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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 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). 

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Blogs on Film

Sidney Lumet’s Many Contributions

Sidney Lumet | Biography, Movies, & Facts | Britannica

In the wake of his passing, tributes to Hollywood legend Sindey Lumet focused mainly on 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, and Dog Day Afternoon, all worthy pieces of cinema (Serpico is less so, in my opinion). He deserves credit for at least two other things.

First, he largely rescued Sean Connery from Bondage by casting him in meaty dramatic parts as Connery’s interest in Bond was waning. The Hill, The Offence, and The Anderson Tapes remain highly watchable today, and they showed the film world that Connery had a lot more talent than his role as 007 let him exercise.

Second, Lumet made one of the best Holocaust films ever, The Pawnbroker. From slump-shouldered Rod Steiger, Lumet coaxed a performance that is the actor’s best — better even than his more heralded role as Sheriff Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night. And the classic Lumet claustrophobic New York sets work perfectly to help us feel Sol Nazerman’s agony and his inability to escape the horrors of the war and memory.  Sadly, the film isn’t watched as often as Lumet’s other great movies, probably because it’s simply emotionally harder to experience (The Verdict is also a portrait of overwhelming loneliness but it ultimately treads more gently on the viewer’s spirit because it has an uplifting ending). But it remains one of the high points of Lumet’s distinguished career.