The Big Picture
- Sean Connery’s most underrated film, The Offence, was only made as part of a deal to get him to return as James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever.
- The Offence showcases one of Connery’s best performances, as he portrays a detective who snaps after years of investigating rape and murder.
- Director Sidney Lumet adds innovative techniques to the film, transforming the stage play into a visually captivating and thought-provoking cinematic experience.
Sean Connery is obviously best known for his work as 007, but his filmography contains far more than just a secret agent. However, his most underrated movie has strong ties to the Bond franchise, as it was only ever made as part of the price to get him to return as Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. The film is 1973’s The Offence, directed by Sidney Lumet. The Offence, the third of five collaborations between Connery and Lumet, is the story of a detective that snaps after 20 years investigating rape and murder, savagely beating a suspected pedophile, with Connery providing one of the best performances of his career.
‘The Offence’ Would Not Have Been Made Without Bond
When Connery decided to leave the Bond franchise after 1967’s You Only Live Twice, producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli cast George Lazenby, an Australian model that had never been in a movie before, though he may have tricked them a bit on that point, to take over as 007 for 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. At the time of its release, the movie had a very mixed reception, though it has been reclaimed in recent years. However, far from finding the Bond of the future, Lazenby withdrew from the franchise before the film was even finished. After a search for a replacement, United Artists paid Connery a then-record $1.25 million and promised to make any two movies he wanted, provided they were made for under $1 million each.
The Offence was the first — and in the end only — movie made under the deal. Based on the 1968 John Hopkins play This Story of Yours, the movie did not do well commercially, which is not terribly surprising given the bleak subject and the slow, brooding tone. The play is another connection to Bond, with Hopkins having co-written the screenplay to the earlier Connery 007 outing Thunderball. However, Connery’s second movie agreed as part of the deal to sign onto Diamonds Are Forever, an adaptation of Macbeth, was scuppered by The Offence’s poor performance and the massive bomb that was Roman Polanski’s 1971 version of the Shakespeare play.
Connery Gives a Unique Performance in ‘The Offence’
Despite the overwhelming shadow of 007 looming over the Scottish legend’s career, he has shown many times he is much more than a suave super spy. Whether it is in a very different type of espionage movie with The Russia House, nodding towards his early career in Michael Bay’s The Rock, or holding onto his native accent as a Lithuanian submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October, Connery has given a lot of great performances that are in some way in conversation with his most famous role. The Offence is another of these, though far less direct, and Connery never portrayed this kind of brutality, vulnerability, and raw emotion in any movie before or since.
Investigating a string of sexual assaults on local schoolgirls, Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery) finds the latest victim terrified in the woods. When Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) is brought in by a uniformed officer as a suspect, Johnson interrogates him but snaps and brutally beats the man. He is suspended and sent home while Baxter is taken to hospital, with Johnson getting into a fight with his wife (Vivien Merchant) and is then brought back to the station for his own interrogation by Detective Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard). What plays out throughout the film is a stark and revealing study of Johnson’s character brought to life by Connery, who swings wildly across a spectrum of emotions. The film forces the audience to question whether a man can be exposed to the level of depravity and violence that Johnson has over his 20 years in the police without being irrevocably damaged or if it has merely brought his true nature closer to the surface.
Connery sheds the toupee he wore throughout his Bond films — something he would often do when working with Lumet — and embraces a grimier persona. There is little smooth about Johnson, aside from a few moments when he begins his interrogation of Baxter in a ploy to put the man at ease. These small glimpses serve to highlight the disparity in his character as he snaps. When Johnson gets home, still unsure whether he killed Baxter or not, Connery delivers a staggering 20 minutes of acting as he vacillates between berating his wife, drinking almost an entire bottle of whiskey, and explaining in graphic detail all the disturbing things he has seen over two decades on the job to the point that his wife vomits just hearing about them. At first, he maintains a detached façade that transforms into an almost manic recounting of the beating he gave Baxter and finding the young girl, before breaking down fully and then swinging back to nonchalance. It’s a rollercoaster that could very easily seem like a caricature with a lesser actor.
With ‘The Offence,’ Lumet Transforms the Play
Movies based on stage plays have a tendency to do little more than film a play and put it on screen. The long scenes of dialogue are retained, and the director fails to put their stamp on the story, content to merely let the script do the heavy lifting. Not so with Lumet. The American director made some of the best films of the ’70s — Network, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico to name just a few of his most well-known works — and he brings a level of innovation to The Offence that many directors wouldn’t have attempted. The opening of the film, for instance, is a slow-motion depiction of other officers rushing to stop Johnson from killing the suspect, with an interrogation room light superimposed over the center of the frame. It’s an effective opening that frames the non-linear narrative that follows — the beating being the crux of the film, fragments littered throughout, yet delivered in full only at the very end.
The structure of a play is still evident in the end product, with the movie primarily composed of three acts of dialogue — with Johnson’s wife, Cartwright, and Baxter. It is the way Lumet frames these scenes that transforms them. Lumet employs the liberal use of split diopter to maintain focus on both the foreground and background, often with a close-up and full body shot — you would be hard-pressed to find a film that contains more such shots. It plays with the dynamics between characters, shifting power and control by flipping the staging.
Johnson driving home takes on something of a liminal state between past and present, close-ups on Connery intercut with graphic depictions of crime scenes and dead bodies racing through his mind as he reckons with what he has done — the same haunting images that later induce vomiting from his wife. When Johnson recounts the assault of Baxter to both his wife and Cartwright, it is also intercut with scenes of violence, this time with him as the perpetrator. The cuts of Johnson caressing the young girl’s face, something that did not happen when he originally found her, recontextualizes his entire character and motivations. The final examination that takes place when we finally see the Baxter interrogation reinforces the breadcrumbs left throughout the film, showing that there is something much more sinister at play in Johnson. Baxter’s taunts culminate with a devastating encapsulation of Johnson: “Nothing I have done can be one-half as bad as the thoughts in your head.” Indeed, nothing Connery ever did was one-half as daring as The Offence.