What About It?
The Offence is a masterful character piece by Lumet, the settings are spare and foreboding, highlighting the focus of the piece, which is Det. Johnson's conversations with others. The film was based on a play by John Hopkins and it retains the best qualities of a play while adding cinematic advantages, such as the long shot on the girl about to be abducted, illustrating what long odds the police force is working with, and adding some terrific detail to Johnson's flashbacks, giving us a graphic representation of the horrors he replays in his head.
Connery is at his best here. Just done with his James Bond roles, he has such an intimidating physicality that we believe he can knock a room full of police officers around without much trouble. We see the anger and frustration in his character in his casual conversations, along with the sense that we are only seeing the very surface of his dilemma. Connery stews and broods with force. His facial expressions are more than enough to show how close to the edge this character is. The fleeting look of panic in Johnson's eyes, when his fellow officer's find him comforting the little girl gives us a far more disturbing picture than I would think possible. Although he is doing nothing wrong, he is clearly concerned that others can see his thoughts.
Vivien Merchant is also terrific as Maureen, his wife who would really love to help him, but has no idea what she's dealing with. Her sincerity, offering to listen is as convincing as her disgust, retreating when she can't bear the details he shares with her. Johnson has kept his gory memories as a secret he treasures replaying again and again. They serve the dual purpose of keeping his anger going and masking deeper questions which he is only beginning to acknowledge. When he tells Maureen "You're not even pretty" he reveals that his desires are not something he understands anymore. He only knows that what he thought would work, no longer does, leaving a big question mark at the center of his being. When he says "You didn't make me happy." he isn't insulting her as much as he's realizing how far away he is from where he thought he would be in his marriage and in his life. When he accuses her of making Baxter happy (although she has no idea who Baxter is) he begins to reach his moment of realization, although it's clearly more than he can deal with. Baxter has nothing to do with it, but his emotions towards what Baxter represents (in himself) are the real threat to the idea of tranquility that he may have had years ago. To others, Maureen included, Johnson is a powerful bully, and he himself seems to enjoy forcing his will on all around him.
Trevor Howard is a great foil to Connery. His Lt. Cartwright treats Johnson with barely concealed contempt. He isn't intimidated and regards him as merely a job he has to do. When the bully in Johnson arises, Cartwright dismisses it as a nuisance. His insistence that he doesn't know what happened in the interrogation room, and thus needs Johnson's account, is damning to Johnson's insistence that he knows 100% that Baxter was the child rapist. This sentiment was brought up previously by Lt. Cameron, who asked "How can you be sure." When Johnson justifies his gut instinct by claiming he's dealt with hundreds of such cases, Cartwright counters by reminding him that he has never had Baxter in an interrogation room before, and thus can't possibly have known for sure. Johnson has no defense against Cartwright, who rejects his every justification for his actions, notably the notion that he is the only one who lives with these memories and thoughts, pointing out that they all do, but most of them don't live in them finding ways to divide work from the rest of their lives. Cartwright is always in control, and the threat of force which Johnson has learned to rely on is completely dismantled, illustrated very well by Cartwright forcing him to let go of his wrists, sending Johnson falling ungracefully to the floor.
The main conversation however is the one between Johnson and Baxter. Showing selected scenes from the interrogation and then revealing the full scene at the end of the film has an interesting effect, changing a typical attempted forced confession scene to a deeply disturbing moment of revelation and self revulsion. Ian Bannen is superb in his portrayal of an odd, decidedly creepy suspect who is well acquainted with being bullied. His masochistic outlook towards this is perhaps something that Johnson has never encountered, presenting the bully as one who gives him pleasure, by needing him as the object of "affection." It's never revealed definitively that Baxter is the child rapist, but Johnson's thoughts reveal that he is lost to urges that he can't explain. While he may not be a pedophile, he has fantasies which place him only a step away.
Baxter witnesses Johnson completely losing hold of his grasp on sanity and alternately pities and mocks Johnson for his predicament, speaking frankly only when he realizes that Johnson does not intend to let him leave the room intact. Johnson pleading for Baxter to help him is a truly moving scene, showing all of his strength and defenses as utterly useless. He's no better than the child rapist and when Baxter says "I would not have your thoughts" we can't help but see his point. Johnson is a building about to implode, tormented from so many different directions that he couldn't begin to choose one to focus on. Baxter perhaps underestimates the danger present in the midst of Johnson's breakdown, and his revulsion towards Johnson's pitiful state is enough to trigger a last fatal act of violence.
