There is a scene at the beginning of Goldfinger in which Sean Connery’s Bond meets with his US contact Felix Leiter. Then he observes the bad guy cheating at cards, charms a maid to get into the villain’s hotel room, thwarts his plan and seduces the beautiful woman who was involved.
Connery is, of course, totally cool throughout but he does the whole thing dressed in a short, pale blue, belted, elasticated at the back, zip up front, towelling play suit. It is quite possibly the least sexy outfit a man could wear (even in the 60s) but this man gets away with it. Hero!
Connery appeared in a range of great movies from the middle to the end of last century. For me though his career and reputation are built around just four films, each of them around a decade apart: Goldfinger (1964), The Man Who Would be King (1975), The Untouchables (1987) and The Rock (1996).
The man obviously made six 007 movies (I don’t count Never Say Never Again) but it is in his third outing that he properly owns the role. Goldfinger is not necessarily the best of the Connery Bonds but it is here that he most comfortably and precisely finds that balance of resolve, bravery, charm, brutality and sophistication. It is with this instalment that he had settled in to the role but had not yet got tired of it, setting a blueprint for all those that followed him in the part, especially Daniel Craig. Goldfinger was also the film to introduce the iconic Aston Martin DB5 and my, how he suited that car.
Four years after he finally holstered his Walther PPK Connery picked up a whole pile of rifles and dragged them over a mountain in The Man Who Would Be King. Starring with Michael Caine, he gives a performance that punctured his super suave super spy image as effectively as anything Pierce Brosnan has sought to do in the last twelve years.
In the film Connery and Caine play ex soldiers come adventurers in the late 1800s. These men execute an audacious plan to travel to a remote area of Afghanistan where, through a show of strength as warmongers, they can impress the primitive locals into making them kings.
It is a light hearted but often violent romp and in places it gets quite dark, similar to films like The Great Escape. The protagonists are by turns foppish fools and cold blooded killers, demonstrating fortitude and imperialistic arrogance in equal measure. In that respect these men are, in some sense, an ugly exaggeration of the James Bond figure that Connery helped create.
Despite the self regard of the men they play, there is no vanity in their performances and Connery in particular essays a fascinating portrait of a man unaware of how fighting for Queen and Country has made him morally corrupt.
For some, Sean Connery’s Academy Award win for The Untouchables was long overdue but actually it probably is his best role.
It’s all there in that little speech in the church. Those few words are the essence of the character and the whole film:
“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way and that’s how you get Capone.”
Cinema is full of psychotic cops but Connery’s Malone not one of them. He is righteous yet uncompromising, knowing what needs to be done in bad circumstances and doing it without hesitation. He isn’t inured to violence like Bond but neither is he afraid of it. The actor was a cowboy once, in the little known film Shalako, but it is in The Untouchables that he effectively plays the classic Western Sheriff, an unimpeachable lawman in a lawless town.
The standout moment in the movie is probably the station steps scene but all of the other great moments revolve around Connery. There is the moment where he gets Capone’s bookkeeper to talk by executing a dead man and then we have that great death scene. Even the moment, after Malone’s demise, where Ness throws Nitti off the roof is all about the Irish Cop and his principles.
Connery may just be one actor in an ensemble cast but just try to imagine The Untouchables without him. It wasn’t easy to steal a film from DeNiro in the 80s but Sean Connery managed it, no problem at all.
It is hard to know whether Sean Connery would have had the same gravitas in The Rock were he not already a bit of a screen legend but there were other movies around the same time, The Avengers and Entrapment, where he didn’t have the same impact. Funnily enough the role of John Mason, an ex British Secret Service agent, gentlemanly, resourceful and quick to use lethal force suited him well.
Of course the success of The Rock does not rest purely on the Scotsman. As with The Man Who Would Be King and The Untouchables, Connery once again excels when working off other people. Unlike Michael Caine, Nic Cage is not someone that you would automatically cast him against but they make a great double act and this is a credit to both of them.
Director Michael Bay’s typical flourishes, bombast, cod sentimentality, 360° camera sweeps and stereotypical characterisation are all present and correct in The Rock but in everything else he has done these have crippled the movie. The reason he found success here when his films are generally so poor is simple; those other movies didn’t have Sean Connery in them.