James Bond is dead. Long live James Bond.
Sir Thomas Sean Connery passed away in The Bahamas yesterday, after a battle with dementia. He was 90.
It goes without saying that as an actor Sean Connery often portrayed thrusting, virile heroes, and will, of course, be remembered most for his role as the ultimate British secret agent 007 and his signature line, “Bond — James Bond.”
During his tenure at MI6, Connery was the epitome of the suave but dangerous spy with a licence to kill and the authority to flaunt his famously hairy chest in the process.
But the thrifty, tough talking Scot, who was once crowned the Sexiest Man of the Century, said he “hated that damned James Bond”. Or rather, he hated the media hullabaloo and hysteria that surrounds the world’s longest film franchise, felt he wasn’t paid what he should have been, and fought hard to escape the typecasting that often limits an actor who steps into such an iconic role.
At a time when most popular British thespians were known as Shakespearean-trained aesthetes, Connery became an international star with a screen presence that was earthier and sexier, an icon of mid-century manliness.
His glorious highland burr and and imposing physicality immediately drew eyes and ears, even when he was playing opposite some of the most accomplished and attractive performers of his generation.
With a solid and successful career spanning over five decades, after hanging up his holster as 007 Connery enjoyed a versatile career, playing a variety of man’s man roles that usually channeled his primal, Caledonian gruffness.
Like the actor that was portraying them, his characters were often this immensely watchable combination of no nonsense masculinity and charisma to burn — and almost always embracing his thick, oft-imitated Scottish brogue no matter who he played.
In other words, the kind of performer who could infuse roles with a certain kind of radiating, rough-and-tumble persona that you could only describe as Conneryesque.
Trying to sum up his own success, he told The New York Times:
“My strength as an actor is that I’ve stayed close to the core of myself, which has something to do with a voice, a music, a tune that is very much tied up with my background.”
“There are seven genuine movie stars in the world today, and Sean is one of them,” director Steven Spielberg said in the 1980s. Simply put, like Cary Grant or Marlon Brando before him, Sean Connery was one of these rare actors that you enjoyed watching in any film, good or bad. He had such a magnetic screen presence in all the roles he played — and that includes as himself — that any mediocre story or film would find itself elevated by his performance.
So, concentrating on the non-Bonds, here are ten of the best that pay tribute to Connery’s range and show how funny, dramatic, heroic, villainous, formidable and flawed his characters were once he got ahold of them.
But, most of all, this decet of essential Sean Connery movies demonstrate his towering screen presence and his ability to make virtually any part, big or small, seem larger than life. As that well-worn saying goes, they don’t make ‘em like that any more.
In one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more disturbing thrillers, Connery plays the wealthy Mark Rutland, drawn to his employee Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren), whom he knows to be psychologically damaged. Rutland endeavours to tame her and seduce her into his possession and eventual marriage, dedicating time and resources to fixing her wide range of problems — from kleptomania to a violent fear of sex.
Incidentally, master of suspense’s first choice to play the title role, Grace Kelly — twice a Hitchcock blonde in the 1950s but by then Princess Grace of Monaco — withdrew from the project when there were objections to her appearing in a film from the Monégasque citizens, and well as Connery’s future Nassau neighbour Prince Ranier III.
As played by a rather 007 looking Connery (written by the screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, adapting Winston Graham’s novel), Mark can be seen either as the kindly guardian of a troubled person or as a total sadist sicko who gets off on controlling someone too broken to fight back. The film was disliked by critics at the time of its release, but now enjoys a “retarded” reappraisal by critics and academics alike, according to Sean in the above interview.
It may not be Psycho or North By Northwest, but Marnie certainly stands as one of the most underrated in the Hitchcock canon. It also has the distinction of being the first non-Bond Connery filmed after becoming a superstar. And after his next film Goldfinger (also 1964), he never looked quite as Bondian again.
The Hill (1965)
While he was becoming one of the world’s most popular movie stars as 007, Sean consciously took roles in films that let him show different sides of his personality and talent. Released just a few months before Thunderball would become one of the highest grossing films of all time, The Hill’s director Sidney Lumet pushed the star to give his best performance of the 1960s in an adaptation of Ray Rigby’s play about a brutal British military prison designed to break the spirits of insubordinate soldiers.
In a complex study of how the values of strength and discipline sometimes conflict, Connery plays a former officer who challenges the authority of his jailers and becomes a hero to his fellow inmates.
Few of Sean’s roles were as out-there as Zed, the lead character of sci-fi acid nightmare Zardoz, and the first major film in which Connery was cast post-Bond. (He had essentially cast himself as a pedophile killer in the low budget neo noir drama The Offence a year earlier.)
The ambitious post-apocalyptic plot seemed at times beyond comprehension, and John Boorman, the film’s writer, producer and director, was hardly a help, later admitting that he himself didn’t understand parts of it).