While on the surface "The Offence" appears to be a police movie, the case is nothing but a way to illustrate how fragile the psyche can be and how intricate and flawed our defenses are. Johnson wrestles his demon's all by himself until they're too much for anyone to help him with. His "toughness" is what secures his fate. He believes that he is powerful, and his job gives him a sense of rightness, but he remains unfulfilled. He is unable to give voice to his struggle until alone in a room with a man who represents what he thinks he despises, he realizes that his trouble is deeper than he ever admitted, only because the bullying he's come to rely on is proven useless and in fact turned against him. Sadly, his bullying (and reactions to it) has become the one constant in his life and without it, he's forced to evaluate everything he thought he could keep submerged, finding that he himself is the monster he has always despised.
Detective Sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery) has been doing police work for over twenty years. During that time he's seen some horrific things that he can't shake from his memory. The best he can do is focus on putting the bad guys away. However, a real danger when dealing with the darker elements of society is the effect it has on you. As Nietchze said "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster."
The Offence begins with the police station in a panic, with an officer running for help in slow motion, his expression indicating that something terrible has happened. We find Sergeant Johnson in an interrogation room, fighting with fellow officers attempting to restrain him. He then looks around in disbelief, perhaps realizing what he's done, saying "God, Oh my God."
We then flash back to Johnson and some fellow officers staking out a schoolyard hoping to catch a glimpse of a child abductor/rapist. Johnson walks the area while his other officers wait in a car. He catches suspicious glances from parents waiting outside the fenced in yard to claim their children. They aren't aware that he's a cop, only that a strange man is lurking near the schoolyard. A group of kids walking home is escorted a safe distance away, although one of the girls is shown leaving the group to head towards her own house. Getting in the car with the other officers, Johnson establishes very early that he's frustrated and isn't satisfied with police efforts.
One of the girls is abducted nonetheless, a short time after leaving the safety of the group. She is quickly reported missing and a search party is organized. It's Sgt. Johnson who finds the girl in the woods. She screams when he finds her, still in shock, screaming. She's been raped, clothes torn and covered in mud. Johnson comforts her, quieting her down, wraps her in his coat. He seems to visualize the abductors actions almost putting himself in the criminal's place. He's panicked when the moment is broken by the search party finding them, acting for a moment, startled, as if he himself is the rapist. He insists on escorting the girl to the hospital, snapping at his Lieutenant Cameron (Peter Bowles) who tells him the girl is not in any state to handle questions. He's furious when a possible witness comes in to file a report, twenty hours late. Officers are directed to search everywhere for the rapist.
Other officers later pick up Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen) for the crime when they find him covered in mud and scratched up, wandering around town, barely coherent. When Cameron's questioning goes nowhere, they decide they can't charge him. Johnson is somehow 100% certain that Baxter is their man, although Cameron reminds him that "you can't be certain. Even you can make mistakes." Johnson gets agitated convinced that Baxter is laughing at them.
He takes the opportunity to question the suspect himself (although he is completely unauthorized to do so) Johnson has decided that this man is the culprit and can't bear to think of him going free. Johnson brings Baxter a cup of tea and finds his attitude has become more resistant to questioning. He begins pressuring Baxter, manhandling him and intimidating him in any way that he can. Cameron is directed to charge him or let him go, unaware that Johnson has started his own questioning. Johnson starts hitting Baxter and Baxter, tries to get to another door to escape the room angering Johnson even more. Cutting between the station and the questioning we find Baxter more bloody and beaten each time. The officers respond to screams and we find Johnson called out to sign a statement, then suspended and directed to go home until he's called. Cameron mentions that it's unlikely Baxter will live.
