Sunday 1 November 2020

Sean Connery | August 25th 1930 - October 31st 2020 | The First OO7 Hangs Up His Walther PPK

It was inevitable. As I read of Sir Sean Connery's ailing health in recent years, I would check for news of his passing. But then, I would also think that he'd last another five, maybe even ten years. 

I was in bed reading. It was just past midnight, Sunday November 1st when my wife and I heard two rapid knocks on our bedroom door before my daughter burst in and said; "I just read on social media that Sean Connery died! I didn't want to tell you, but I didn't want you to read it tomorrow and be upset."

Slightly stunned by the news, I sat there thinking about it, letting it sink in. I looked up Nothing yet. I checked Instagram. News was already coming through, with links to comments by Connery's son, Jason.

Sean Connery passed away in his sleep, aged 90, at his house in the Bahamas. Many of his family members were there. It's what I call a million-dollar ending. We should all be so lucky to check out that way. 

While Roger Moore was the Bond that I grew up with, and the one who made me sit up and take notice of this Bond fellow, it was Connery's earlier portrayal of OO7 that turned me into a life-long Bond fan. Reading the Fleming books a few years later, in the early '80s, Connery was the Bond that I pictured coming off the page. The dark hair, cruel good looks, and cold manner when on the job were embodied by Connery in his first Bond flick Dr No (Dir: Terence Young, United Artists, 1962). This was honed a great deal by Terence Young, who taught Connery about fine tailoring, fine dining, and other attributes that made up the literary character of James Bond. 

Certainly, Sean Connery had his Scots accent rather than a British one, but it was a deep voice which gave him a commanding and confident presence on-screen. He moved like a panther, as has often been said, and he had a certain magnetism about him, all of which helped give this first Bond film a promising start to what the Producers hoped would be a franchise. 

I was at the Designing OO7 - Fifty Years of Bond Style exhibition seven years ago and, after seeing various exhibits of props from the Bond movies, I continued on to a room to my right. I parted a beaded curtain which led into a large room that had been done up to look like a casino. As I stepped inside, I saw a roulette table and up above, there were a few large-screen monitors showing scenes from various Bond films and I happened to walk in just as Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson, the FIRST Bond Girl) asks her opponent his name while playing against him in a high-stakes game of chemin de fer

Connery's introduction in this scene is the stuff of movie legend and his almost world-weary delivery of his name has been much used by other Bond actors, but never bettered. 

Ian Fleming was less than impressed with the casting of Connery. He wanted somebody like David Niven or Rex Harrison for the part. Cary Grant was offered the role and he said he'd do one picture, but would not commit to a series. Much as I love Cary Grant, he was too old for the part, as were Niven and Harrison. Sure, they were terribly English and all that, but literary Bond was a hard man, and the role required a certain level of physicality. And Bond had to look like he could kill a man with his bare hands. Niven couldn't have done it. Casting a younger and virtually unknown actor like Connery was the right move, in my view. 
Fleming had said; I wanted Commander Bond, not some sort of overgrown stuntman.

In the end, Fleming was happy with the choice of Connery in the role. There are photos which show him conversing with Connery on-set and, as the film was shot partly in Jamaica, there are pics of the cast having lunch with Fleming (presumably at his house Goldeneye in Oracabessa). Fleming published his next Bond book, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, in 1963 and in it, he gave readers a little more of Bond's backstory. Bond's father Andrew was a Scot. This was a nod to Connery as, by the time filming of Dr No was half completed, he had grown to be happy with the film-maker's choice of Connery for the role. As the film had a total budget of $1,000,000, the producers had to make the money go as far as it could. 
The film grossed 6.9 million dollars. 

Part of Connery's appeal in the role of Bond was his smart-assery, something which has been sadly lacking in the Daniel Craig Bonds. Connery could deliver a line with just a slight arching of an eyebrow and a purr in his voice. In You Only Live Twice (Dir: Lewis Gilbert, 1967), we find Bond tied to a chair while Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) stands over him holding a scalpel.
"I've got you right where I want you", she says.
"Well enjoy yourself", he replies. 
I recall seeing this film on DVD one night and my wife remarked with a smile; "He's so arrogant."  

In the unofficial Bond film Never Say Never Again (Dir: Irwin Kershner, 1983), there's a stupid scene when Bond goes up against Maximilian Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) by playing against him in a video game. A video game!
To make it all seem more adult, they play for money and the game's joysticks give off an electric shock every time a player loses. As the monetary stakes get higher, so do the electric shocks. 
Anyway, Bond wins the game and donates his tens of thousands of winnings to some charity. Largo says to him; "Tell me, Mr Bond, are you as gracious a loser as you are a winner?" 
Connery-Bond replies; "I wouldn't know know, I've never lost." 
It's lines like these that are missing from the current Bond films and, even the quips from the Pierce Brosnan-era films seem dated or poorly written. The humour in the Roger Moore Bonds was a product of its time, in the era of bawdy British comedy such as The Benny Hill Show and the Carry-On films, which is a shame because given some smart, witty lines, Moore could have done a lot with them.

