The Offence (Lumet, 1972) and The Onion Field (Becker, 1979)

The Offence falls into a middling period for Sidney Lumet – years after The Pawnbroker and Fail-Safe, alongside another Sean Connery vehicle The Anderson Tapes (one of Christopher Walken’s early film roles), and before his best known works Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.  It’s an awesome film, billed as a 70s thriller, but very different than Lumet’s other that would fit that description or your French Connections and Laughing Policemans.

Connery plays Detective Sergeant Johnson, a stubborn cop who’s at the end of his rope in the midst of a child murderer/molester case.  Like other Lumet films, this is based off of a stageplay, and also like other Lumet films, there’s a definite sense of claustrophobia.

The Offence differs from other thrillers of the time in its one-man, psychological approach.  Though the crime seems to take center stage at the beginning as Johnson and other cops keep an eye on school children departing for home, that angle quickly goes away, and the bulk of the narrative takes place in an interrogation room and at Johnson’s home: both are opportunities to show Johnson’s slow deterioration and both showcase Connery’s skills outside of the James Bond role he had played several times prior to 1972.

Here’s one of the best moments of the film.  It’s early on (the first 20 minutes) and the police are out in force searching for a missing girl.  Johnson finds her.  Lumet shoots the scene somewhat tenderly at first, as Johnson, in close-up, leans over her trying to comfort her:

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Lumet cuts out to a wide shot as Johnson rolls the girl onto his jacket to warm her up, and here things get odd.  The shots linger for too long, particularly Johnson’s closeup below, that seemed earlier to be fatherly affection, and now, by virtue of a strong performance and duration of shot, seems like it could be something more perverse:

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Lumet completes this idea at the end of the scene, which is beautifully done.  Flashlights illuminate Johnson’s face and he looks up with sheer terror…like a suspect…like he’s been caught doing something wrong:

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The cut out to the wide-shot, with the police in the background, and Johnson eventually rising into the foreground almost feels at first like a freeze-frame.  I like how distant the rest of the cops are, like they’re witnessing a horrific act that they don’t want to get close to.  When Johnson stands into the foreground the lens flares feel like police sirens shrouding his head:

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All of this is intentional of course, and Lumet uses it to his advantage in the fine final scene of the film, where Johnson’s mindset really comes into play.  Connery’s performance is probably the best I’ve seen him give.  It’s believable and harrowing.  And when he plays opposite his wife, Maureen (Vivien Merchant), to whom he’s verbally abusive, it’s downright heartbreaking and a nice parallel to his interrogation.

The Onion Field

I really wanted to watch this film for James Woods in one of his early leading film roles.  The plot is based on the true story of Gregory Ulas Powell (Woods) who shoots and kills a policeman.  The film takes the form of both thriller and courtroom drama, and Woods doesn’t disappoint.  His Powell is a conniving intellectual hypocrite, and Woods really comes into his own – beyond roles in The Visitors and Night Moves – to encapsulate the character and initiate his acting style that we know today.

The problem is that nearly everything else about The Onion Field is unwatchable.  There’s good suspense during the murder sequence, but much of the acting outside of Woods and a capable Ted Danson is atrocious.  John Savage as Hettinger, the haunted, surviving cop, gives a ham-handed performance that seems to really, really want to be meaningful, but is unfortunately mostly laughable.

Eumir Deodato’s score is overwrought and poorly used, and the ending to the film, which should be a riveting climax, plays like a melodramatic joke.  In fact, were it not for Woods and the murder sequence, I’d probably strongly dislike this film.

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About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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