Actually, make that a four-hander. Following a brief introductory sequence detailing a stakeout at a local school (a child molester is going about his bad business in the area) and the subsequence disappearance of a young girl, what follows is three extended sequences that play off Sergeant Johnson (Connery) against his long-suffering wife Maureen (Vivien Merchant), his irascible superior Detective Superintendent Cartwright (Trevor Howard), and the inscrutable Kenneth Baxter (Ian Bannen), the man arrested on suspicion of abducting the girl. The opening frames make it clear that Johnson beats the shit out of Baxter during an utterly unorthodox interrogation. Lumet plays the interrogation scene twice, the first time riddled with lacunae. Baxter is carted off to hospital and Johnson placed under suspension.
Lumet leaves the exact nature of the Johnson/Baxter mano-a-mano under wraps, with Johnson eking out precious few details to Maureen during their argument when he returns home and hits the bottle. This sequence features an astounding five minute monologue when Maureen tries to get her curmudgeonly husband to open up about the job and the things that are turning him into a distant and unfeeling stranger; Johnson responds with a sustained rant detailing the worst cases he’s worked on and the appalling things he’s seen. It’s a powerhouse verbal set-piece and Connery pulls it off with jaw-dropping intensity.
The contrast between Johnson’s vacillation from bullying to ingratiation (he seems to be working a one-man good cop/bad cop routine) and Baxter’s whiny but insistent needling provides the dynamic. The end result is inevitable, but it’s how Lumet (working from a script by John Hopkins, based on his own stage play) arrives at the final outburst of violence that ups the ante on the discomfort.
‘The Offence’ isn’t an easy film to watch. Lumet reinforces the staginess of the source material rather than trying to open it out. The locations are glum. The characters are deeply flawed and extremely hard to empathise with. There’s violence without catharsis, revelation without explanation. Whether Baxter is ultimately guilty is never resolved. He’s arrested on very little basis, denied all rights and treated shoddily by even the most journeyman of the coppers, even before the indignant and dangerously edgy Johnson gets in on the act. There’s a telling moment when Johnson and his colleagues lay odds on Baxter being the guilty party, based on nothing more than the look of him. So is Johnson judge, jury and executioner, or the opposite side of the coin to Baxter? Is guilt individual or collective? The film probes hard and deep and finds only more questions as the layers are peeled away.