Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet made five films together and The Offence was their third. It is an ugly, angry picture that has since been overshadowed by bigger, classic films but that isn’t to say it’s bite has become any less severe.
What first appears to be another gritty 70s police procedural soon dissolves into a piercing character study. Connery plays Johnson, a bullish police sergeant leading an investigation into a string of abused girls in a small British town. When a suspect is apprehended, Johnson’s temper gets the better of him and his interrogation methods regress into fury and violence. As Johnson, Connery is bigger and badder than I’ve ever seen him before. He has no interest in turning in a likeable performance and intimidates every scene with a brute force. Lumet was never one to shy away from darker shades and with Connery as a collaborator they turn The Offence into a wild eyed stare into obsession and evil. Out of all the 70s films I’ve seen from Lumet, this one might be the toughest.
Much like Connery’s character the film seems to have a buried secret, something unsaid and forbidden that occasionally comes into focus before losing clarity again. Lumet lingers on strange moments; Johnson trying to console one of the young victims when she is found quivering in the woods, disturbing flash cuts to crime scenes we have no knowledge of. It’s only later that these beats make sense. There is a thrilling sense of dread and despair beneath everything. It’s a subjective movie that treats cinematography as psyche. It begins with long moments of slow motion, with images superimposed over one another as if a character is recalling something we haven’t witnessed yet, before settling into more conventional coverage for the first half.
The final hour is built up of three twenty minute one-on-one dialogue scenes each taking place at different points in the narrative. It’s a questions first, answers later movie. Once the answers come the tempo completely changes. It becomes theatre and it’s here that Lumet really starts to scratch under the surface at something insidious. What previously lied dormant finally rises to the surface with real fury and disturbance. Lumet’s direction is always dynamic ensuring things never become flat and mere talk. When Connery explodes, it really shakes you up. He is genuinely terrifying and Lumet’s demand for complete authenticity – from the performances to the environment – makes Johnson feel all the more threatening. You believe this guy exists and can do real damage.
This is a gripping movie and one that deserves to be acknowledged. The subject matter, as well as the approach by Lumet and Connery is extremely brave and full-force. It’s setting in a misty, damp 70s Britain gives it a savoury taste, setting it apart from other rugged cop thrillers of the period. It get ugly when it needs to but avoids shock in favour of primal emotion which takes centre stage by the end. The non-linear structure makes it an intriguing mystery to unravel and Connery’s furious central performance is never anything less than engrossing. Lumet made a lot of movies in his lifetime, some are classics, some are not but The Offence proves that even underseen, minor works can play in a major key.