Here is the last night’s Cine-Files talk in text format… Next month’s Cine-Files will be a special double bill of Maltese Falcons from 1931 and 1941, with an illustrated talk from David Leicester sandwiched in between.
“Good evening and welcome to Quad for the latest presentation in our regular Cine-Files series. At the moment CineFiles is examining the history of the crime genre, and last month Alex Rock was here to introduce BRIGHTON ROCK, a very controversial item in its day but now regarded as something of a classic of British cinema.
Our offering tonight – and it’s a rare chance indeed to see this in a movie theatre – has rather taken an opposite journey. We’re screening Sidney Lumet’s 1972 police drama THE OFFENCE, which at the time of its release was a fairly prestigious project, seen as Sean Connery’s bid to ‘go legit’ after years of guns, gals, and spy thrills in the annual Bond outings; but which nowadays, despite these times of tabloid hysteria and Operation Yewtree, seems to have been elbowed out of sight by commentators on British film.
A few weeks ago Alex gave a potted history of the postwar UK crime movie, and for those who couldn’t make it for BRIGHTON ROCK you can read his comments and thoughts on QUAD’s own ‘The Fringes’ blog. I’ll take up the baton tonight and examine how things had developed by the early seventies. 1971 and 1972 represent an era where things got gritty, down and dirty for our on-screen crooks, hitmen, and general ne’er do wells. Look, for instance, at how Michael Caine, the lad about town from ALFIE, carried his jokey, cocky ‘wink and a smile’ persona into the heist genre with THE ITALIAN JOB, yet within three years had followed up with the flipside of the crime coin – his mean, focused, vicious and determined antihero in GET CARTER became a template for the depiction of this type of character in our homegrown underworld dramas, and Caine’s beautifully-played ambiguity extended this influence; later figures like Oliver Reed’s brutish Harry Lomart in SITTING TARGET probably couldn’t have happened without GET CARTER, but neither could John Thaw’s flawed detective inspector Jack Regan in tv’s ‘The Sweeney’, nor Stacey Keach’s sozzled ex-copper Jim Naboth in 1977’s terrific THE SQUEEZE.
Rumour had it at the time that police corruption was rife, a claim somewhat borne out by subsequent historic revelations and usually depicted as plain and simple fact by productions as varied as THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY, HOT FUZZ, and the small screen’s ‘Red Riding’ and ‘Our Friends In The North’; meanwhile, villains both actual and fictional often earned reputations as benevolent figures or forward-thinking business developers, resorting to extreme violence only among their own and when absolutely necessary. It can be a thin line between maintaining and breaking the law, and THE OFFENCE skirts this territory with immense skill, although doing it in very much its own way.
As is well known, Sean Connery had been cast as Ian Fleming’s super spy James Bond in the smash hit series which defined a certain strand of British cinema throughout the 1960s. Disillusioned with the role and seeking other opportunities to stretch his talent, Connery quit Bond after YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE in 1967, but after the perceived failure of George Lazenby to step into his shoes in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and Lazenby’s own disenchantment with the way he’d been treated by his producers and director, Connery was enticed back into the role for 1971’s DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER. Connery held all the cards, and demanded a fee of £1.25 million (equivalent to £20 million+ today) and for United Artists to fund and produce two projects of his own choosing. Connery wanted to direct and star in a version of ‘Macbeth’ – however, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of the same source material scuppered plans to tackle the Scottish Play. Connery’s other proposal was for a screen version of John Hopkins’ stage drama ‘This Story of Yours’, to be directed by the American Sidney Lumet, who had previously worked with Connery on the sweaty, physically and mentally demanding wartime prison camp movie THE HILL. The result was THE OFFENCE – which, despite being one of its star’s lesser-known films, is almost certainly Connery’s finest hour. A quick flick through Connery’s filmography is revealing – in the wake of THE OFFENCE, he seems to have retreated into a world of fantasy, adventure, and derring-do, starring in John Boorman’s wild science fiction mindbender ZARDOZ, guesting in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, hitting the costume box for period epics like THE WIND AND THE LION and THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, taking the macho half of the two title roles from ROBIN AND MARIAN. A BRIDGE TOO FAR, METEOR, THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, OUTLAND, TIME BANDITS, on and on, all leading to the perhaps inevitable return to his most famous character in NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN. Never again? Apt words in relation to THE OFFENCE, since after that movie Sean seemed to have purposely distanced himself from this type of searing, probing, just too revealing acting challenge, as though playing Detective Sergeant Johnson had left him drained, had really burrowed under his skin and into the darker recesses of his soul.