I’ll give it a go, though.
In the 23rd century, humanity is divided into wasteland-dwelling lower classes and an aristocracy who calls the shots via a giant flying stone head named Zardoz that later turns out to be derived from The Wizard Of Oz.
Connery’s character one of the “exterminators” who keep the pesky plebeians in line; though after hiding out in a mammoth cranium and infiltrating the world of future patricians, Zed eventually becomes radicalised and helps lead a rebellion.
It’s even crazier than it sounds, and its status as both a campy cult classic and a funky ’70s science-fiction landmark is well-earned. And Sean somehow finds the exact wavelength needed to make this WTF movie work. Once you’ve seen that image of the star rocking a droopy Fu Manchu moustache, long braided ponytail, red mankini and thigh-high boots, it’s virtually impossible to forget it. Borat certainly didn’t.
Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
In Sidney Lumet’s hit adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie whodunit, Connery joins a formidable cast of international stars who fall under the penetrating gaze of celebrated Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played ever so slightly hammily by Albert Finney, who seemed to be channelling Kenny Everett’s Marcel Wave comedy character a good few years before the event.
Other than a passenger (Richard Widmark) is murdered on a train, there’s not much to Murder On The Orient Express as cinema since the bulk of the film involves Poirot interrogating the passengers one by one in the same train car. But it’s the ultimate brainteaser for amateur sleuths in the audience, even if they’re unlikely to see the big twist coming.
What’s more, with each of the suspects played by a major actor, Lumet reasoned the suspense of his murder mystery would be fuelled by the audience’s presumptions about each star. (Indeed, Kenneth Branagh did exactly the same thing when casting his 2017 remake.)
Connery was the first actor Lumet called, in part because the two got on famously but also because the director felt that if he could secure the biggest star first, the rest would fall into place.
As it turned out, the rest of the cast jumped at the chance to work with Lumet, among them Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sir John Gielgud. As the feisty Colonel Arbuthnot, our favourite canny Scotsman’s contract granted him a percentage of the box office takings as well as the $100,000 salary that his fellow cast members received.
Although it’s an ensemble-driven piece, it grants Connery a different kind of role again. The Colonel is a role he might have seemed too young to play in earlier years, but he plays it brilliantly here, showing off some subtle comic timing (that delicious pause when he clarifies Miss Debenham is NOT a woman… she’s a lady”) which he would expand upon in a few of his later roles.
Immensely entertaining and joyously rewatchable, Murder On The Orient Express was by far the best received of Lumet and Connery’s collaborations at the time of release.
Nominated for six Academy Awards (with Ingrid Bergman winning Best Supporting Actress for what amounted to five minutes of screentime), the film was a critical and commercial smash, becoming the first fully UK-financed film ever to top the weekly US box office chart.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
John Huston’s rousing, boys-adventure adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s novella paired Connery with Michael Caine — really, who better to play two rogue 19th-century British Army officers who decide to pitch themselves as muscle to a Middle Eastern ruler?
On the way to establishing a career as mercenaries in the Afghan region (“a scheme for rascals to become royalty,” per the trailer), Connery’s Daniel Dravot is mistaken by the locals as a god. He happily settles into the role of both ruler and deity … and that’s when the real trouble starts. It’s both an epic romp filled with thrills, spills and derring-do, and a tongue-in-cheek take on the empire’s less-than-moral misadventures in foreign lands.
Connery lets you see how the good fortune his con-artist colonialist has stumbled on warps him, and eventually sends him to a tragic end. That climactic walk across the rope bridge, singing a hymn, is one hell of an exit.
Time Bandits (1981)
Connery’s part in Terry Gilliam’s time-tripping fantasy is a small but highly memorable one: He’s King Agamemnon, the regent of Greek mythology who took part in the Trojan War. He’s also one of the friendlier historical figures that the movie’s young hero, Kevin, comes across in temporal travels, befriending the lad after he helps him kill a (literally) bullheaded opponent. (That’ll be the minotaur then, David Bowie disciples).
Connery does a lot with the little screen time he has, leaving you with a sense that this kindhearted ruler is a nice substitute father figure for the kid. It’s a nice little drop of humanity in this wacky, whimsical romp. And it does no harm at all that John Cleese — the future Q in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films — plays Robin Hood, a character Connery had already tackled in 1976’s Robin And Marian with the ever lovely Audrey Hepburn.
The Untouchables (1987)
The 1980s saw Connery’s star on the rise again as he continued to thrive in supporting roles. He also received awards attention, first for his role as William of Baskerville in 1986’s The Name Of The Rose, for which he won a BAFTA for Best Actor opposite a fresh-faced Christian Slater and a less fresh-faced Michael Lonsdale, AKA Hugo Drax in Moonraker and one of only three major names to star with three James Bond actors (the others being Julian Glover and John Rhys-Davies).
