Weekend Film Recommendation: The Offence

Sean Connery’s gives perhaps his best performance in the powerful 1972 Sindey Lumet film The Offence

Howard ConneryThe James Bond films made Sean Connery an international superstar, but presented him few challenges as an actor. In the midst of Bondmania, desperate to avoid typecasting and to take on more substantial roles, Connery began collaborating with Director Sidney Lumet. This resulted in one financially successful and entertaining film (The Anderson Tapes), but more importantly led to Connery turning in two critically-praised, Oscar-worthy performances that hardly anyone saw. The first was in one of my prior film recommendations, The Hill. The second was in this week’s film recommendation: The Offence.

The back story of this far-too-rarely-seen 1972 movie reveals much of Connery’s psychology at the time, as well as his star power. He had walked away in disgust from the Bond enterprise, and his replacement (George Lazenby, not as bad an actor as reputed but also no Connery) had not had the same box office draw. United Artists was so desperate for their superstar’s return to Bondage that they offered him whatever he wanted. He could have insisted on the world’s biggest paycheck, but instead he demanded that United Artist support two low-budget art house films! One was to be a Connery-directed adaptation of Macbeth, which would have been a Scottish treat and was unfortunately never made. The other was The Offence, which everybody concerned made for art’s sake because they knew there was no way in the world this film would garner even 1% of the box office receipts of the Bond films. The modestly-paid cast and crew worked like dogs to complete the entire shoot in less than a month (Connery himself allegedly put in up to 20 hours a day). The resulting labor of love is a shattering cinematic experience.

The plot centers on disillusioned, angry and unstable Detective Sergeant Johnson (Connery). In the visually distorted, almost dissociative opening sequence that reflects the tortured workings of his mind, the audience sees that Johnson has just beaten a suspected child molester. He snaps out of his rage and realizes what he has done, but it’s too late. The suspect is being taken to hospital and may well die. We then learn the background: A child molester has been victimizing girls and getting away with it time and again despite the efforts of the police. Another girl is kidnapped and raped, but ultimately found by Sergeant Johnson. But rather than regard him as a rescuer, she reacts in terror to him, leading something inside him to snap. The smug, posh suspect who is eventually brought in gets under Johnson’s skin even more, causing him to lose control, although we do not learn the reasons why until the film’s devastating final act.

After this opening, the movie then turns into a three-act play, with each act being a two-hander (This staginess is the film’s only flaw; given more time and money I suspect Lumet could have escaped the story’s playhouse origins as he did in other films adapted from the stage). First is Connery and his long-suffering wife (Vivien Merchant), then Connery and the investigating senior officer (Trevor Howard), and finally Connery with the suspect (Ian Bannen).

The acting in these three scenes is a revelation. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Offence”

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Untouchables

Brian De Palma’s “The Untouchables” is fantastic update of old time gangster movies with knockout performances by Robert De Niro and Sean Connery

sean-connery-as-jim-malone-in-the-untouchablesMany classic TV shows have been made into dreadful movies, but Brian De Palma came up aces in 1987 when he made this week’s film recommendation: The Untouchables.

The plot: Naive treasury agent Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner) comes to Prohibition-era Chicago to do battle with bootlegger, murderer and king of the gangsters Al Capone (Robert De Niro). Realizing that the police and politicians are all corrupted by Capone, Ness assembles his own team of “untouchable” agents who can’t be bought. His squad is anchored by a cynical, over-the-hill beat cop named Jim Malone (Sean Connery), who teaches him how the game is played in the Windy City. The two of them and their fellow untouchables embark on an epic confrontation with powerful, violent mobsters and a legal system that is rotten from top to bottom.

The key theme of the film is voiced by Connery, in one of the many scenes where he virtually acts the bland Costner right off the screen: What are you prepared to do? The basic tension of David Mamet’s crackerjack script derives from the fact that the good guys can’t win without breaking the rules they have sworn to uphold. This adds moral weight to a story that is also packed with thrilling action sequences and powerful dramatic moments.

