Categories
British Drama Mystery/Noir

The Offence

The James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would garner even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A monster has been victimizing little girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by DS Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

The Offence (1972) - Blu-Ray Review

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Vivien Merchant absorbs Connery’s brutality but is unable to reach her husband, making him even more rageful but also more pathetic. In a scene of fewer than 15 minutes the two actors let the viewer grasp everything about the long agonies of this unhappily married couple and how they have disappointed and torn at each other over the years. The scene with Howard is almost as good, but is topped by the astounding concluding act with Ian Bannen (who was also brilliant alongside Connery in The Hill). Bannen and Connery play off each other magnificently in a cat-and-mouse game during which each experiences fear of, hatred for and yet also some identification with the other.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama

The Untouchables

The Untouchables: A Search for Period Flavor - The American ...

Many classic TV shows have been made into dreadful movies, but Brian De Palma came up aces in 1987 when he made The Untouchables.

The plot: Naive treasury agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to do battle with bootlegger, murderer and king of the gangsters Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Realizing that the police and politicians are all corrupted by Capone, Ness assembles his own team of “untouchable” agents who can’t be bought. His squad is anchored by a cynical, over-the-hill beat cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who teaches him how the game is played in The Windy City. The two of them and their fellow untouchables embark on an epic confrontation with powerful, violent mobsters and a legal system that is rotten from top to bottom.

The key theme of the film is voiced by Connery, in one of the many scenes where he virtually acts the bland Costner right off the screen: What are you prepared to do? The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold. This adds moral weight to a story that is also packed with thrilling action sequences and powerful dramatic moments.

De Palma often echoes classic films in his movies, and The Untouchables is no exception. A spectacularly executed shoot-out sequence in Union Station is an homage to the equally brilliant Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although I don’t know for sure, I believe the first scene of the movie, in which a terrified barber reacts to having nicked Capone’s face while shaving him, is an echo of one of the opening scenes of another of my recommendations, The Chase. De Palma makes these allusions is such a way that you don’t have to get them to enjoy the film, but if you do it’s even more fun.

This was a big budget Hollywood film and it shows in every scene. The set design and art direction are darbs, and the period cars, clothes and architecture are the cat’s meow. Producer Art Linson is a Chicago native, and clearly knew where to spend money to bring the Prohibition Era alive. To top it all off, Ennio Morricone contributes one of the most memorable and evocative scores of the 1980s.

Other than Costner, who is painfully weak here, the entire cast explodes. But even in that field, Connery and De Niro tower over everyone with powerhouse performances. Capone has been portrayed many times on film, but never in such a scary fashion. In De Niro’s hands, he is a man who can go from mirth and charm to murderous rage with no warning, and the viewer fully appreciates why all of his underlings tiptoe around him.

Connery, who won a long-overdue Oscar for playing Malone, also tears up the screen. His Malone is world-weary and tough yet also capable of wit and even a sort of gentleness (His big brother-little brother relationship to Andy Garcia’s rookie cop is perfectly played by the two actors). Because he became famous playing James Bond, it took Connery a long time to convince people that he really is a fine actor. I have commended his strong performances in my recommendations many times, including in The Hill, The Offence, and Outland. He triumphs again in The Untouchables, one of many reasons to see this near-perfect update of classic cops-versus-gangsters television shows and movies.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Frightened City

In nearly a century on this earth, Herbert Lom had a long and varied acting career. Born in Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he achieved screen immortality as the Chief Inspector whom Clouseau slowly drives mad in the Pink Panther films. But before that did excellent work in many high-quality films, most of which unfortunately are largely forgotten today. I have spotlighted his fine performance as the kindly, devout, ill-fated Gino in Hell Drivers. Lom has a completely different role as a cold, clever and super-smooth criminal mastermind in 1961’s The Frightened City.

The Frightened City is a B-movie which doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. The budget is modest and so are the ambitions. But on those terms it delivers as a solid crime melodrama with a great starring role for Lom and excellent supporting work by a then little known Scottish actor who was only a year away from becoming an international superstar: Sean Connery.

