‘The Offence’ or — Police Projection?

I’d had the blu ray of Sidney Lumet’s ‘The Offence’ (1973) sitting on my shelf unwatched for several years because I was worried it was going to be an emotionally and psychologically brutal, exhausting, harrowing and uncomfortable experience, but as I had promised a couple of friends last week that I’d finally watch it I thought I had better do so. After all, it might not be that brutal a mov… oh Christ, it most certainly is! Help!

The sensation of palpable unease is evident from the very opening — an ugly, harsh light blinds us as, superimposed over this and in queasy slow motion, policemen run into a room where the body of a man lies on the floor whilst another man, in a pose of post physical violence, stands over him. Other policemen are picking themselves up off the floor. It is obvious something has gone terribly wrong. All of this is accompanied by an intensely unsettling atonal score by Harrison Birtwhistle. This sets up the tone for the entire movie and that tone is going to be harsh, unflinching, suffocating and could induce vomiting.

We discover, through flashback, that the assailant is Detective Sergeant Johnson (in a phenomenal performance by Sean Connery) and his victim is a suspected child molester Johnson’s been searching for. We sense Johnson’s frustration and anger at the horrific crimes committed, the failure to catch the criminal and, finally, the inability to effectively pin anything on the suspect. Twenty years of witnessing the worst of what humanity is capable of has traumatised Johnson. This is a man who cannot think rationally and has a mind liked a clenched fist. But is Johnson a victim of transference, of having been corrupted by his work? Or has there always been something dark inside him all along?

What follows is an examination of the aftermath, the consequences of the act and, more importantly, a character study of a horrified, and horrifying, man.

So yeah, ‘The Offence’ isn’t exactly cheerful stuff as it is dealing with a sickening subject with a script that’s as nasty and brutal as the subject matter. But what’s really nauseating about the film are the relationship dynamics, how they shift, complement, invert, clash and attack each other. There are three principle relationships Johnson has in the movie -

1/ Between Johnson and his wife.

2/ Between Johnson and Baxter (the suspect).

3/ Between Johnson and Lieutenant Cartwright (the officer charged with interrogating Johnson about the incident).

The toughest to watch is between Johnson and his wife as this is where we discover just how sick, how traumatised Johnson has become by his work. She must absorb the full extent of his black bile and personal invective as Johnson tells his wife things no spouse should ever hear and then continues with things no human would want to hear until she is physically ill. Yet it is this relationship that humanises Johnson… somewhat. We initially suspect he might be an abusive wife beater by the way he enters his home with an uncomfortable and overbearing physicality but it seems this was, once, a good marriage that has been destroyed by what he has been forced to see for so many years.

Someone who can understand what Johnson has seen is Lieutenant Cartwright who hates Johnson but empathises with his predicament. It is here the power dynamic is inverted with Johnson the one being questioned and who is refusing to supply answers. We see him taking the same stances Baxter took — stonewalling, etc — whilst Cartwright holds the power Johnson once lorded. Yet all this shifts again when Cartwright becomes terrified when he realises just what Johnson is carrying inside of him, something all the more terrifying as it is the one aspect about himself that Cartwright furiously denies on a daily basis. Johnson might have the power back through sheer force of fear.

Incidentally, as a side note — notice when Cartwright puts Johnson’s written testimony into his case file. All of the pages in Cartwright’s folder are neat and flat. In comparison Johnson’s is savagely crumpled, just like his thinking.

The most complex relationship is, not surprisingly, between Johnson and Baxter. It’s also the most sickening. Why? Because it’s here we discover just how similar these two are and that both are in possession (or possession by?) of an arrested, infantile view of sexuality. Notice how Johnson had “comforted” the little girl at the start. It has an ambiguous nature as he is a little too tactile with her and we know this is not how this should be handled professionally.

Johnson is also physically disgusted by his wife, a woman he finds “ugly” (she’s not). The implication is that Johnson is impotent (they appear to have no children of their own), but is this impotence because his wife is a fully grown woman? We hear Johnson call his wife “disgusting” yet he idolises the young. Both Baxter and Johnson seem to be unable to connect with the mature sexuality of the adult world.

This connection between criminal and pursuer, how they are, essentially, the same reminded me of the relation between, say, the Joker and Batman in ‘The Dark Knight’ (2008) and the mind games Baxter plays, the way the trapped force of evil manipulates his captor, also had me thinking of the way John Doe destroys David Mills in ‘Se7en’ (1996) purely by his words alone. The main difference is ‘The Offence’ might be even more nihilistic than Fincher’s movie, and that’s saying something.

Lumet’s direction is strong yet stays out of the way of the performances so they can be the primary focus. The set design is striking (is that circular light in the police station a nod to ‘Dr. No’?), balancing “realism” with artifice although it is the lighting that really grabs the attention. It is both sickening (I’ve been trying to limit the use of that word to only when necessary in this) in its forced mundanity, is claustrophobic in how it permeates everything and yet is also oddly beautiful. Indeed, the lighting is so deliberate and precise that there’s a shot of Trevor Howard simply switching on some strip bulbs and nothing more.

The film isn’t perfect. I found the treatment of Johnson’s wife nasty, bullying and excessive. Also, some of the dialogue is a tad too stagey (this was based on a play so I guess I can’t complain too much) and a little over-written but these aren’t distracting as such and help add to the sense of unease, of a detachment from the “real”, of genuine human connection.

‘The Offence’ is an exhausting, punishing watch that frequently had me feeling queasy yet when it was over the sensation was one of catharsis, of release. This could be down to the euphoria often reported after vomited or purgation; the relief that it is all over. I also think it’s down to the fact that it was obvious I’d just watched a seriously impressive piece of work, and that’s always a stimulant.

Yet I think the biggest reason is that despite the fact that I (we?) can worryingly identify with various aspects of Johnson — we all carry anger, frustration and the sexual urge inside of us after all — that I could sit back afterward and reassure myself by thinking “Well, at least I’m not THAT fucked up!”

P.S. Oh, and it’s also fun to watch this and pretend Connery is still James Bond but married and that this is what his evenings with his wife would be like when he came home from a mission. It certainly helped me get through that particular scene.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.