Connery did five Bond films in the Sixties before growing tired of the role and fearing that he'd be typecast. He announced his resignation from the role half-way through filming of You Only Live Twice. The Japanese press, whose photographers followed him into a men's room, probably help him make up his mind. He was lured back to the role for 1971's Diamonds Are Forever and donated his 1.2 million dollar salary to set up the Scottish International Education Trust, which was designed to bestow grants to artists in Scotland. Connery's contract also stipulated that United Artists would fund two films of his choice. 
He went on to make The Offence, directed by Sidney Lumet. It was a police procedural about a detective who questions a paedophile about his recent crimes and over the course of the film, Connery's detective begins to lose his grip. Working again for Lumet, Connery went on to make The Anderson Tapes, a caper film where a thief's entire plan for a large-scale robbery has been recorded through wire taps and surveillance cameras. 
A few duds followed in the 1970s, but he did a great film in 1975 called The Man Who Would Be King, co-starring Michael Caine, and directed by John Huston. Based on a Rudyard Kipling short story, it concerns two British ex-soldiers in the 1880s who wind up in Afghanistan and one of them is mistaken for a god. It was one of Connery's better films from that era. Along with Robin And Marian (Dir: Richard Lester, 1976), in which he played an ageing Robin Hood, returned from the Crusades to find the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw, cool!) still running the town and Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) is now a nun. 
He also did some ensemble parts in films such as Murder On The Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Aside from being lured back to the role of Bond for Never Say Never Again, the early '80s was a lack-lustre time for Connery until 1986, when he starred as 12th century Franciscan monk William of Baskerville who ventures to an abbey in Northern Italy for a meeting with papal representatives, but is soon lured into investigating a series of odd deaths among the clergy at the abbey. Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, this French-Italian co-production didn't do so well in the US, but garnered much of its box office receipts in Europe. Connery delivers a great performance in this film. Another notable standout is Ron Perlman, who would later find success in Sons of Anarchy on the FX network. 

Personally, I think Connery should have gotten an Oscar for this film, but this was not to be. For another year. It was his role as 1930s Chicago beat cop Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables (Brian De Palma, 1987) that Connery would score a Best Supporting Actor statuette. Granted, his short "You wanna get Capone?" monologue is nicely written and beautifully delivered. You get the sense that Malone knows how his town operates and is fully aware of why he's still a uniform cop pounding the streets at his age. Other roles soon followed and while some weren't Oscar-worthy material (The Presidio), they ensured that newer audiences got a glimpse of the persona that made up the first James Bond of the silver screen. Luckily, we got him as Indiana Jones' dad in Spielberg's Indian Jones and The Last Crusade in 1989. And we also had The Hunt For Red October and The Russia House, both in 1990.
He later appeared opposite Nicholas Cage in Michael Bay's The Rock (1996), a wasted effort in my book. Here we have the guy who played Bond, and it wasn't utilised to its fullest extent. Mind you, this was probably to be expected in a Michael Bay movie. 
Connery's last film was The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Dir: Stephen Norrington, 2003). By all accounts it wasn't a great film. I can vouch for that. The CGI in some later scenes was awful. This film was a gruelling exercise for Connery and it was enough to convince him to retire from acting. Spielberg tried to lure him out of retirement five years later for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull. No luck. Peter Jackson wanted him to play Gandalf, but Connery wasn't interested in staying in New Zealand for a few years of filming. 
Sean Connery came out of retirement (sort of) to provide the voice of James Bond in EA Games' rendition of From Russia With Love in 2005 for the Playstation 2, Game Cube and X Box consoles. It was great to see his younger likeness on screen, albeit in a video game, and while it was his voice that we heard in the game, it was older Connery's voice. Still, it had some bite left in it. He also gave the makers of the game some insight into how Bond should fire a gun in the game, based on the weapons training that he received way back in the early 1960s. 
His last job was another voice-over gig for an animated film called Sir Billi (Dir: Sacha Hartmann, 2012). It wasn't well received. 
Still, I choose to remember Sean Connery firstly as the original James Bond on the big screen, and then as an actor in some great films of the Sixties (Marnie, A Fine Madness, The Hill), Seventies and Eighties. He grew up poor, and had his share of stresses - he joined the navy at 16 and was discharged at 19 due to duodenal ulcers. I know what that's like. I had a duodenal ulcer from the age of twenty-three to the age of thirty-six. I think he got to an age where he had made a success of his life and chose to do whatever he wanted. That's one sure-fire way to avoid any stress. 
It was Connery's Bond that made me a Bond fan. In no small way did his portrayal of OO7 ensure the success and longevity of the series. Here we are, 58 years later, and they're still making Bond movies (that we're still waiting to see, thank-you Covid-19). 
So, I'm grateful that Sean Connery existed. I'm saddened to hear of his passing, but I'm heartened by the peaceful way he went out. 
I hope he knew of the legacy that he leaves behind. Sure, Bond became a millstone around his neck at times, but whenever the cameras would catch him in the crowd at a Wimbledon Tournament, the crowd would clap and cheer. 
And the smile on his face always seemed genuine. 

Thanks for everything, Mr Connery. Your work has brought me much pleasure. 

RIP, and condolences to those close to you. 
                                         Fantastic artwork by Dave Seguin

Thanks for reading!