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Saturday Night at the Movies

By Owen Hatherley.

It’s a truism that it often takes an outsider to truly find what is intriguing and unusual in a place, and for a time that was certainly the case with British film – and especially with the British city over the last half-century. We like to think of our cities as ‘crap towns’, nondescript wastelands except for the designated heritage or regeneration zones, and our films reflect this. It wasn’t always thus. In the ’60s and ’70s various non-UK directors, from Kubrick in Thamesmead to Antonioni in the Smithsons’ Economist Building, to Truffaut in the Alton Estate, ventured into the concrete cities we were building and, rather than harrumphing about the eyesores, found something darkly fascinating. Thus it occurred that The Offence, a veritable slab block of high modernist noir directed by a respected American auteur, was filmed in Bracknell New Town, Berkshire.

This might be a depiction of a new town, but it’s a million miles from the poignantly lovely Cumbernauld of Gregory’s Girl, or today’s austerity nostalgia. Sidney Lumet’s film is a depiction of a heartless, mean-spirited country in the midst of a collective nervous breakdown – where mental collapse is transliterated into Bracknell’s new spaces. Sean Connery, playing a brutal, tortured murder policeman, chases a criminal across the multi-level concourses of a modernist shopping precinct, investigates the murder of a young girl in the vast voids of a new low-rise housing estate, and lives in a slick, all mod cons apartment in Royal Point, a polygonal tower designed by Ove Arup. Throughout, the architecture itself creates tension, its straight lines running against Connery’s fraying psyche.

In the sequence here, we have all the familiar paraphernalia of the British city, a landscape now fit only for the dispiriting opening credits of The Office or the establishing shots of cheap, unfunny sitcoms, turned through Lumet’s eyes into a noir landscape as murky, intriguing and bleak as any in the paranoid masterpieces of Alan J Pakula, partly by making adroit use of a perennial of the British landscape – appalling weather.

There’s no cute period music here, no signifiers of 70s kitsch, but a ruthlessly atonal, crepuscular score by Harrison Birtwistle, made even more alien by punctuating electronics by Peter Zinovieff. Birtwistle once described his musical approach as being like a walk round the city, so it’s appropriate that these stabs and harsh, seedy atmospheres accompany a ride round the endless ringroads of the new town and through the protagonist’s mind – a montage of memories, all equally horrible. We start in a rain-soaked, geometrically severe carpark, and linger on lurid blue streetlights and rainsoaked asphalt. An old British Rail train slashes across these sequences, until a body is retrieved from the railway bridge. We have a montage of corpses, in debris-strewn rooms or in tangled woodlands. Eventually the policeman returns to an elegantly sinister carpark much like the first, and enters his luxury apartment.

Needless to say, The Offence was criticised by British critics for being too ‘arty’. It was a commercial failure.

First posted: Saturday, July 11th, 2009.

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