Sean Connery has continued to reinvent himself across four decades of movies, still standing while other stars fade. But it’s not just a matter of durability; by resisting the gravitational force of Planet James Bond, and never allowing the longest-running movie franchise in history to suck the life out of him as an actor, Connery has played out professionally the kind of will power that people pay money to see him express onscreen.
You don’t care if he’s kidnapping Candice Bergen in John Milius’ “The Wind and the Lion” or robbing apartment dwellers in the immensely entertaining “The Anderson Tapes.” He’s Sean Connery.
More remarkably, Connery exerted this will during the middle of his run of Bond films, producing some of his greatest performances.
Between 1964’s “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” in 1965 was the first of his four films with director Sidney Lumet, the galvanic World War II prison drama “The Hill.” The movie is shot so obsessively in wide-angle close-ups that you forget to breathe, and Lumet tends to encourage some overacting. But Connery lays backs as a mistreated British officer until it counts dramatically; his economy here is acting genius.
The ruffled charm Connery brings to Lumet’s “The Anderson Tapes” is a vivid precursor of the Lumet-Al Pacino combo in “Dog Day Afternoon.” A century apart is his gentleman in the Lumet-directed “Murder on the Orient Express.” (Connery travels centuries more easily than any major living movie star.)
Most amazing of all, and possibly Connery’s greatest, most vulnerable performance, is as a British cop who goes too far in Lumet’s Antonioni-esque “The Offence,” which Connery made between – get this – “Diamonds Are Forever” and John Boorman’s “Zardoz.”
That is the discovery of Connery’s non-Bond movies: What a richly inspired actor he is, the character actor’s chameleon ability married to sheer star presence.
An early glimpse of this is the little-seen noir-in-London thriller “The Frightened City,” which Connery made a year before “Dr. No.” It shows that Bond didn’t arise out of thin air; you can see the same alluring suavity and droll mind he brought to Bond, plus he plays Action Man for the first time in his career. It proves that Connery imposed himself on Bond, not the other way around.
Outside the Bond vehicles, in the ’60s Connery experimented with absurdist comedy (“A Fine Madness”), Hitchcock (“Marnie”) and westerns (“Shalako”), as well as the aforementioned “Hill.” But he was indelibly typed as the worldly spy.
Thus, the dignified power of his playing in the sepulchral coal miners’ drama “The Molly Maguires,” opposite a superb Richard Harris, can’t be overstated. There’s a feeling here of Connery willing himself to make a difference in the movies again, playing a tragic hero with the poetry of a Fredric March or Spencer Tracy.
And rather than feel pushed off center stage by a strong co-star, Connery with this film begins to grow in potency through a string of unforgettable portrayals in the ’70s – a decade he made the most of. As Raisuli in “The Wind and the Lion” and Daniel Dravot in “The Man Who Would Be King,” Connery not only did a clinic on old-fashioned Hollywood star power, but he happily did it while sharing the screen with Bergen and Brian Keith (in “Wind”) and Michael Caine (in “Man”).
Though much has been said about how Connery revived himself (again) with Caine – the best buddy pair since Newman and Redford – Connery actually has a line of notable buddy matchings: with Donald Sutherland in “The Great Train Robbery”; with Christian Slater in “The Name of the Rose”; with Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables”; with Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick in “Family Business”; with Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.”
There’s something deeply anti-Bond about all this – Connery characters embracing the fact that they can’t do it all alone. This sense grows as Connery grows older, but so does his male energy. It’s so strong in a silly vehicle like “Highlander,” where he plays a mentor, that when he dies, so does the movie. This works the other way, too, where some movies, like “The Rock” or “Outland” or “The Last Crusade” or “First Knight,” amount to waiting for Connery to finally appear so the real movie can begin. Almost no other star today – at any age — can control a movie by being off screen.
But on screen, a fine script brings out his best, which can be described as ironical gravitas. The three best recent examples of this come from the last half of the ’80s, when his gravelly Scots tongue was able to wrap itself around the exceptional speeches and dialogues in “The Name of the Rose,” “The Untouchables” and “Family Business.” The former is a rare characterization of Christian intellectualism, the latter is maybe his most interestingly shaded tough-guy performance.
Connery still dominates whatever he’s in, doing his best with movies that are simply below him. His ability to reformulate himself – at key career points like “The Hill,” “The Molly Maguires” and “The Name of the Rose”-is the great lesson he can teach to the young guys now aiming for real male stardom.
The question is if there’s anyone out there ready to learn the lesson.