His well deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Untouchables makes Sean Connery the only Oscar winner to have played James Bond. (Nope, David Niven doesn’t count.). Sean plays Jimmy Malone, the hardbitten, shotgun-toting Irish cop who instructs the goody two shoes Eliot Ness in the art of fighting Prohibition gangsters.
In a lot of actors’ hands, this might have merely been a good mentor role; given to Connery, however, this man becomes a force of nature. And the way he digs into David Mamet’s flinty, pulp-poetry dialogue is a dream come true. His advice to Kevin Costner’s Ness about the way to nab Al Capone (Robert De Niro) is extra-quotable simply because of the sheer, aggressive delight with which Sean delivers it, in an accent that’s as Irish as mine: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”
The movie as a whole ranks alongside Scarface and Carlito’s Way as one of Brian De Palma’s most satisfying mainstream thrillers. But in a film full of stand-out scenes it’s the Union Station staircase sequence — a blaze of gangster gunfire shot in heart-stopping slow-motion — that is inarguably the most memorable, even it doesn’t actually feature Connery.
Though it’s customary to point out that the scene — sailors and falling pram and all — was an affectionate appropriation of the iconic Odessa Steps scene in Sergei Eisenstein’s celebrated Battleship Potemkin, the 1925 propaganda film widely hailed as a key moment in the development of cinema as a political and storytelling medium.
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (1989)
Sean Connery does comedy? Like, really? Come on, who else were you going to get to play Indy’s dad if not the man who gave us the first James Bond?! Steven Spielberg’s decision to cast Connery as Professor Henry Jones in the third Indiana Jones movie might have come off as a stunt if the veteran actor hadn’t been such a perfect fit — instead, it comes off like a coup. A rip-roaringly comedic coup.
From the second the patriarch yells “Junior?” at the globe-trotting archeologist, there’s an instant feeling that you’re watching two pop culture icons having the time of their lives acting against each other.
There was really no keeping up with the Joneses once they were onscreen, and though Sean had originally turned down the role, he ended up doing a lot of research on what sort of professor Henry would be. And the key to the whole film is really this father and son’s endless game of playful one-upmanship even when they band together to find the Holy Grail. “Whatever Indy’d done,” Connery was quoted as saying, “my character has done … and my character has done it better.”
Apropos of everything and nothing, Indy 3 was my first time seeing a Sean Connery movie on the big screen, at Milton Keynes Point, fact fans. Just down the road from where the school sequence was filmed.*
And if you’re wondering what my second was…
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
Actually, this is my third Connery big screen experience, because betwixt Indy and Hunt was the patchy heist caper Family Business at the end of 1989. It was Connery’s fifth and final film with his favourite director Sidney Lumet, and notably starred Sean as Dustin Hoffman’s father, despite being only seven years his real life senior.
However, The Hunt For Red October is a superior film in every way, and I caught it at Reading Cannon ABC, on my first trip to the Berkshire town in April of 1990. Thinking about it, if Tom Clancy’s novels about CIA analyst Jack Ryan had been made 20 years earlier, Connery might have been a good choice to play the hero. Instead, Alec Baldwin stepped in to the role (he’d be the first of several stars to step into Ryan’s shoes — not unlike Connery’s inauguration of Bond), and the almost sixtysomething Scot took on the bad guy’s role: A Russian nuclear submarine commander named Marko Ramius who’s keen to heat up the Cold War.
There’s a bit of cognitive dissonance in hearing a Soviet zealot speak in such a noticeably Scottish accent, but the toupeed Connery digs into this role with such gusto that by the end of this tense thriller, you don’t even mind the geographical mix-and-match approach.
There’s a reason it’s Connery’s face on the poster. “I remember seeing it for the first time and thinking, ‘This guy is going to hijack a nuclear submarine, where’s the fervour in this character?’” His co-star Alec Baldwin told Rolling Stone. “Then as it goes on, I realised: Oh, no, this is perfect. Most people would have this guy pacing in his cabin, or wringing his hands. He has him sipping tea! It’s genius.”
The Rock (1996)
“Welcome … to the Rock!” Michael Bay’s slam-bang action-movie is, like most of his blockbusters, a lot of nonstop sound and fury with the dial turned up to 11. But it has two saving graces: Nick Cage’s wonderfully weird chemical-weapons expert, pitched at a maximum level of Cage-like quirkiness; and the mere presence of Sean Connery.
His federal prisoner John Mason is the only inmate to have ever escaped Alcatraz; given that a righteous general has taken over the tourist attraction and is threatening to send missiles to San Francisco unless his demands are met, his knowledge of the island’s penitentiary’s ins and outs may be the only thing keeping that city from being destroyed.