The film is set in the London criminal underworld. A wily financier (Lom, conveying the calm of the truly powerful in every scene) figures out that the six biggest gangs could enhance the revenue of their protection rackets by organising themselves as a syndicate. He convinces one gangster (an agreeably lubricious Alfred Marks) to head the syndicate, who in turn recruits a former burglar (Connery) to be the face of the mob to the shops, pubs and restaurants it extorts. All goes well until the gang falls out, leading to a murder that throws the syndicate into turmoil and gives a dogged Scotland Yard detective inspector (John Gregson) the chance he needs to pounce.

The secondary plotline concerns Yvonne Romain as a luscious, ambitious immigrant singer who catches Connery’s eye. They have great chemistry on screen, and the script does a gratifying job of making her craftier than him rather than portraying her as a brainless tart (funnily enough Romain’s real-life husband went on to write the lyrics of several of Connery’s Bond films, including Goldfinger). The other engaging aspect of the story is Connery’s relationship to his former burglary partner (well-played by Kenneth Griffith), who has been crippled in a fall during an attempted break-in. Connery skillfully conveys the guilt he feels about the accident, and how it drives him into the hands of the new, more violent crew who are running the protection racket.

The film is not without weaknesses. Some of the sets look cheap, probably because they are. The script underdevelops its theme of how crime was changing to become more violent and organised and thereby outpacing long-standing law enforcement tactics. As a result, the scenes with the police are a bit slow and stale. And John Lemont’s direction is more reminiscent of a TV show than a movie (on the plus side, if you watch this on DVD instead of in a theater, you are not missing anything). For those reasons, the film goes into the good rather than great category.

As a closing note: Norrie Paramor’s jazzy title song became a big hit for Britain’s premier instrumental group of the era, the Shadows. Just for fun, you can see their totally pukka rendition of the theme on Crackerjack. Love those suits and dance steps!

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir Science Fiction / Fantasy

Outland

Disappointed in “Cowboys and Aliens” and looking for a film that does a better job of blending the Western and Sci-Fi genres? Look no further than the gritty and exciting Peter Hyams film Outland. The plot of one decent man fighting a corrupt system while trying to redeem himself at the same time is familiar, but it works very well here due to eye-popping special effects, strong performances, and well-staged action scenes.

I like Sean Connery in the Bond films, but his acting talents are put to far better use in those movies where he has more human imperfections and vulnerabilities (e.g., The Offence, The Hill, Russia House). As a paunchy, middle-aged marshal named W.T. O’Neil, Connery gives us a man battered by family and career disappointments. He is working in a near-lawless, awful mining colony on a remote moon because that’s where someone with his mediocre reputation belongs. In every scene, you can see the weight on his shoulders that comes from lack of self-respect and complete disillusionment with the world.

Frances Sternhagen gives a multi-layered performance as the second-rate doctor who helps the new marshal figure out why a number of miners have been committing horribly violent acts against themselves and their fellow colonists. She nicely conveys a romantic interest in Connery that is covered over with self-protective wisecracks. She knows he is committed to saving his failing marriage but can’t help wishing otherwise. The third primary player in the drama is a memorably sleazy and smug Peter Boyle, as the corporate scumbag who runs the colony. He radiates contempt for Connery in every scene as he uses lacerating words, bribe offers, and, eventually, deadly threats to stop the investigation of the strange epidemic of violence among the miners. James B. Sikking is also good in a supporting role as another unhappy, self-hating marshal who befriends Connery.

The space scenes are extremely well done, with the special effects enhancing rather than distracting from the storytelling. Meanwhile, inside the colony there are saloon style swinging doors, people carrying shotguns, scared locals and a Western feel, as a High Noon style digital clock ticks down to the moment when the next shuttle will arrive, bringing Boyle’s goons to take care of the nosy marshal.

The middle of the movie contains a long, superbly choreographed chase and fight scene that must have been an absolute bear to film. This could have made the final confrontation of the movie a letdown, but the climactic scenes — some of them set in outer space rather than inside the colony — have a distinctive, thrilling feel and style.

Outland was only a modest money maker when it was released in 1981, perhaps because people were expecting another Star Wars. It’s not that and it doesn’t need to be. It stands up very well as a highly successful blend of two beloved film genres, as well as a showcase for the acting and still-formidable action chops of the eminently watchable Sir Sean.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

The Hill

Sidney Lumet’s brutal, gripping 1965 movie The Hill opens with a solitary figure laboring up the man-made torture device that gives the film its title. In one of Oswald Morris’ many mesmerizing crane shots, the man collapses in the North African heat and then the camera begins to move slowly away, off into the distance, abandoning the man and the compound in which he is forced to live. As in the rest of the film, no music is heard, which lets the hopelessness and isolation of the people we are watching sink in.