De Palma often echoes classic films in his movies, and The Untouchables is no exception. A spectacularly executed shoot-out sequence in Union Station is an homage to the equally brilliant Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin. Although I don’t know for sure, I believe the first scene of the movie, in which a terrified barber reacts to having nicked Capone’s face while shaving him, is an echo of one of the opening scenes of a prior RBC recommendation: The Chase. De Palma makes these allusions is such a way that you don’t have to get them to enjoy the film, but if you do it’s even more fun.

This was a big budget Hollywood film and it shows in every scene. The set design and art direction are darbs, and the period cars, clothes and architecture are the cat’s meow. Producer Art Linson is a Chicago native, and clearly knew where to spend money to bring the Prohibition Era alive. To top it all off, Ennio Morricone contributes one of the most memorable and evocative scores of the 1980s.

deniroOther than Costner, who is painfully weak here, the entire cast explodes. But even in that field, Connery and De Niro tower over everyone with powerhouse performances. Capone has been portrayed many times on film, but never in such a scary fashion. In De Niro’s hands, he is a man who can go from mirth and charm to murderous rage with no warning, and the viewer fully appreciates why all of his underlings tiptoe around him.

Connery, who won a long-overdue Oscar for playing Malone, also tears up the screen. His Malone is world-weary and tough yet also capable of wit and even a sort of gentleness (His big brother-little brother relationship to Andy Garcia’s rookie cop is perfectly played by the two actors). Because he became famous playing James Bond, it took Connery a long time to convince people that he really is a fine actor. I have commended his strong performances in RBC recommendations many times, including in The Hill and Outland. He triumphs again in The Untouchables, one of many reasons to see this near-perfect update of classic cops-versus-gangsters television shows and movies.

Weekend Film Recommendation: The Frightened City

Happy birthday to Herbert Lom, who turns 95 this coming Tuesday. Born in Prague under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he achieved screen immortality as the Chief Inspector whom Clouseau slowly drives mad in the Pink Panther films. But before that did excellent work in many high-quality films, most of which unfortunately are largely forgotten today. I have previously spotlighted his fine performance as the kindly, devout, ill-fated Gino in Hell Drivers. He has a completely different role as a cold, clever and super-smooth criminal mastermind in this week’s film recommendation: 1961’s The Frightened City.

The Frightened City is a B-movie which doesn’t pretend to be otherwise. The budget is modest and so are the ambitions. But on those terms it delivers as a solid crime melodrama with a great starring role for Lom and excellent supporting work by Alfred Marks and a then little known Scottish actor who was only a year away from becoming an international superstar: Sean Connery.

The film is set in the London criminal underworld. A wily financier (Lom, conveying the calm of the truly powerful in every scene) figures out that the six biggest gangs could enhance the revenue of their protection rackets by organising themselves as a syndicate. He convinces one gangster (an agreeably lubricious Alfred Marks) to head the syndicate, who in turn recruits a former burglar (Connery) to be the face of the mob to the shops, pubs and restaurants it extorts. All goes well until the gang falls out, leading to a murder that throws the syndicate into turmoil and gives a dogged Scotland Yard detective inspector (John Gregson) the chance he needs to pounce.

The secondary plotline concerns Yvonne Romain as a luscious, ambitious immigrant singer who catches Connery’s eye. They have great chemistry on screen, and the script does a gratifying job of making her craftier than him rather than portraying her as a brainless tart (funnily enough Romain’s real-life husband went on to write the lyrics of several of Connery’s Bond films, including Goldfinger). The other engaging aspect of the story is Connery’s relationship to his former burglary partner (well-played by Kenneth Griffith), who has been crippled in a fall during an attempted break-in. Connery skillfully conveys the guilt he feels about the accident, and how it drives him into the hands of the new, more violent crew who are running the protection racket.

The film is not without weaknesses. Some of the sets look cheap, probably because they are. The script underdevelops its theme of how crime was changing to become more violent and organised and thereby outpacing long-standing law enforcement tactics. As a result, the scenes with the police are a bit slow and stale. And John Lemont’s direction is more reminiscent of a TV show than a movie (on the plus side, if you watch this on DVD instead of in a theater, you are not missing anything). For those reasons, the film goes into the good rather than great category.

As a closing note: Norrie Paramor’s jazzy title song became a big hit for Britain’s premier instrumental group of the era, the Shadows. Just for fun, you can see their totally pukka rendition of the theme on Crackerjack. Love those suits and dance steps!