Connery knows when to go camp with this career criminal, and when to simply be the flinty straight man to Cage’s absurdist egghead. And once it comes down to a mano a mano fight with Ed Harris’ military villain, you’re reminded of the way that Connery could bring gravitas to even the goofiest, most over-the-top of multiplex movies.
Finding Forrester (2000)
Coming off of an Oscar nomination for Good Will Hunting, indie director Gus Van Sant proceeded to take on the story of a reclusive, Salinger-esque novelist who helps a young, African-American writer (Rob Brown) find his potential — and to say that his follow-up was chasing the same feel-good tone would be putting it mildly.
But that doesn’t detract from how Connery’s adding a number of extra layers and some much needed gruffness and grit to the elderly author; if you remember this movie for anything, it’s almost certainly the star yelling “You’re the man now, dog!” in his well-aged brogue.
The star would hang up his alpha-male spurs a few years after taking the role, and even though he played a few more parts after this, the cantankerous literary superstar-in-hiding is really his swan song. It’s a wonderful last hurrah, because it’s best not to mention The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. No, really.
*The famous Pinewood Studios, home to the 007 Stage, happens to be situated in Buckinghamshire, the English “home county” just north of London where I spent my school years. Not only that, but Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade was partly filmed at the most famous school in the area. The classically grand setting for the ‘Berlin’ rally, where Indy manages to get the Adolf Hitler’s autograph, is the prestigious Stowe School. This former home of the Duke of Buckinghamshire, is four miles north of Buckingham town itself (a few miles west of Milton Keynes), and its notable alumni include the jazz singer George Melly, Casino Royale actor David Niven, and an actor tipped to take over 007 from Daniel Craig, Mr Superman and the Man from UNCLE**, Henry Cavill.
Jason was a younger colleague of mine, and a wide-mouthed Elvis freak who was studying at Stowe when the Indy team came to film, and he was one of several students roped in as extras.
Of course, I was more than a teensy weensy bit envious when he recounted the story in the early nineties (we were actually working in Stony Stratford, with George Melly’s cousin Sue Melly), telling me Sean Connery and Harrison Ford were both “really cool.”
It took me another dozen or so years before I had my own brief encounter with the King of Scotland, and not in Bucks or London or even England but Edinburgh, Connery’s hometown, of all places.
In 2003 I returned from a year’s sabbatical in The Netherlands and wasn’t sure if I wanted to live in London again. Brighton, Bristol and Edinburgh were on my city shortlist of alternative options, and so that year I travelled to the Scottish capital for the first time.
I remember leaving Harvey Nichols in the city centre and spied a familiar looking fella walking casually and looking slightly lost but almost completely incognito. It was 007 himself.
“Hello Mr. Connery!,” I said, slightly gobsmacked and not quite believing it was the local hero in the flesh. In Scotland. “Shouldn’t he playing golf in Marbella or somewhere?,” I secretly thought to myself, though of course I dare not say it.
But I’m sort of glad I said something, anything to this legendary figure – and didn’t try to introduce myself formally.
“Hello there,” Sean replied, with the tiniest hints of a smile.
Unlike other men of his age, Connery seemed to have got taller with his years, and I remember almost leaning back to look up at him, as if trying to see the flagstaff atop a famous building – although that was maybe just natural awe. He then proceeded to ask me if I knew where a local television studio was. Me, a humble tourist. And this time I was in his hood.
Sadly, this was pre-smartphone so no GPS, no camera, and absolutely no chance I could assist him, much to my eternal chagrin.
Fancy that though, Edinburgh’s most celebrated son asking this wee Sassenach for directions just a couple of miles from where he was brought up!
It later emerged he was on his way to film a promo spot for his then current film The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, which would, alas, turn out to be his cinematic swansong, though he did some voice-over work as 007 in a Playstation video game version of From Russia With Love, and was heard as a skateboarding vet in 2012 Scottish animated feature Sir Billi.
In June 2018, I celebrated my birthday in Edinburgh, visiting the Scottish capital for the first time in fifteen years. Taking the trip up from England included visiting a couple of the Edinburgh film festival’s gala screenings of brand new Whitney Houston and George Michael documentaries.
It was only while I was in the cinema for the latter that I realised the Fountain Park multiplex was a few minutes walk from Sean Connery’s birthplace in Fountainbridge. Indeed, the complex is bang in the middle of his route as a milkman’s boy for St Cuthbert’s Co-operative Society, back in the 1930s and ’40s. The tenement was demolished though a commemorative plaque is perched very high up on the side of the new apartment block.
Connery once claimed that because a lot of men were away fighting in World War II, he got a hell of a lot more women into bed on his milk round than he ever did as an actor.
Either way, cinema would have been a helluvalot duller without him.
Extraordinary career, extraordinary man, and the greatest movie star Scotland’s ever likely to produce.
Steve Pafford, bit part walk-on Italian Vinciguerra guard in The Man From UNCLE**