For many (if not most) people, Sean Connery’s legacy is clear: he was the definitive James Bond. Sure, there will be a strong group of folks in the camp of Daniel Craig and the more “realistic” films of the recent 007 era, but those of us most familiar with the Bond series will always return to the original film version played by the lantern-jawed Scot, who owned the role for seven different adventures as the British secret agent from 1962 to 1983.
The thing that always set Connery’s Bond apart from those actors that followed was the hint of cruelty and disregard. Connery’s Bond was without sentiment (unlike Craig’s more emotionally available Bond), and if he winked at the camera at all, it was with the steely eye of a suave killer, unlike Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan, who looked like they were a little too in on a joke. Connery’s Bond was never joking, not even when delivering a quip. Connery’s Bond was a stone-cold killer.
Before shooting his first Bond pic, Dr. No, in 1962, Connery had spent eight years as a relatively nondescript journeyman on British TV and in films few are likely to remember. Once he got on the Bond carousel, he did find it a bit difficult to get off. Connery was Bond, and therefore struggled to get noticed playing someone else. Which was largely our loss, because besides being an icon, Sean Connery was one hell of an actor.
In Hitchcock’s love it or hate it (count me among the former) psychological thriller Marnie, Connery’s cruel streak is put to shocking use in his treatment of Tippi Hedren’s kleptomaniac title character who has more than one screw loose. While Connery’s Mark Rutland is supposed to be the hero Marnie needs, he has moments that border on the sinister that make it hard to root for him as Marnie’s supposed savior. I always admired how Connery never tamped that aspect of the character down, although I suspect that is part of the reason why the film is so polarizing, and was only a modest success upon release.
After Marnie and in-between Bond films, Connery performed ably in a number of so-so to decent films like The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, and The Offence, but he often was seen in duds like The Molly Maguires, or flat-out disasters like Zardoz. He did have a charming supporting role in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, but it wasn’t until 1975’s The Wind and the Lion that Connery scored a great role outside of the Bond films. In a casting decision that would never be made today, Connery played the real-life Islamic rebel leader, Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli in John Milius’ second film as a director. As unwoke a choice as Connery was, his devilish charm and fierce performance made the adventure film a relentlessly watchable piece of entertainment.
Better still were his next two films, John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), and Richard Lester’s autumnal retelling of the Robin Hood legend, Robin and Marian. In The Man Who Would Be King, Connery scored perhaps his greatest role as Daniel Dravot, an adventurer who travels to the Middle Eastern country Kafiristan, where the locals believe him to be a god and make him king. Acting alongside Michael Caine, Connery gives a true tour de force performance as a man who at first is bemused by the adulation of the locals, but then is driven to the brink of madness by it. Never before (or again) did Connery stretch himself so far, and man, was it a sight to see. 1976’s Robin and Marian was a relatively lighter affair, but what an undervalued charmer it is. As an older Robin Hood playing across from the ever so lovely Audrey Hepburn as Maid Marian, this elegiac reimagining of the Sherwood lore works both as a great adventure story and a romantic feast. Robin and Marian is a film that begs to be rediscovered, and right soon.
Connery lost some momentum over the next five years, appearing in mostly mediocre films. In 1981, he played the lead in Peter Yates’ underrated sci-fi action film Outland, and had a smallish but notable role in the Terry Gilliam classic, Time Bandits. Two years later he returned to Bond one last time, and despite being a little long in the tooth for the role at that point, pulled off an entertaining swan song to the character with Never Say Never Again. 1986 brought the cult favorite Highlander and Jean Jacque Annaud’s disappointing take on Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (although you can count me among that film’s defenders).
In 1987, Connery would finally put the ghost of Bond behind him for good with his role as Jim Malone in Brian DePalma’s scintillating thriller, The Untouchables. Not only was it a huge hit, but as a tough as nails Irish Chicago cop supporting Kevin Costner’s Elliot Ness in an effort to take down Robert DeNiro’s Al Capone, Connery stole the film out from under everyone. Not only did audiences turn out in droves to see Connery at his best, the Academy came calling too – awarding him with his first (and only) Oscar nomination, but also delivering him the trophy for Best Supporting Actor as well.
Connery had a box office rebirth after The Untouchables. While there were some misses (The Presidio, Just Cause) and some underperformers that deserved better (especially The Russia House with Michelle Pfeiffer), over the remaining fifteen years of his career there were plenty of hits: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, Rising Sun, The Rock, Entrapment, Finding Forrester). While I may not love all those movies, Connery’s presence made up for a lot when taking them in.
Connery’s final appearance on camera came in the 2002 disappointment, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He did some occasional voice work after that, but despite many a request, Connery declared (in typically flinty fashion) “retirement is just too much damned fun.”
I wonder if it was half as much fun as seeing him go on adventure after adventure for fifty years. If so, you can understand why he didn’t come back. Because my goodness, what a joy it was to have watched Sean Connery onscreen.
Sean Connery died today. He was 90 years old.