The Offence: Sidney Lumet's Most Underrated Film

The recent passing of Sidney Lumet has resulted in renewed praise for his many classic films, but his weirdest work - The Offence, starring Sean Connery - is unlikely to get a mention. Which is a shame since it’s truly remarkable
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During his 50 film career, the wonderfully talented Sidney Lumet created a quietly spectacular body of work, consisting of understated masterpieces crafted around an eclectic range of subjects. He made 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network - one justly celebrated classic after another, usually featuring a prescient moral or ethical subtext and always laden with amazing performances. In the early seventies, during the most prolific and celebrated period of his career, he made the most underrated and unfairly overlooked of his films. It was called The Offence and if ever there was a film that was a hard sell it was one in which the biggest box office star of the day plays a mentally unstable, sexually frustrated policeman who beats a suspected paedophile to death. In Bracknell.

That a film as odd as The Offence even got made is testament to Sean Connery’s power in Hollywood in the early ’70s; as a bribe to convince him to return to the role of James Bond, MGM offered him the chance to make two pet projects. The second of these was a film version of Macbeth that Connery was to direct. It was never made but the first film was. The Offence was adapted from his own play by Z Cars scriptwriter John Hopkins and concerns a police search for a multiple child killer, the arrest of a major suspect and his subsequent questioning and murder by a troubled copper. As the film unfolds, we learn that Connery’s character (the violent policeman) is morally confused and may well be just as dangerous and unhinged as the suspect. It’s as grim and unfriendly as it sounds but because Connery convinced his trusted collaborator Lumet to take on the project, it’s a film that is thoughtful, intelligent, affecting and brilliantly acted.

The picture is a cross between a police procedural and a psycho-drama. It’s set in a rain-lashed, concrete-nightmare English anytown (actually Bracknell with studio interiors) and after an initial set up sequence where a young girl is kidnapped and abused, it essentially consists of three extended scenes where the mental health of Connery’s character decays rapidly and with devastating effect. The first shows him returning home after killing the suspect. Following a montage of the terrible crimes he’s witnessed over the course of his career, Connery explicitly reveals the horror constantly playing out in his head while simultaneously belittling and berating his uncomprehending wife. He’s then taken into questioning and the nature of police work and the pressures of the job are outlined in a scene with an investigating superior (Brief Encounter’s Trevor Howard).

Finally there is the film’s key scene, a jump back in time to the interview with the suspect where the lines between hunter and hunted are blurred past the point of ambiguity, particularly when it suggests Connery's character may have paedophiliac tendencies himself – now there’s a sentence you don’t read everyday. Connery is then seen beating the suspect to death seemingly as a means of hammering unwanted thoughts from his own head. It’s all very heavy and while it’s hard to recommend the film as entertainment, it has a great deal going for it.

Certainly you will never have seen anything quite like it – it’s stately (polite talk for slow), intense, has slow-mo inserts that seem to present the world through the eyes of tripping Daleks and a score by Harrison Birtwistle that takes ‘monged-out’ to previously undreamt states of stupor. It’s also remarkable in that it brought one of Hollywood’s most talented directors to the horrible new housing estates of Berkshire, his outsider’s eye unflinchingly documenting how ugly these places looked immediately after being built.

The Offence also provided Ian Bannen and, more significantly, Sean Connery with their most intense and powerful roles. Bannen, as the creepy, probably guilty suspect is as brilliant as you’d expect but Connery is the real revelation. Shorn of his Bond glamour (he wears a fairly awful ’tash and a John Motson sheepskin, and is noticeably balding), Connery actually bothers to act in The Offence. Instead of the consummate cruising you see in films like Highlander, The Untouchables or any of the Bond pictures, you see Connery giving it all he’s got and forcing himself to work. Particularly in the scene with his wife, there’s a vulnerability and intensity to his acting that was clearly drawn out by ‘actor’s director’ Lumet and it’s for this that the film should be celebrated.

Now that Connery’s all but retired, he’ll never better his work here so, rather than waiting for it to be rediscovered after his death, we should be talking about this film and commending it as Connery’s finest hour. It did nothing at the box office, wasn’t even released in some territories, took years to find its way onto DVD and is hardly ever shown on TV but The Offence is odd, indefinable and also the best thing one of our biggest film stars has ever done. That alone must make it worth tracking down.

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