Johnson drives home. and his mind starts recalling graphic and bloody images from past cases. We see him in beat cop uniform uncovering a particularly gory murder, which expands to include many other brutal scenes including a man falling from a rooftop and a body hanging from a tree in the woods. At home he heads straight for the liquor and starts drinking. His wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant) wakes up due to the noise he makes. She's initially angry that he's drunk and has broken her China doll. He remarks on seeing her in her bathrobe "You're a mess! What happened to you? You never used to be such a mess." He tells her he may have killed a man, and explains that pain was the only thing the man understood. He talks about the girl who is also in the hospital, and when Maureen says "at least she's alive"
He starts recalling other cases saying "I've seen them dead too you know." Maureen reminds him that he's not on his own. He says "Why aren't you beautiful. You're not even pretty." She continues attempting to help him, but he says he's always made a point of not talking to her." "Who will you talk to then?" she asks. He starts rambling about the images in his head that he can't stop, going into graphic detail about victims of brutal crimes, his anger building with each detail. Maureen can't take the details and runs off to be sick. Angry that she couldn't listen after offering, he holds her down telling her "You promised to make me happy and you didn't" revealing his frayed sanity by implying that Baxter was the person she made happy. Fortunately for Maureen, the outburst is interrupted by the Cameron, who tells him he has to return to the station as Baxter has died in the hospital.
Johnson meets with Lt. Cartwright (Trevor Howard) at the station, who is charged with performing an inquiry into the murder and obtaining the truth. Johnson attempts to describe the interrogation, but is cautioned by Cartwright when he starts describing what was going on in Baxter's mind. Johnson loses his temper several times with Cartwright, which doesn't seem to intimidate him in the least. Cartwright insists that Johnson can't know that Baxter was guilty. Johnson insists that he does know, and recalls his own handling of the girl in the woods to calm her down. "What's happening to me?" he asks Cartwright, describing all the disturbing pictures in his mind, revealing that he can vividly see the incident through Baxter's eyes. He grabs Cartwright's arms roughly but Cartwright forces him off and gets him to attempt to recount the scene. Johnson implies that Cartwright can deal with things more easily, because he doesn't get his hands dirty, having subordinate officers find the bodies. Cartwright takes offense reminding him that they've all had to do these things. Johnson keeps visualizing the girl again as is he were Baxter (with his own face) imagining her happy as he approaches in the woods and touches her face. Cartwright concludes that he has what he needs and as he's escorted down the hall, we see a flashback to the full interrogation scene.
Johnson asks about Baxter's marriage, complaining that his own wife in bed seems like she's "doing him a favor" Baxter explains that in his marriage there are other things that are more important. Baxter then refuses to discuss his wife, threatening to report Johnson and talk to his lawyer. When Baxter stands up offended at a comment. Johnson starts handling him, comparing his handling to how he handled the girls. He makes Baxter very uncomfortable reaching his hands beneath Baxter's jacket in a clearly intrusive way. He tells Baxter that he'll make him feel like the little girls. He strikes Baxter and tells him to get up. Baxter tells him he's mad. Johnson's explanations of Baxter's actions, make it increasingly clear that his own repressed desires are angering him more than what Baxter may have done. Baxter exclaims "You sad, sorry little man." prompting Johnson to strike him again. Baxter realizes that Johnson won't let him leave, Baxter starts speaking personally telling Johnson that he's always felt alone. He recounts a bully from high school, and the feeling he got from being bullied, that the bully "needed him" saying that this gave him pleasure and the bully never knew that Baxter was "having him." Johnson starts laughing hysterically when Johnson segues from the bullying into asking if his father was a big man. When he can't stop laughing Johnson says "Do you think you're having me?" Baxter calls him pathetic which prompts another beating. Baxter exclaims "I know you!"
When Johnson begins thrashing him again Baxter says "Nothing I've done can be half as bad as the thoughts in your head. I wouldn't have your thoughts." Johnson calms down momentarily as if he's had a realization while listening to Baxter. Baxter puts on his coat as if to leave, but Johnson asks Baxter to help him with the thoughts in his head, recounting some of them as he squeezes Baxter's hand. He sobs "Help me." but tired of having his hand squeezed, Baxter yells "Help you bloody self!" which prompts the final beating.
Johnson recounts the scene as he waits saying "He knew. I had to kill him." We then arrive back at the beginning seeing Johnson fight off his fellow officers and coming to his senses saying "God, oh my God."