One of Sidney Lumet’s many gritty, uncompromising dramas set within the law system, this one is particularly notable for not being set in the US. Instead we’re in England, where police detective sergeant Johnson, investigating a series of murders of young girls, is absolutely convinced that he has the recently arrested killer in his clutches. After a heated confrontation in the interrogation room, the suspect ends up brutally murdered by Johnson. However, as we only see portions of their interrogation, we don’t really see the entire picture. It seems obvious that Johnson has murdered the potential killer due to his utter disgust with him, but is there more to it than that?
Based on a 1968 play (and it shows, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing) by John Hopkins entitled This Story of Yours, Lumet’s film gives the action a cinematic edge by using flashbacks, flashforwards and snapshots of inner thoughts, some imaginary, some real memories to create a disorienting, uncomfortable experience. Indeed, the mood is unrelentingly grim – the early scenes as the police keep watch at the local school to stake out the killer are as grey-skied, unnerving and quotidian as a public information film of the same time. There are some other outdoor scenes but the majority of the plot is confined to various interrogation rooms and Johnson’s flat, the latter the scene of a particularly tough-going argument between Johnson and his wife. Johnson has seen a lot – far too much – in his twenty years with the police, and the result has damaged him utterly. His wife want to help, but she’s never seen what he’s seen, so Johnson blocks her off. His obsession with the suspect’s guilt seems to be completely based on his own belief and some tenuous facts (the suspect has dirty hands, the last victim – actually left alive – was found in the woods), but the more we get involved, the more we find out about what really went on during that interrogation, and it’s not pretty.
Now this is where I should mention that Johnson is played by Sean Connery, and this was his first film since permanently leaving the role of James Bond (officially anyway, he’d return for a not-really-Bond performance in Never Say Never Again years later). United Artists agreed to back this film (as well as an adaptation of Macbeth) after Connery agreed to return to the role of 007 one final time. When The Offence became a box office failure, the Macbeth project was abandoned. Well personally, I can see why the film failed – it is a dranining, unhappy film, and a total hangover following the frivolity of Connery’s tenure as Bond. It is however, an excellent film, and surely one of the bravest left-field turns a major star has committed to during the height of their fame. It’s not just a case of a much-loved star surrounding himself with murky material but remaining clean himself – Johnson is a deeply troubled, brutish, ugly character which demands a brutish, ugly performance, one as far from the world of 007 as imaginable and Connery is absolutely terrific in the role. It may be his best ever performance outside of his James Bond universe. He’s present in more or less every scene and commands the screen totally – Connery is one of those actors who remains unavoidably Sean Connery in every film he’s in, the debit of being such a distinctive screen presence. No matter if he’s playing a secret service agent, a Russian submarine commander, an Irish cop, an Egyptian immortal or Indiana Jones’ dad, he’s always Sean Connery. I guess it’s that accent, or his lack of attempt to ever really hide it, no matter what country his character is meant to be from. Here though, Johnson is the main character, not Sean Connery in another starry role, and it’s proof that this always watchable actor could have been something seriously heavyweight too.
Supporting performances from Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant and Ian Bannen are all very strong, but this is Connery’s film, not to mention Lumet’s, who directs with a straight-up, almost documentary-style effciency, puncutated by the odd shocking visual jump or flourish. It’s a bleak journey, but a very effective one.