hard to shake.


The Offence poster

The Offence

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 1972