I get the impression that for many, a trip to the cinema is a religious experience. Note that I say ‘religious’ and not ‘mystical’. People commonly reach for transcendental terminology when groping for fresh panegyrics with which to adorn some film or another; said film is not merely good, watching it is comparable to what a medieval peasant might have experienced upon visiting a cathedral or what a fakir might experience after twenty years crouching upon nails in the sub-continental wilderness. This is not what I mean by religious experience. What I mean instead is that people go to the cinema (or read a book) in order to have their moral compasses reset. They go to see a romantic comedy in order to re-connect with what it is to be really in love. They go to see Pixar’s Up (2009) in order to know what it means to grow old with someone. They go to see a navel-gazing drama that deals in matters of identity and alienation in order to get some insight into who and what they are. People use films in the same way as they once used the Sunday sermon : As a form of guidance. Simple moral and psychological truths made accessible and easily digested along with pop-corn and diet Coke. Is it then any wonder that we treat successful actors as living gods? These people are not merely entertainers, they are the prophets of a secular age. Our need to constantly tell stories about ourselves drives our desire to consume the stories of others.
Most films are happy to play their role in this relationship. Modern romantic comedies have their relationship advice, Godard had his attempts at spreading Maoism and even nihilistic film-makers such as Noe are happy to sell their audiences on the horrors of existence, a belief which, in its own way, is no less consolatory than the more up-beat alternatives such as Sam Mendes’ bile-raising “sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world I feel like I can’t take it”. However, some film-makers seem instinctively aware of their positions as moral teachers and reject the role. Directors such as Hanneke and Von Trier assume accusatory and playfully obtuse attitudes towards their audience in order to avoid it. Sidney Lumet’s The Offence, based upon the play This Story of Yours by John Hopkins is a film that seems to deconstruct this relationship, turning it into something unhealthy and disturbing.
Detective Sergeant ‘Johnny’ Johnson (Sean Connery) is a copper from the old school. A veteran detective and full-time thug he is brought in to investigate a series of sexual attacks on local children. Clad in a little hat and the kind of sheepskin coat favoured by football managers, Johnson swaggers about the place pouring scorn on the efforts of his colleagues and endlessly bickering with his upper class superior (a wonderfully cast Peter Bowles of To The Manner Born fame). Johnson is a fusion of the Dirty Harry-style avenging angel and the shop-soiled white knight of Noir films and fiction. In fact, it is never clear which of these archetypes Johnson fits into. When a little girl is abducted, Johnson is the first upon the scene but something happens when he sees the raped little girl. Rather than alerting the other police, he sits next to her and coos to her softly, he tells her it’s all right and tenderly wraps her up in his sheepskin coat. When the rest of the police catch up, Johnson seems momentarily panicked as his moment of intimacy with the child is interrupted. This seems to shake something lose inside Johnson and soon he starts to fall apart.
Less well known than his Serpico (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974) or Prince of the City (1981), The Offence is arguably one of Sidney Lumet’s most visually striking films. Remarkably shot by Gerry Fisher, the film offers a window into a world where everything seems somewhat cold and harsh. It is a world of deep, soul-sucking shadows and muted colours where the green of the grass seems to pop out at you and the whiteness of a little girl’s coat can be seen for miles. The film is also shot in and around some remarkable examples of brutalist architecture, the police station where most of the action takes place is a triumph of modernist design, it almost seems to pre-empt the lay-out of the Death Star as its lighting fixtures are like gigantic eyes while its corridors seem lined with futuristic pillboxes. It is also a film that is filled with remarkable motifs sonic such as a pneumatic drill that subtly shifts into a bell and a radio room that is forever broadcasting sounds of misery, death and destruction. Scenes of violence and psychological torture are re-visited again and again,overlapping misery with horror. This is a harsh, dark world that is filled with ancient corruption. It is reminiscent of the Cronenbergian cityscapes of Harley Cokliss’ Crash! (1971) and Christopher Petit’s Radio On (1979).
Against this rather nakedly beautiful backdrop is projected a narrative that is split up and played out of sequence and at different paces. The film opens with images of panic spreading through a police station as Johnson is dragged off of a suspect. We only learn later who that suspect is and why Johnson is attacking him. The suspect is Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen), a man who was brought into the station covered in mud and seemingly disoriented. Johnson immediately decides that this is the paedophile they are looking for and sets about interrogating him. What exactly happens is unclear but we then see Johnson being de-briefed first by his wife (Vivien Merchant) and then by a detective Superintendent (Trevor Howard). What we learn from these interviews is that Johnson is a man in crisis. He speaks of having seen terrible things and having these images run through his mind. He fades in and out of awareness and shifts between viciously verbally attacking the people he is talking to and pathetically begging for their help. Try as they may, neither his wife nor his superior can help him. He seems to be completely lost, incoherent and unhinged.
Lumet reportedly claimed that he never saw The Offence as an emotionally satisfying film and it is easy to see why. The film’s asynchronous structure and frequent use of visual and sonic motifs makes watching The Offence a cerebral rather than a visceral experience. Lumet withholds the meat of what was said prior to Johnson’s attack on Baxter, inviting us to speculate and to make some sense out of Johnson’s psychological collapse.
The confrontation between Baxter and Johnson is as unsettling as it is theatrical. The scene is long and ultimately boils down to two men talking but the performances and the writing is so spot on that it is almost unbearably tense and disconcerting. It begins with Johnson assuming the typical policeman’s role : Arrogant, worldly and pompous, he claims to have seen it all and to know exactly what Baxter is like. He hectors him. He badgers him. He makes speeches at him. Suddenly Baxter opens up, explaining that he has had trouble with bullies all his life but he sees himself as being the one in the position of power as it is the bullies who have to devote time and energy to forcing him to do things. They need something from him. Baxter then turns the tables on Johnson. Sensing the man’s uncertainty he needles him; veering wildly between mockery and sympathy as he forces Johnson to voice all of these doubts and traumas he carries within him. All of these terrible and half-formed desires that Johnson sees in Baxter but fears in himself. Eventually, Johnson is brought to his knees… begging Baxter for help. He has been laid open. He is psychologically bare and utterly exposed.
It is tempting to see this powerful confrontation as your standard dramatic ‘prise-de-conscience’ a moment of personal revelation whereby Connery’s character realises that he too is a paedophile, but this is to simplify things. When Johnson speaks to his wife and his superior, he is a man at odds with himself. Baxter has shattered his sense of identity and left him desperate for some shred of self to hang on to. Lumet is not giving us some insight into the nature of evil or constructing a character of an avenging angel with a dark secret, instead is is making a point about the fragility of our sense of self and how desperate we are for someone, anyone, to tell us who we are and what we are doing. The Offence is a film that emphatically rejects its role as dispenser of home-spun insight. Rather than giving its audience answers, it gives them uncomfortable questions that leave us, much like Johnson, incredibly unsure of where we stand.