The story begins with five British soldiers arriving at a military prison. Four of them are privates who have committed various crimes (including Ossie Davis as a West Indian soldier and Roy Kinnear as a fat spiv), but the fifth is something different. Joe Roberts (Sean Connery) was a heroic sergeant major who has been busted down for beating up his commanding officer. Connery, given his first chance as a star to do something different from James Bond, plays the part well, showing how Roberts can be callous in some respects yet gentle in others. He is in emotional agony, for reasons that become clear as the film progresses.

The most complex performance is given by Harry Andrews, as RSM Wilson, who runs the daily operations of the prison. It would have been easy to write and play the character of RSM Wilson as a heartless martinet. But Ray Rigby’s script and Andrews’ acting are much more sophisticated than that. Yes, the RSM can be tough, but he also shows compassion because he is committed to rebuilding the prisoners rather than simply destroying them. He’s a three dimensional person, unlike the newly arrived Sergeant Major Williams (Ian Hendry), who is uncomplicatedly nasty. Ian Hendry, who was by all accounts a piece of work in real life (sadly, he drank himself to death in his early 50s) is convincingly vicious as Williams. As Connery’s character says “Wilson wants to build toy soldiers and Williams wants to break them”.

The prisoners struggle against the harsh prison regime, and also among themselves. But as Williams gets more brutal, causing a tragic incident, they begin to unify in opposition to the screws. They are aided by a diffident medical officer (a solid as ever Michael Redgrave) and a staff sergeant whose motives are interesting to speculate about (Ian Bannen).

Two complaints. The film would have benefited from some tightening in length and from dropping the final stages of evolution of Ossie Davis’ character. His behavior at the end seems a theatrical flourish to please a 1965 audience and not, like the rest of the film, a realistic take on WWII prison life. His performance though, like that of everyone else in the all-male cast, remains top-notch.

It would be an injustice to close on such cavils, however. Sidney Lumet’s “movie as play” style works perfectly in the claustrophobic setting of a prison. Cinematographer Oswald Morris and editor Thelma Connell do brilliant work throughout, particular during the scenes in which the prisoners are forced to climb the hill (In one case, while wearing a gas mask — horrifying). Given its subject matter and tone, this isn’t a date movie…but it’s a great movie.

A closing note on Connery’s evolution: As this critically-acclaimed movie bombed at the box office he saw audiences line up world wide to munch popcorn and watch Thunderball, which began to disgust him with the James Bond franchise and the state of his career. But while he didn’t know it at the time, he had already made the wisest move possible, which was to link up with a great director who saw more to him as an actor than the Bond films revealed (For more on this, see my recommendation of The Offence). 

Categories
Action/Adventure British Drama

Hell Drivers

Having recommended the movie that gave Stanley Baker his first break (The Cruel Sea) and one he produced and starred in once established (Robbery), let me fill in the middle by recommending the thrilling film that made him a star in 1957: Hell Drivers.

The plot is agreeably simple. Baker plays Tom Yately, a tough but moral ex-con trying to go straight. He takes a job at a trucking firm managed by a ruthless boss (William Hartnell, who effectively plays the villain here, albeit of a different type than in Brighton Rock). The business would give OSHA a coronary. The truckers are assigned to ship gravel from a mine to a worksite many times a day, getting paid more money the more trips they make. They respond by driving like maniacs, at significant risk to themselves and others. And they all compete to topple the domineering, violent and reckless “Red” (Patrick McGoohan) as the top driver of the crew. Meanwhile, Tom befriends a kindly, devout Italian driver named Gino (a spot on Herbert Lom) whose girlfriend (Peggy Cummins) begins to put the moves on him.

The driving scenes in this movie are thrillingly shot by the justly revered Geoffrey Unsworth (I’ve praised his work in Superman and Unman, Wittering and Zigo). This includes the ultimate driving test from hell for Tom Yatley, in which he is accompanied by a perfectly droll Wilfrid Lawson as the firm’s mechanic. The final confrontation of the film, as Red and Tom have a trucking duel in an abandoned quarry, is particularly well-done and highly satisfying.