The Man Who Dared to Be King: Remembering Sean Connery

It’s always unfortunate when an actor’s career, in the wake of their death, gets narrowed down to their singular, most popular role. With the passing of Sir Sean Connery, it was inevitable that the world would be busy bidding farewell to the one and only 007, aka James Bond. After all, he was the first star to embody the world’s greatest spy, the first major star to utter the words, ”The name’s Bond. James Bond.” And yet, today I want to explore the Connery that I know from anything but the James Bond franchise. I want to go beyond the years of fame celebrated as the deadliest secret agent, and explore the numerous years he spent trying to escape the Hollywood trap of typecasting. I want to look at Sean Connery as the artist who wouldn’t go down without a fight.

After the enormous success of Dr No, the first ever Bond entry, it’s fascinating to see where Connery decided to go. At a time when more lead actors began taking on more complex and transgressive roles, including the likes of Paul Newman with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Richard Burton in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, Connery was smart enough to decide not to stick to the script, and try his hand at something a little less conventional than smoking cigarettes, sleeping with very attractive women and killing bad guys. By starring in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, he showed that his good looks can skillfully mask whatever bubbles inside of him. In this psychological thriller, Connery plays Mark, an elegant, respectful gentleman who eventually turns out to be a violent rapist, taking advantage of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie both physically as well as psychologically. The initial charm fades away and is replaced by an ominous air of threat. To viewers of the time, who were used to the likes of Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, familiar faces known for playing predictable, well intentioned characters, such a sudden, terrifying revelation came as a shock. The film resulted in mixed reviews. The violent sexual relationship between Mark and Marnie seemed to be too much for both audiences and critics, but the message Connery’s performance had conveyed was loud and clear: I will not be just another victim of the studio system. I will be my own master.

Marnie introduced a new dimension to Connery’s on-screen persona.

And so it was. After completing his spell as James Bond, and passing on the torch over to George Lazenby and Roger Moore, Connery was desperate to bite into meatier roles and wipe the slate clean. His work with Sidney Lumet is perhaps the most interesting chapter of Connery’s sprawling career and proof of what a great talent he was. Having collaborated with the likes of Marlon Brando, Rod Steiger and eventually, Al Pacino, Lumet had a reputation of being the best actor’s director. His focus on rehearsals and precise, almost ritualistic on-set direction was the key to granting Connery the freedom he needed to truly express his range as an actor. And perhaps that is what comes off as most evident and remarkable in Connery as an on-screen presence: his range. Utilizing his good looks to seduce the audience is one thing, but turning the tables around through humor that often resulted in outbursts of rage, indignation and shame is what, to me, put Sir Sean on the pedestal among the very best actors of his generation. Look no further than Lumet’s The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1973).

Connery’s excellent turn in Sindey Lumet’s convinct movie, The Hill.

Both films deal with the strength, and simultaneously, the fragility of the human spirit. The Hill, set in some godforsaken desert hole during WWII, tells the story of military prisoners struggling to stay alive due to the grueling and brutal drills carried out by a blood thirsty Sergeant. Connery plays one of the more rebellious prisoners, former sergeant major Roberts, who continues to stand up to the cruelty inflicted upon his fellow detainees. Yet our favorite Scotsman never tries to play the role with a holier-than-thou attitude. He plays him like a convict: a man scarred by his past, uncertain about his future, incapable of taming his violent instincts, yet unwilling to back down even in the face of the worst kinds of pain. Far from Steve McQueen’s idealistic version of a prisoner in The Great Escape, Connery once again knew what needed to be done to push aside the audience’s expectations and throw any preconceived labels or judgements out the window.

In The Offence, Connery gives arguably his best performance.

Two of his greatest anti-hero roles came in the troubled, nihilistic cinema of the 70s. His most remarkable collaboration with Lumet, The Offence is a deep dive into the twisted nature of violence, as Connery plays a police detective set on getting the truth out a suspect by any means necessary. The policeman, blinded by shock and trauma experienced after years and years of collecting dead bodies off the street, channels Connery’s own much talked about inner violent, brutish character. Although he presumably stands for what is morally good and right, his methods of interrogation are far from such ideals. After beating the suspect to a pulp, the detective realizes he’s become the very individual he spent his whole life chasing: his life thus is meaningless, torn apart by the appeal of violence, a statement that rings particularly true in the time and setting this movie was produced, and that without a doubt reveals some dark truths about what we, as viewers, consider to be entertainment and glamour.

The seductive nature of power in The Man Who Would Be King.