As I hinted earlier, we live in a world where our media and law enforcers appear to have elevated the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes and child abuse to hitherto unheard-of levels. The impression we are being given, not one that we should perhaps necessarily accept, is that a blind eye has been turned to such activity in the past, and that the supposed year-zero of the recent revelations concerning disc jockey Sir Jimmy Savile has opened up a floodgate. It’s a controversial and emotive subject, and you’ll all have your own views on the complexities of the issues involved. For tonight, and in the context of a film-related discussion, the only six-pennyworth I’ll throw in here is to point out that despite our newspapers, TV and other media outlets’ current obsession with exposing or reporting on historic cases of abusive behaviour, usually involving household celebrity names, modern cinema has been very, very reluctant to tackle the topic. The few recent movies of any profile on the subject have included THE WOODSMAN, with a sensitive and studied performance by Kevin Bacon as a reformed paedophile attempting to reintegrate himself into society, and LONDON TO BRIGHTON, with local actress Georgina Groome playing a runaway child taken under the wing of a hard-bitten prostitute but finding herself under threat from a powerful and wealthy crimelord with a disturbing penchant for under-age companionship. And don’t forget the high-profile, star-studded, Oscar-nominated and awards-laden NOTES ON A SCANDAL, with Cate Blanchett and Judi Dench – almost the ‘acceptable face’ of this type of drama. However, the theme of paedophilia and sex crimes involving children was a major strand of British film during the 1960s and early 70s. Consider also the sexualisation of young women in our movies – for instance, the two female stars of wholesome period children’s classic THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, Jenny Agutter and Sally Thomsett, appeared in provocative roles in, respectively, WALKABOUT and STRAW DOGS within months; while so-called ‘sexpots’ like Linda Hayden and Susan George played pouting, under-dressed and over-eager young ladies in numerous films during their mid-to-late teens.
A play by Roger Garis, ‘The Pony Cart’, was filmed by our horror specialists Hammer in 1960 under the title NEVER TAKE SWEETS FROM A STRANGER, a controversial offering in which two small girls are encouraged to dance naked before a mentally-challenged elderly man, who happens to be the near-untouchable head of a family who have built and developed the post-war new town providing employment and housing for many aspiring young families. The film addresses this conflict to startling effect, and although we viewers are always on the side of the tiny victim and her parents, we understand why the community as a whole rises against them to safeguard its own interests.
A pre-RAILWAY CHILDREN Jenny Agutter starred in 1969’s I START COUNTING, which like THE OFFENCE was partially filmed in Bracknell, and in which Jenny and her precocious school friend Clare Sutcliffe flirt with and tease the locals, while a savage sex attacker commits horrific assaults in a sinister subplot which inevitably collides with the main storyline by the close. Sidney Hayers directed the early 1970s pictures ASSAULT and REVENGE, a pair of unrelated but equally starkly-titled shockers – the former features Lesley Ann Down as a schoolgirl whose classmates are being waylaid and killed by a pervert as they walk home through the local woods; REVENGE, from ‘Carry On’ producer Peter Rogers of all people, sees James Booth as a publican whose daughter has recently been murdered – determined to ensure the same fate doesn’t befall his younger child, Booth and a gang from the pub set out to kidnap and imprison the shuffling, shambling weirdo who lives down the street, played by an excellent Kenneth Griffith. The conundrum here focuses on tensions and arguments as the inept abductors ponder whether or not they have, in fact, shut away an innocent man in the cellar of the property. Lesley Ann Down also starred in an outrageous-beyond-belief television play at this time, part of the BBC series ‘Out of the Unknown’ – the show, entitled ‘To Lay a Ghost’, sees her raped on her way home from school one evening; years later, and now a successful photographic model, Down and her husband move to a new country cottage home which they begin to suspect may be haunted. The outcome of this staggering slice of seventies telly is truly shocking in all sorts of ways, and most script editors or producers today would more than likely propel the screenplay towards the nearest waste-paper basket in appalled protest. Do try to catch this rarity if you can, it’s to be released by the British Film Institute for home viewing later this year and I can assure you that you won’t quite believe what you’re watching.
THE OFFENCE re-teamed director Sidney Lumet with two of the stars of THE HILL, Connery and Ian Bannen. Bannen had recently played the psychopathic menace terrorising Susan George in 1971’s FRIGHT, directed by THE ITALIAN JOB’s Peter Collinson, and was making a name for himself in this type of gibbering, hyper, on-the-edge character. If Connery gives a career-best performance in THE OFFENCE, Bannen is just as good, matching Sean step for step, perfectly cast as the taunting, sly, yet occasionally vulnerable and snivelling child molester ‘Baxter’. Kenneth Griffith’s suburban misfit in REVENGE works brilliantly in that movie as an almost symbolic figure, and you sometimes get the impression in THE OFFENCE that the same is true of Baxter – as Connery’s overworked, overwrought copper interrogates this wretch, and in the process becomes more and more tortured and wracked by his own peccadilloes and fantasies, might he be projecting and attributing aspects to his captive’s nature? Is Baxter truly his intellectual equal, or does Connery need to imagine as much simply in order to get through the interview, which seems to be more of an ordeal for him than it is for the accused? THE OFFENCE, like I START COUNTING, cages its physical atrocities somewhere in the background, but digs internally to exposes the sewer mind of both of its antagonists. What could easily have been presented as nothing more than a filmed play, a record of two talking heads screaming at one another, becomes intimate and intense in director Lumet’s hands. Writer Jonathan Rigby has described THE OFFENCE as being “a horror film in all but name”, and Fernando F. Croce of the Cinepassion blog points out that Johnson, the detective sergeant brought to troubled life with a weary reality by Connery, anticipates later Lumet cop psychology in the likes of SERPICO, PRINCE OF THE CITY and Q&A. So, for the next two hours, which I assure you will fly by in what seems more like two minutes, absorb yourselves in a police story quite unlike any other.
The next Cine-Files talk is on Sunday 22nd June and it is a double bill with an illustrated talk. The Maltese Falcon (1931) and The Maltese Falcon (1941), two great films and an illustrated talk for only £10. Tickets on sale via the QUAD Box Office and website soon.