After briefly returning to themes of justice with 1965’s The Hill, Sidney Lumet once again drifted from the subject matter that would define much of his cinematic output; it would be eight years before he turned his camera back to the justice system, although when he did in 1973, he produced two works staggering in their emotional depth and institutional critique. The first of these was The Offence, a police procedural starring Sean Connery in the role of Inspector Johnson, a sadist masquerading as an officer of the law. Its English setting associates its analysis of the justice system with The Hill, which took place in a British prisoner-of-war camp in North Africa during World War II. Its subject matter and the besieged police detective at the center of the film point the way forward to a number of Lumet’s other justice-system works, with a cop being his protagonist for the first time.
The Offence’s disorienting opening shot tracks through an English police station, the view obscured by a bright circle at the center of the frame that suggests the white hot intensity of an interrogation room with the lights turned up to blinding. Even when Lumet cuts — as several officers, clearly perturbed by a shocking, unseen discovery — the circular glow remains fixed in the center of the image, an unshakable, haunting bullseye. Strange, dissonant music accompanies the disorienting scene. Lumet’s by-then 16-year trajectory since he debuted with 12 Angry Men in 1957 — viewed through the lens of his justice system works — demonstrates a radically different, more wildly experimental filmmaker now under the full influence of his New Hollywood contemporaries. As the classicism of 12 Angry Men and most of The Hill demonstrate, Lumet is a transitional figure with one foot in the Classic Hollywood camp and one on the forefront of New Hollywood experimentation. The Offence shows a willingness on Lumet’s part to flirt openly with psychedelia, though it is not precipitated by hallucinogenic drug use but by the fury that drives Connery’s Inspector Johnson. With The Offence, Lumet crafts a slow burn fever dream propelled by male anger and standing in contempt of the increasing impotence of the justice system tasked with containing it.
Johnson bristles with rage in The Offence. He is a man consumed by his own inability to process the violence he confronts on a daily basis at his job, and each line delivery carries the weight of accumulated agitation. Connery, who by the time of The Offence is one of Lumet’s regular collaborators, is a far cry from James Bond; Johnson is frustrated by an overwhelming sense of his own failure to stem the tide of violence, especially when a serial child murderer strikes again. The plot, from a play by John Hopkins, associates Lumet’s film with one of the foundational systemic critiques of society’s tenuous hold on justice, Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. In that work, Lang’s roving camera, totally unintimidated by the advent of sound, captures the responses of several Berlin institutions, including the police and the local gang leaders, to the intrusion of a rank offender, likewise a child murderer played by Peter Lorre. Lumet’s take on the subject matter offers a somewhat similar documentary-style approach at fleeting moments, following groups of constables searching for the murder victim in swamps and forests, their flashlights flickering in the twilight. It is Johnson, of course, who discovers the missing girl, Janie (Maxine Gordon), not murdered, but in fact alive and the victim of molestation; she cowers in fear and attempts to fight him off when he tries to comfort her. When Johnson finally succeeds in calming her down, he has lain his hands on her, in one of Lumet’s first direct comparisons between the police officer and the criminal he seeks to apprehend. He links them together physically, associating the brutality that each man’s hands can produce. The girl pleads with Johnson, shrieking “Don’t hurt me!” at him repeatedly, and though he insists he will not, it is clear that he intends to do real harm to the man who has violated her. Whether Johnson truly cares about the trauma she has endured is immaterial; her suffering is merely a conduit to the expression of his rage, an excuse to mete out his own brand of violent, retributive justice.
Lumet has covered this territory before, most notably with 12 Angry Men’s Juror 3 (Lee J. Cobb), whose motivations for convicting the defendant stem from his own fractured relationship with his son. Though Juror 3 is merely renting the justice system as a visiting participant fulfilling his civic duty by sitting on the jury, Johnson is a full-time employee who makes bending the system’s power to his will a way of life. He intimidates witnesses, chastises colleagues and explodes into contemptuous outbursts as a matter of course. Without the fury that drives him, Johnson believes he might be unable to do his job, a guiding force that anticipates the obsessive police detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), who tells his alienated wife Justine (Diane Venora) that he has to “hold on to my angst. It keeps me sharp.” Hanna, like Johnson before him, relies on the adrenaline of the job in order to achieve what he perceives as excellence in his field. By the end of Heat, Hanna’s professional goal, getting master thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) has been fulfilled, but his personal life is in shambles. Johnson is even closer to the edge of the precipice, his personal life a reflection of the rage that drives his work, as his bitter argument with his fed-up wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) demonstrates.
