Eight of the best for Sean Connery’s 80th birthday

August 25, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in Features with 5 Comments

One of the titans of British film turns 80 today.  There’s not been a lot of fanfare, largely because he’s been off-screen for ages, but it’s a good opportunity to remember that, actually, Sean Connery isn’t half bad as an actor.

Here, then, are eight great Sean Connery performances…and 007 is only one of them.

#8 Marnie (1964) – Ian Fleming thought Connery was too thuggish to play 007, but that’s exactly the quality that attracted Alfred Hitchcock to cast the actor in his weird Freudian melodrama. As Mark Rutland, the borderline-rapist intent on ‘curing’ new wife Marnie (Tippi Hedren) of her frigidity, Connery is half-sadist / half-animal. The clue’s in the character’s name: he’s all about sexual possession, and Connery seems intent on proving Fleming right.

#7 The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – Even when joking, there’s always been a touch of disdain about Connery. All the more reason to cherish his rip-roaring double-act with Michael Caine, in John Huston’s rollicking colonial satire.  Both are clearly having a good time and enchanted by the other’s company – why did they never reunite on-screen? – but Connery gets the better deal simply because he so seldom looks this relaxed.

#6 The Untouchables (1987) – Connery was already well into his ‘mentor’ phase when he starred as veteran Chicago cop Jim Malone, having fulfilled much the same role in Highlander and The Name of the Rose. But buoyed by David Mamet’s quotable script and De Brian Palma’s gift for the operatic, Connery makes a banquet out of a surprisingly small role, feasting on lines like,”He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue,” and refusing to die until he’s won an Oscar.

#5 The Russia House (1990) – Fred Schepisi’s intelligent Cold War romantic thriller was unlucky to get caught out by history’s cogs turning. By the time it was completed, the Berlin Wall had fallen and nobody could be bothered to catch perhaps Connery’s warmest, most affecting performance. As Barley Blair, the reluctant spy who falls in love with Russian Michelle Pfeiffer, Connery visibly becomes a new man, making the story’s cross-cultural May-to-December romance both plausible and moving.

#4 The Hill (1965) – For my money, the best film Connery ever made; even the famously self-critical actor rated it. The first of many collaborations with Sidney Lumet, it’s also the first role to truly test Connery’s range and, as Trooper Joe Roberts, an AWOL soldier banged up in a brutal prison camp, he holds his own against a best-of-generation ensemble of shouty British thesps. [See also: my recent article on The Hill for The Big Picture.]

#3 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) – Indiana Jones always had a bit of James Bond in him, so casting the definite 007 as Indy’s dad is almost too obvious.  Making him a fussy, professorial grouch, however, is a masterstroke.  It’s a great gag, isn’t it? The film is galvanised even in its occasional moments of maudlin introspection by the hilarious interplay between Connery and Harrison Ford. Brilliantly uptight, Connery balances his customary scene-stealing charisma against a surprisingly chameleonic deference to his co-star and successor: he’s very believable as an elder Ford, despite being only twelve years his senior.

#2 From Russia With Love (1963) – Any one of Connery’s outings as 007 (well, except maybe Never Say Never Again) could have made the cut.  But when I think of Connery as Bond, it’s his sophomore effort that I remember.  More confident than in Doctor No, but not yet encouraged to overplay the irony, it’s here that the actor properly becomes a star: sexy, funny and dangerous.  Whether seducing the ravishing Daniela Bianchi, firing a flare gun at attacking speedboats or brawling with brutish Robert Shaw, Sean Connery is James Bond.

#1 The Offence (1972) – The foreigner’s insight in Sidney Lumet located an institutional brutality in Britain borne of repression and macho rage. If the director went on the attack in The Hill, here he delivers an anguished howl of despair, made all the bleaker and more uncomfortable by Connery’s best, most abrasive performance.

His Detective Sergeant Johnson is the anti-Bond: not the suave killer and ladykiller of the Secret Service but an unhappy, middle-aged has-been full of self-loathing and traumatised by his work. When his latest investigation into a paedophile’s assault pushes him over the edge, Connery lets go in a way we’ve never seen before nor since.

His misogynistic rant against his wife when she unwisely asks him to open up to her is a tour-de-force monologue, Connery twisting and turning with seething, vivid violence. But having proved his solo acting chops, he gets to perform two masterly duets with two of Britain’s finest actors, firstly with Trevor Howard’s senior policeman, then with Ian Bannen’s seedy suspect, each encounter a complex battle of wills that sees the balance of power shifting back and forth between the two to shattering effect.

It’s the role of a lifetime, and by rights it should have changed Connery’s career forever.  But, of course, nobody wanted to see 007 play such a vicious bastard, so nobody went to see it.  Including, apparently, every casting director in Britain and Hollywood.  Had they known how good he could be, they might have pushed him into the braver, bolder choices that would see him get the recognition he deserves as one of our finest movie performers.

EDIT: Great minds think alike.  Jon Melville of ReelScotland has listed his own Connery Top 5 – similar choices, but superbly argued.

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  1. GraemeAug 25, 2010 at 10:56 amReply

    All good choices, though I probably might have put in Doctor No instead of From Russia With Love, just because Connery's performance as Bond was probably never better– the scene where he first introduces himself, now completely cliched, is electric for the completely un-self-conscious way he does it with a cigarette in his mouth doing something else. He's playing a character part, not an icon, and it shows.

    My favourite Connery part is The Untouchables, even though Connery's Irish accent is so dreadful the VHS box tried to claim that Malone was a Scottish American cop. But the thing is everything else about Connery's performance– the intensity, the humour, the capturing of someone who has watched the status quo for so long and now is liberating himself– is so white hot that you really don't care about the accent at all.

  2. AnonymousAug 25, 2010 at 2:15 pmReply

    I thought he was great in The Name Of The Rose…just sayin'

  3. AnonymousAug 25, 2010 at 4:44 pmReply

    Good choices…I agree connery is a powerful actor and it's unfortunate he wasn't in more demanding films like The Hill and the Offence. Beside the Bond issue, which followed him long after he quit the role, he had so much going for him in terms of his looks and physicality, I suppose it's not surprising he didn't do that many serious parts.

  4. Jack GrahamAug 26, 2010 at 10:43 amReply

    Great list. Nice to see somebody remembers 'The Offence'. But you missed out my favourite Connery movie – 'The Molly Maguires'!

  5. My Top 10 Favourite Films » KinnemaniacAug 21, 2012 at 4:05 pmReply

    […] British guards, British prisoners. A searingly intense piece of work from Sidney Lumet and one of Sean Connery’s best ever performances.  I will never understand why this remains so […]

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