Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Sidney Lumet's THE OFFENCE

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Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Sidney Lumet's THE OFFENCE
It is no secret that Sean Connery grew to hate James Bond long before he stopped playing the character. In fact, he was so reluctant to return as 007 for Diamonds Are Forever, after George Lazenby walked away from the franchise after just one film, that United Artists offered the Scottish actor an unprecedented fee of US$1.25 million, and also agreed to produce two subsequent films of Connery's choosing if he'd pick up the Walther PPK one last time.. 

The first of these was The Offence, a bleak and brutal British police drama, directed by acclaimed American filmmaker Sidney Lumet. Connery and Lumet had previously collaborated on The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), and would work together again on Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and Family Business (1989), but this would be their most accomplished work. Connery's second planned production as part of his United Artists deal was an adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which he would star and direct, but Roman Polanski's film was already in production, and when The Offence proved such a commercial failure, UA pulled out of the deal altogether.

A desperate attempt to shake off the James Bond persona, The Offence sees Connery play Detective Sergeant Johnson, a strung out, emotionally unbalanced British copper on the trail of a child murderer in contemporary suburbia. 20 years of working murder, rape and molestation cases have taken their toll on Johnson, who seems irreparably damaged by everything he has witnessed and endured. He has reached breaking point, and as the film opens, we find Johnson, fists bloodied, standing over the body of his suspect, whom he has beaten to death whilst interrogating.

John Hopkins, a frequent writer of the classic British TV cop show Z Cars, adapted his own play This Story Of Yours for the big screen, while Lumet, already a prolific filmmaker and friend of Connery, crossed the pond to direct. Hopkins' stage play was structured as three two-character encounters. Firstly, Johnson comes home after the pivotal "offence" has taken place, leading to a heated argument with his long-suffering wife, Maureen. Act Two sees Johnson called back to the station to be questioned by his senior officer, Det. Superintendent Cartwright. Act Three is a flashback to Johnson's murderous interrogation of his suspect, Kenneth Baxter, which we already know will end in violence. After a 20-minute introductory sequence, in which we see Johnson and his fellow officers patrol the crime scene, Lumet's film adopts the exact same structure as Hopkins' play, leading to three extended, and increasingly intense confrontations between Connery and Vivien Merchant, Trevor Howard and Ian Bannen. 

While Lumet will insist that his directorial style dispenses with style in favour of performance, the look and mood of The Offence proves incredibly arresting. Not least in the design and framing of the interrogation room itself, which features a large overhead light that is superimposed over the film's opening moments - foreshadowing the intense claustrophobia of the drama to come. The score, which would prove the only film work of renowned composer Sir Harrison Birtwistle, adds an extra layer of pressure and intensity to those sequences. However, there is no denying the film's real power lies in its performances.

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The Offence boasts one of Sean Connery's very best performances, rivalling even his epic turn as medieval sleuth William of Baskerville in Jean-Jacques Annaud's The Name of the Rose, and eclipses his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables. Johnson is a man polluted by two decades submerged in violent crime. A man who has grown to hate himself for the thoughts trapped deep in his own head. Balding, overweight and angry at the world around him, Connery more than succeeds in eschewing the image of Bond for something altogether more realistic, flawed and deeply troubling.

Ian Bannen portrays the accused, Kenneth Baxter, as a man infinitely more at ease with the asphyxiating environment of Johnson's interrogation room. Baxter's guilt is never confirmed, but he takes great relish in goading Johnson, seeing only too well what horrors lie just beneath the surface. As their verbal sparring inevitably turns physical, it is impossible not to see this final movement of The Offence as a direct influence on the interrogation scene in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. The way in which Heath Ledger's Joker baits Batman into assaulting him plays out with uncanny similarity in the climax of Lumet's film.

Trevor Howard and Vivien Merchant (who would go through a similar experience with real-life partner Harold Pinter shortly after filming her own traumatic scene with Connery) offer incredible support. They too offer perfect sounding boards off of which Johnson resists and ultimately revolts, breaking in two to reveal the demons that plague his soul. It is little wonder that The Offence failed to find an audience upon first release. It is the antithesis of what Connery meant to the movie-going public at that time, and such a relentlessly pessimistic depiction of the world around them was quite possibly too much for anyone to bear.

Given 40-odd years to brood and fester, The Offence now reemerges as a fantastically unflinching look at a man torn apart by the job he lives for. Sunday Lumet would of course revisit the world of embattled law enforcers many times during his career, in the likes of Serpico and Q & A, but right here, on the dreary streets of 70s England, his antihero was already fully formed. Johnson is a monster, a frightening and thoroughly unlikable human being, yet one whose misshapen form has come from once upon a time trying to do the right thing. Johnson may have lost the battle and be beyond rescue, but The Offence will stand as one of Sean Connery's great acting successes.

The Masters of Cinema series presents The Offence in a new 1080p presentation, on a cracking dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release. The film can also be viewed with an isolated music and effects track, while the release also features four newly recorded interviews: Christopher Morahan directed the original Royal Court Theatre production of This Story Of Yours, which would later become The Offence; Chris Burke worked on the film alongside art director John Clark; Evangeline Harrison was the film's costume designer, while Sir Harrison Birtwistle provided the score. All four offer entertaining and insightful anecdotes about their experiences with the project, including numerous tales about Connery himself. The disc also includes the film's original theatrical trailer, while the enclosed booklet boasts a 1973 interview with Sidney Lumet, and a new essay on the film by Mike Sutton.

The Offence is now available on dual-format Blu-ray/DVD courtesy of Eureka Entertainment's Masters of Cinema series.
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Masters of CinemaSean ConnerySidney LumetThe OffenceUKJohn HopkinsTrevor HowardVivien MerchantIan BannenCrimeDramaThriller

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RolandDeschain1 .May 4, 2015 4:50 AM

This and THE HILL are by far Connery's best performances.

Sidney Lumet definitely was a master. His book 'Making Movies' should be the first book bought by anyone who wants to be a director. I read that thing cover to cover at least five times.