When the suspect in the child molestation case, a man named Baxter (Ian Bannen), is hauled in to the precinct, he is stashed in an ominous interrogation room that emphasizes the consistent importance of spaces in Lumet’s justice system films. As a longtime adapter of theatrical works (including The Offence), Lumet privileges stage-like sets that give his actors room to perform but also underline the relationship between people and their environments, a crucial dynamic in the justice films. Johnson’s battle of wits with Baxter plays out in a spacious room lit from above in a directed fluorescent glow that illuminates the table in the center of the room where the accused sits. Lumet, in reusing actor Ian Bannen, who played the more dignified and respectful of the guards in The Hill, re-stages the turf war between the corrupt power structure of the prison and its righteous criminal inmates, but flips the sides — now Connery is the abusive authority figure and Bannen is in the diminished, weakened position as an accused criminal. Johnson wastes no time in going to work on Baxter, aggressively grabbing his temples and squeezing within moments of beginning the interrogation. Before long, Baxter is taunting Johnson, calling him “a little man,” deliberately baiting the inspector into beating him bloody. When Johnson’s fellow officers interrupt the confrontation and wheel the injured Baxter out on a gurney, he clashes against the system’s bureaucratic muscle. His superior officer informs him that he is to be suspended from active duty, further marginalizing him from the case and ultimately frustrating his quest for cathartic, violent release. His sadism marks him as a profoundly disturbed character, a perception clearly shared by his fellow officers, who are shocked into silence.
Johnson’s isolation only grows, and it is when he is alone with his thoughts that Lumet gives aggressive, expressionistic voice to his inner fury, rapidly intercutting Johnson’s lonely drive away from the police station with a number of baroque, violently intrusive images: broken glass smeared with blood, a child’s wounded arm dangling out of a crib’s bars and, as a repeated refrain, an elevated train hurtling along on its tracks at a deafening volume. In this disconnected, abstract set of brutal shots that play out as a projected montage of humanity gone bad, Johnson seems overcome by the savagery of the world, “a demented slaughterhouse,” in the words of Howard Beale (Peter Finch), the stark raving newscaster of Lumet’s Network, to be released three years later in 1976. This sequence is among the most visually experimental in Lumet’s entire oeuvre, displaying an adventurousness that his tendency towards a mixture of documentary realism and tightly controlled mise-en-scène usually does not entertain. He shows willingness to use the power of cinema to free associate, which he again does in Johnson’s home; while Johnson grabs Maureen’s wrist before she can slap him in the heat of an argument, Lumet briefly inserts a shot of Baxter’s grinning, bloody face, complete with the glowing bullseye of light superimposed over the image, taking shape as the manifestation of Johnson’s boiling rage. When he confesses to Maureen that he feels something “dark and putrid” within him, he is again afflicted by visions of violence and brutality that haunted his drive home. Johnson’s house has offered no respite from the savagery because he carries it inside. It is as much a part of him as it is the world around him.
Johnson’s troubles escalate in The Offence when he becomes a suspect himself. He is informed by his fellow officers, who knock on his door, that Baxter has died in the hospital as a result of the injuries Johnson inflicted. After he is taken down to the station and installed in an interrogation room, which Lumet deliberately shoots to recall the previous scene where the same was done to Baxter, Johnson meets Cartwright (Trevor Howard), the man investigating the killing. While Johnson attempts to explain his side of the story to Cartwright, his hands nervously clench and unclench, Connery’s knuckles frequently going white with tight pressure, the actor capturing the coiled fury that runs through the character’s veins. Lumet emphasizes the brutality in Johnson’s hands when Connery thrusts them up into the frame, and suddenly Lumet cuts to a point of view shot from Johnson’s perspective, his open hands in the foreground, framing a surprised, threatened Cartwright. Lumet then free associates once more, snapping quickly to a recalled image of the grinning, bloody Baxter with the bullseye of light around his face. The psychological association between Johnson’s hands and the recall of his beating of Baxter draws a direct line to the lingering memory of sadistic violence. Instantly, Johnson’s physical sensations return to the moment of violent expression.
