Defective Detective: Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (1972) – Dual Format Review
Long before Gene Hunt and Life on Mars, Lumet and Connery tackled the brutality and thwarted machismo of 70s British policing – and found it wanting.
(Sidney Lumet, GB, 1972)
Ask any cinephile about Sidney Lumet, and most likely the L-word won’t be far away. Lumet is the go-to guy for films about the law – its repercussions, its constraints and its abuses – and from 12 Angry Men and Serpico to Prince of the City and The Verdict, he assembled an authoritative body of work on the subject.
But what tends to get overlooked in the rush to praise his more famous American movies is that his wildest and most challenging looks took place on the other side of the Atlantic. The foreigner’s insight in Lumet located an institutional brutality in Britain borne of repression and macho rage, and attacked in with two anguished howls of despair that are darker and more uncomfortable than anything produced by homegrown filmmakers of the time. Of the two, The Hill is the better film, but The Offence comes close to beating it for tension and bleakness.
The first half is a recognisably forthright Lumet police procedural, but shorn of any of the residual glamour of his American films. Lumet’s flat, reportage style teases out a Britain that is almost painfully banal and dispiriting, as the action progresses from an anonymous housing estate, to concrete new town and finally to a blandly utilitarian prefab police station. But the signs are there from the startling opening that darker emotions are submerged beneath the apparent tedium. Lumet conjures up a disorientating mix of slowed-down action, electronic noise and the permanent image of an interrogation room light bulb superimposed over the action, and the effect is arguably as unsettling as anything David Lynch has done.
Once the eponymous offence has shattered the visual and emotional banality, the second half moves into an entirely different register, but one that keen students of Lumet will recognise. For what is often overlooked about Lumet is that, despite his taste for naturalistic acting and the crusading spirit of his films, he is far from a realist. Shake off the lawman tag and you quickly discover an alternative Lumet career – ironically dating back to 12 Angry Men‘s adaptation of a TV play – fuelled by a love of middlebrow theatre and a fondness grand, melodramatic flourishes. The Offence, based on a play, is one of the rare projects that allows Lumet to indulge both of his key passions simultaneously.
The rest of the film details an unashamedly theatrical series of conversations between Connery‘s embattled detective and perceived enemies at home and at work. What it loses in cinematic texture it gains in claustrophobic intensity, largely because Lumet is blessed with a terrific central performance by Sean Connery. His Detective Sergeant Johnson is the anti-Bond: not the suave killer and ladykiller of the Secret Service but an unhappy, middle-aged has-been full of self-loathing and traumatised by his work. His misogynistic rant against his wife when she unwisely asks him to talk to her is a tour-de-force monologue by Connery and, having proved his acting chops, he gets to perform two duets, firstly with Trevor Howard, then with Ian Bannen. It’s in the latter scene that the film is most riveting, a complex battle of wills that sees the balance of power shifting back and forth between the two.
The film’s only major flaw is that the sensationalist structure defers the fireworks of the confrontation with Bannen to the end for dramatic effect when, chronologically and thematically, the truer end is the bleak punchline provided by Cartwright, the senior officer played by Howard. In the eyes of the establishment, Johnson’s crime is less the violence he inflicts than the lack of self-control that caused it, and the offence is the uncomfortable questions it asks of the force as a whole.
It is this irony – that repression is necessary to coping with being a policeman – that gives the film its bite. When Noughties TV hit Life on Mars attempted a revisionist attack on 70s cop culture, the show inadvertently turned Gene Hunt into a cult hero for daring to do things unthinkable in today‘s PC climate. Lumet and Connery’s contemporary vision truly lays bare the dark heart behind this fantasy: only the thinnest veneer of self-belief separates Hunt from the tortured, pathetic shell of a man Johnson becomes here.