In The Man That Would Be King (1975), directed by John Huston and based on a Rudyard Kipling novella, we get a glimpse of the corruptible force of power as Connery plays a British Army officer set on becoming the king of an unexplored Oriental land. His initial fascination with adventure and his friendship with a fellow officer (played by Connery’s dear friend in real life, Sir Michael Caine) disappear once Connery’s protagonist discovers what power, in the form of a kingdom of devoted followers that see him as a divine figure meant to bring them salvation, truly tastes like. Connery once again plays this role with a mix of boyish humor and intimidating physicality that makes him hard to dislike, but equally hard to root for as he blindly heads for the inevitable fall from grace. Similarly to his character in the story, Connery walks a fine line between charm and terror, fun and cruelty, cunning instinct and blind ignorance. The eventual downfall is a tragic one, but Connery’s character walks toward it with the reassured step of a man who’s seen enough in life and knows that his time has come.

As Malone in The Untouchables.

Looking back on the career of a man who appeared in over one hundred films, we see what life is really made of: change. Connery’s skill in adapting to the times he lived in is a sight to behold. He knew how to respond to the sexual revolution of the 60s by acting on his sex appeal and his masculine features, the same way he knew how to meet the demands of the audiences of the 70s by playing characters that questioned the morality and ideals of the society these audiences belonged to. In the 80s and 90s, the age of blockbusters and action films, Connery continued his successful run by capitalizing on his larger-than-life persona and appearing in films like The Untouchables, Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, The Hunt for Red October, The Rock and Entrapment. He went from learning the craft from the likes of Hitchcock and Lumet to mentoring up-and-coming stars in Kevin Costner, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Zeta-Jones. And despite often falling victim to his own celebrity status, it is undeniable that Sir Sean Connery was one of the last members of a dying breed, one the likes of which we will sadly never see again.

Catching-up

Hey, folks — Updating all of you real quick. Today I will list a few movies that I’ve recently watched for the first time. All three made quite an impression on me – one is already in my top favorites, the second is a wasted potential for an incredible arthouse film and the third is an eye popping epic that falls flat to me as a viewer in 2016.

The movies are:

  1. Zabriskie Point (1970) – Michelangelo Antonioni’s controversial message directed at capitalism and war in America in the late sixties. It is a moving picture, one that carries Antonioni’s signature style of alienation, loneliness and trapped anger and at the same time manages to make it a pleasant trip about love, drugs and memory. Shot on location in the Death Valley, and more accurately in the area of Zabriskie Point, a picturesque setting of dunes and hard rock,  Antonioni’s film is an analysis of the struggle that American youth had to go through during the hardest of times. It’s a bloody postcard to neo-realism and a terrifyingly dramatic comedy. It’s beautiful. More later.

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    Where are you going, kid?
  2. Only God Forgives (2013) – The story of nothing that could have been the story of everything. What a painful experience this was. Nicolas Winding Refn, director of such critically acclaimed movies like Bronson and Drive, directs one of the sloppiest films I’ve ever seen. Only God Forgives, a “story” of a drug dealer that wants to avenge his brother’s murder in Bangkok, is a giant of a movie tamed by its laziness and excessive need to express its artistry. Refn wishes to make his film special by not delivering what makes a movie a movie: a development. A development of any kind, be it character, story or theme. It’s not there. Everything is made out of thin air. Ryan Gosling walking with a dead pan expression on his face is not what makes a movie a piece of art. More later.

    Only-God-Forgives-085
    ZZZzzz
  3. How the West Was Won (1962) – the definition of an epic motion picture that gets overlooked quite a lot considering its grand scale and storytelling technique. A film that yells American patriotism and pride. Directed with a (at the time) incredibly modern camera, the Cinerama 70mm, the film tells the story of the very beginnings of the Wild West with an all star cast that includes golden stars like James Stewart, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Gregory Peck, Hendry Fonda, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach and Carroll Baker. For me, a viewer in 2016, the film managed to stun me and exceed my expectations with its gorgeous 70mm cinematography that captures beautifully vast landscapes of the America we all heard so much about but never actually got to witness. However, the film fails to deliver emotions and a sense of credibility due to it being literally wrapped in an American flag and being presented as the ultimate account of How the West Was Won. More later.

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Talk about eye popping. And this was shot in 1961.