As Cartwright turns the screws on Johnson in the interrogation room, he emphasizes the role of doubt, which clashes mightily with the inspector’s certainty over Baxter’s guilt. Cartwright is less certain that Baxter is guilty, and insists that Johnson cannot possibly know that Baxter committed the crime. While Cartwright shouts Johnson down, Lumet cuts back to a moment from Johnson’s discovery of Janie in the woods, his hands reaching down to restrain her. Again, his hands feature prominently in the images as they drift into the frame, grabbing Janie and holding her down (as Baxter, or whomever committed the assault, surely must have done). Lumet rhymes the moment again when Johnson, desperate to prove his innocence, grabs Cartwright’s wrists and holds them tight before the investigator tosses him off, knocking Johnson to the ground, screaming “Let go!,” just as Janie had when the inspector found her nestled in the trees. The images in the sequence in the interrogation room between Cartwright and Johnson most obviously carry the legacy of Lumet’s visual strategy in 12 Angry Men, which gradually tightened the framing in an effort to ratchet up the tension within the contentious jury room. This time, with only two men to work with for an extended sequence, whose shifts in time are marked by dissolves, Lumet likewise packs the frame with deep-focus shots where both men are clearly visible. They trade foreground and background positions as their verbal chess match displays shifting balances of power, with each man losing his temper at key moments. In fact, Cartwright’s occasionally explosive outbursts reflect Lumet’s suggestion that the rage simmering in Johnson afflicts the entire police force, if the individual man can be pushed far enough.
The Offence’s centerpiece — the interrogation room confrontation between Johnson and Baxter — is doled out in small bits at first, but finally receives full and open treatment in the final third of the running time. For Lumet, usually a filmmaker who eschews non-linear storytelling in favor of classically-designed arcs, this represents yet another flirtation with surrealism. The film opens with an esoteric, slow-motion reveal of the aftermath of Johnson’s beating of Baxter without offering context before looping back to the main narrative’s true inciting incident, the discovery of Janie’s abduction and her eventual rescue. In The Offence’s first police-precinct section, Lumet shows the interrogation room scene only in fleeting glimpses, instead cutting to the other officers elsewhere in the building who overhear the beating take place and eventually rush in to stop it. In withholding the full scene until the last third of the film, after Johnson has defended himself to Cartwright against the accusation of murder, Lumet throws previously established perceptions of each man’s conduct into doubt.
In the full scene, Johnson’s hands once again dominate the images, this time taking on an unmistakably sexual component as the inspector psychologically manipulates his suspect by reversing their relative positions; Johnson runs his hands over Baxter’s chest as he imagines the rapist must have done to Janie, compelling him to occupy the point of view of the victim. That Johnson is remarkably comfortable adopting the aggressor’s vantage point lends credence to Baxter’s assertion that “Nothing I have done can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.” The long conversation between the two men reveals that Johnson may be more in control of his violent temper than The Offence initially lets on, as he carefully attempts to manipulate Baxter into confessing his crime, first through physical violence and intimidation before segueing into personal identification and shared connection. Baxter, Johnson’s obvious double (they share similar mustaches and are linked elsewhere through imagery), sees through the detective’s tactics and mocks him openly, laughing and calling him “pathetic.” Baxter’s provocation sends Johnson over the edge — when Johnson calls him a “pervert,” Baxter coyly responds, “Takes one to know one.” In the final analysis, it is Johnson’s recognition of himself in Baxter that leads to his loss of control. He must destroy what he is unwilling to believe, and regardless of Baxter’s guilt or innocence, the suspect has discovered something that Johnson fears to be true about himself. Johnson succumbs, confessing to Baxter the things he sees in his head, the succession of horrible images, begging the suspect, “Help me!” When Baxter, who has had enough, insists, “Help your bloody self!,” Johnson finally loses control and begins the fatal beating. When he throws the first punch, Lumet calls forth the bullseye of light once more, which frames the remainder of the assault. Johnson confesses the whole truth to his colleagues: “I had to kill him,” he says.
For a filmmaker usually so concerned with the social causes of injustice, The Offence is remarkably focused on the troubled psychology of its central character. It is Lumet’s most disturbing and experimental justice film (probably of all his works), and one of his most severely pessimistic. And despite this adjusted focus, The Offence retains Lumet’s general approach to the justice system as he strives to depict a character in tension with the institution to which he belongs. The police force, especially in England, has no place for a renegade police detective with a predilection for beating and murdering suspects. Such a vigilante seems ill-suited to the English genre film, certainly in contrast to American films then exploring the same character type in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), starring Clint Eastwood as the half-cop, half-killer, and the reckless, breakneck madness of “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971). Whether ignoring suspects’ civil rights and gunning them down like Harry Callahan or endangering the lives of civilians in high-speed car chases like Doyle, the American vigilantes commanded respect — they violated the system’s rules, but in the service of higher pursuits. Lumet is not so generous to Johnson, whose personality is so defined by sadistic brutality that it has no redeeming, leavening characteristics to offset it. Johnson, ultimately crushed by the system, has it coming. In The Offence, the first of Lumet’s two 1973 films about the justice system, the police officer is justifiably ground down into dust by an institution that seems like it has carried out a fair punishment, although it may have failed to offer a reasonable solution to the problem of sadists who populate it. The second of his justice films to be released that year was Serpico, which takes a decidedly different tack.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.