When I think of Sean Connery, I think of James Bond. But of course. He was in one of the greatest of those films, the one that really should be pronounced the way Shirley Bassey said it in the title song: Gauld- finggaaaah! (“My name is Pussy Galore,” the girl says. Connery replies, “I must be dreaming!”) But I also think of that strange and great psychosexual film he did with Alfred Hitchcock, Marnie. (It was released the same year, 1964.) He marital-rapes the Tippi Hedren character. Sean Connery was one of the rare leading men who could be charming and cool, and could also do cruel. Only Daniel Craig matches him in that department, though “charming” I don’t know. The other Bonds were gentlemen. Connery was a spy. You can imagine him giving one of those punny quips, and then proceeding to make an informant talk by pulling out his fingernails.
Connery had one of those faces that aged early, in a good way. He looked like he was born with those creases in his forehead, and as he got older, oddly, the cruel veneer in his on-screen persona slipped away and he became more avuncular. This is possibly his best phase, his most beloved phase: as the cop who gets memorably assassinated in The Untouchables, as an aging Robin Hood in Robin and Marian (the film isn’t much, but Connery and Audrey Hepburn are wonderful together), and most terrific of all, as Indiana Jones’ father, one of the genius casting ideas of all time.
Connery was so unique that he couldn’t be cast easily. He couldn’t play just any role. I don’t know if it was the Bond-identification factor, or if it was that accent, or if he was too macho, or if he was just too damned iconic. He could never “disappear” into a part. He was a great actor who was also a great monument — and those monumental roles became increasingly hard to find. Watching him with Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment (1999) is fun, but it never becomes more than just… fun! It never turns into a film that deserves Sean Connery.
Two late films that did deserve him are the spectacular The Hunt for Red October (1990) and First Knight (1995). In the former, directed by Die Hard action-legend John McTiernan, he plays a Russian submarine captain. It’s a hard-to-read character, and he’s perfect: you think he’s a “hero” and therefore, he should be a “good man”, but he’s also at an age where he’s a “character actor”, and maybe he’s doing a change-of-pace like what Henry Fonda did in Once Upon a Time in the West. I love First Knight not because it’s good (it has good bits, is all), but because I’m a nut for the Arthurian legends. Connery plays Arthur as a tired king. It’s enormously touching. He may look like Guinevere’s (Julia Ormond) great-uncle, but at least the film deserves him.
Given Connery’s stature in our minds, his is not that great a filmography. But the films that stand out are unique and unforgettable. I mean, he introduced James Bond to the world. He played King Agamemnon in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and who else was Sidney Lumet going to cast as Dustin Hoffman’s father in Family Business? (His death scene is every bit as moving as the one in The Untouchables.) Plus, there are some marvellous eccentricities, like John Boorman’s Zardoz, which is truly eccentric sci-fi but which also looks like space-age soft-porn created for the sole purpose of showcasing Connery’s chest hair. He was one of a kind.