For a while there in the 1960s, it looked like cinema’s biggest sadist was trying to become its biggest masochist. The suave spy who with a curl of his lip could ingeniously dispatch the most beautiful or grotesque of foes with a blood-curdling pun was, in between his popular murder sprees, saddling himself with a pathologically unstable wife, getting on the bad side of a sadistic guard while incarcerated in a desert prison and risking a lobotomy for the sake of an unfinished poem of dubious quality.
These characters were, of course, Sean Connery’s now-legendary attempts to break free of the bonds of 007 and expand his expressive range. These days, you hardly ever see a star take that kind of chance, but Connery stuck at it, at least for a couple of decades.
During that time, he produced a gallery of memorable characters while exploiting the creative tumult in filmmaking that took place during the 1960s and ’70s. And, in 1975 and 1976, he appeared in a trio of movies that would help define a filmmaking era and provide three overwhelming examples of just what star acting is all about.
Connery’s first step away from Bond came between “From Russia With Love” and “Goldfinger,” and it was a big one: Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” in 1964. Widely dismissed at the time, this study of a psychopathic personality, for which the director revived and updated techniques from his silent days, has gradually received the recognition it deserves. Connery plays a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who falls in love with a mercurial young woman (Tippi Hedren), whom he recognizes to be a compulsive thief. When it is discovered that her kleptomania is only the beginning of her psychological problems, the leading man is alternately infuriated and moved — especially infuriated. Connery provides a harsh variation on the Hitchcock hero, particularly in the wake of Cary Grant and James Stewart, and his performance gives “Marnie” much of its unique, uncomfortable edge.
In between “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball,” Connery hooked up with Sidney Lumet for what would turn out to be the first of their five pictures together, “The Hill,” in 1965. In contrast to the suave 007, Connery plays an army lifer, the rough-hewn Joe Roberts, imprisoned in a North African prison camp run by the British for their own court-martialed soldiers during World War II. Where Bond dispenses violence, Roberts disdains it, even when pushed to the breaking point. For fans of the spy, this seething, tough trooper would be a revelation. If only they had bothered to check him out.
Connery’s coolest picture of this decade is 1966’s “A Fine Madness,” directed by Irvin Kershner, who was a crucial voice in the development of a counter-Hollywood. Connery plays an unapologetically violent misanthrope who directs a particular ire at women — an ire that doesn’t keep him from seducing each one he meets (including, memorably, Jean Seberg). Connery delivers a balls-out performance in a film that has both remained as hip as it ever was (in its nonconformity) and dated badly (in its sexism). He also shows conclusively how well he can fit into an ensemble cast.
Connery made “You Only Live Twice” in 1967, then gave up Bond for good — for the first time. Three years later, he starred in Martin Ritt’s “The Molly Maguires,” an epic story of unionism, terrorism and company repression in the Pennsylvania coal mines of the 19th century. The movie has its share of virtues and drawbacks, but Connery, who portrays a quiet man opposite the verbose Richard Harris, demonstrates that he plays off another strong leading man — whether friend or foe — like few others.
Some diddling followed: a caper film (“The Anderson Tapes” with Lumet) and then back to Bond (“Diamonds Are Forever”) before quitting 007 this time absolutely forever.
Meanwhile, writer-director John Milius had a project, “The Wind and the Lion,” about a Berber desert chieftain who, in 1904, kidnaps a wealthy American woman and her two children, takes on the U.S. and those European nations occupying Morocco and charms his hostages in the process — who turn out not to be his hostages at all, but his guests. Mulay Achmed Mohammed el-Raisuli the Magnificent is a role as magnificent as the name itself.
Milius certainly gave Connery the best entrance of his career: The still of a morning in the Tangier foreign quarter is broken by rampaging horsemen who charge through the grounds and home of Candice Bergen and her kids. Milius is too good a filmmaker to deliver five minutes of noise and clutter without modulated action and character bits. Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot of noise and bloodletting before all is calm and the camera carefully approaches a solitary figure sitting by a fountain, dressed in desert indigo and facing away from the camera. At just the right moment, he turns and we see, yes, it’s Sean … er, Raisuli the Mag …
We see that there’s something between Sean Connery and El Raisuli the Magnificent. We see, in other words, a real movie star. Not someone the marketing department says is a star, the featured player in a series of adolescent spy capers, not an actor struggling to find his voice, but an honest-to-goodness movie star.
Connery’s performance in “The Wind and the Lion” is nothing short of superb. It’s perfect, in fact, the first of three perfect performances in a row. His El Raisuli is ingenuous without being a fool, brave without being naïve, a fearless and accomplished warrior without being a facile superhero. Connery marshals his considerable charm in a way he never had before, maybe because he’d never played so charming a character.
It sounds strange, but a hallmark of Connery’s post-Bond performances is their increased physicality. True, he doesn’t throw so many punches, but his gestures now count for more. In the second of the three brilliant features made in 1975-76, the actor essays a man who, at one point, likes to carry a golden arrow around with him. He holds it behind his back, slaps his knee with it, scratches his beard with it and generally uses it to point as if he were still on the old drilling ground in 19th-century India.
The character is Daniel Dravot in John Huston’s classic “The Man Who Would Be King.” Connery’s taciturn Dravot, and Michael Caine’s talkative Peachy Carnahan stride from the pages of Rudyard Kipling to emerge as one of the great adventure teams of all time.
But Connery not only did something else, he did it right away. Richard Lester’s “Robin and Marian” is a scathing and soothing elegy to love that finds the legendary lovers back together 20 years after the story we all know has ended.
Lester gave Connery a strong leading lady, Audrey Hepburn, to go along with a strong ensemble and again, despite the actor’s rich baritone, it’s the physicality of his performance that sticks with you. In one scene, back in Sherwood Forest with Marian and the remnants of his Merrie Men, Robin wakes, old and scarred in his 40s, grunting and limping as he rises from his bed. But the pains are replaced by playfulness, and soon the whole troupe is up and about, riding off, exultant over having eradicated all sense of age. It’s a wonderful example of director and cast working together, and the whole sequence is unimaginable without Connery.
Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, Connery would never match these heights again. As the actor aged, he grew increasingly fond of a particular type: the man of the world, very wise, physically adept if not superhuman, usually possessed of some arcane knowledge. Couched within a good script and under the direction of, say, a Fred Schepisi, this formula could work, as it did in 1990’s “The Russia House.” There, Connery’s convincing portrait of an imbibing publisher who puts his life where his mouth is may be the last of his first-rate performances. Not coincidentally, he also passes muster as a romantic lead with a much younger actress, Michelle Pfeiffer.
And the likes of John McTiernan could shape the type into a fluid module in a larger, elegant action outing with “The Hunt for Red October,” also from 1990. But too often, Connery’s appearances in his films were just that: appearances. After swearing off 007 for good again — no really, for good with “Never Say Never Again,” in 1983 — he came darn close to doing Bond one more time in 1996’s “The Rock.”
Perhaps it all goes back to “The Untouchables” in 1987. After getting no recognition from the Academy for all his previous work, Connery won an Oscar for playing a simple-minded policeman in a simple-minded movie.
Henry Sheehan is president of the L.A. Film Critics Assn.