Coin Toss

Today’s topic: Cormac McCarthy’s mind through the eyes of the Coen Brothers. Two different worlds: McCarthy, a veteran writer, known for his violent, slow-paced narrative in novels like Child of God, The Road and Blood Meridian and the Coen Brothers – creators of the concept of  “thought provoking, dark comedy” and quirky screenwriters, famous for their off-beat characters and dialogue in films such as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and True Grit. When these two, opposite worlds meet what do we get? One of the best thrillers and film experiences of all time: No Country For Old Men. A bloody, savage tale of an ending era and the birth of a new one. The tale of blood spilled in the desert. The tale of an unstoppable chase. The tale of humanity.

No Country For Old Men tells the story of a man who finds a suitcase full of drug money, a killer who chases him, and an old sheriff who tries to stop the killer. Plain and simple. But what marks this film and separates it from all the other chase-scenario thrillers is the unique voice that it carries. It’s a philosophy class, to be honest. That’s what I think. That’s what the old folks used to say. The Coen Brothers let the words of McCarthy flow through their screenplay. What they do is they direct them in a way that underlines every syllable and noun and impacts the viewer by gluing him to the screen.

The air is dry. The sun is up. The Texas border is crawling with sick individuals looking for a stash of coke or whatever it is they can find. Gangs organize stand-offs in the desert. Motorways are busy. Motels too. People live in trailers and buy their groceries at the local gas station. It’s time for a change. Some things need to go, others need to appear. It’s not the land of the opportunity anymore. Lawman Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) has seen enough bad doings in his life. He’s tired. He loves his wife dearly and his horses even more. He carries a gun, which is surprising because some of his predecessors, even his father and his grandpa, never did. Never felt the need to. The world’s changed. Bell’s eyes have changed. His hair is now grey, and as he recounts the bloody happenings of a summer in the 1980’s Texas, he tells the story of a whole world being crushed by evil. Evil that cannot be caught. Evil that slips through our fingers every time we get hold of it. Evil that looks straight at us every time we wake up. That’s Sheriff’s new reality: an obscure cloud taking over the bright Texas plains.

The old man and the desert.
The old man and the desert.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) is a simple man. Born and raised in a small town in Texas, never been to Paris or London. He’s a hunter. He has a wife and a small cozy trailer. That’s all he needs to be happy. Or at least up until the moment when he finds a suitcase loaded with money: blood stained drug money. And someone is looking for it. Someone is ready to do anything to get that money back. That’s when Moss, the hunter, becomes the prey. Fate chases him with nothing but deadly intentions. Death. That’s what’s coming. But Moss, who represents the naivety of kids chasing dreams, is too dumb to see the big picture. The money is tempting: a big house, a better job, a nice car. You can do anything if you got the dead presidents. Unless, you got a snake in your pocket. That’s when you should run.

Don't hunt if you don't know your prey.
Don’t hunt if you don’t know your prey.

But what from? Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, in top form), the snake. The snake without a rattle. You don’t hear him coming. You don’t see him coming. He’s the new plague that gets into your country, your city, your house, your room. That’s who he is. He is a madman with no brakes. He is a man with no limits. He is a man who plays with life and death by making bets: a coin toss, in this case. And when he asks you to call it, you better do. Because he will not ask again. He will not give you a chance. He laughs at chance. You can’t bribe him, you can’t promise him anything because he just doesn’t care. He doesn’t obey anyone and anything. He moves only when he wants to. Why does he chase Moss? For the money? No. The money couldn’t mean less to Anton. He chases him because he must. It’s why he exists. His duty is to make your life miserable. His duty is to burn everything that Sheriff’s built throughout his career. He kills because there is no other reason for him to live if not to kill other people. And you know what’s the worst thing about him? He keeps coming. And he never goes down.

That is why No Country For Old Men is so exceptional. It’s a dark, twisted tale about the changes that our world, our lives undergo every day. The tale of a world that keeps crumbling at our feet. We wake up, we breathe for what? What is the purpose of all that surrounds us? All this destruction…

Where is the joy of living if you can’t stop what’s coming?

Evil is at your door, and it doesn't knock.
Evil is at your door, and it doesn’t knock.

Pulp It

Today’s topic: violence. Yeah, sure we can say a lot about violence. In a certain sense if violence didn’t exist cinema would be running short of movies. But by violence I don’t mean Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop or Rush Hour 2 type of violence. Why not? Well, violence has its own, specific voice and one of the most famous directors still hot in the business can be called the Godfather of violence. That man is Quentin Tarantino.

Violence can be shown on film in many different ways. Very often it’s vulgar, over the top or even madly sadistic. It can look childish like Jackie Chan swinging his fists at a pack of thugs or even Bruce Willis jumping through a window firing two revolvers and a shotgun at the same time, yet it still is the same old stupid cliché. What stands out in Tarantino’s films is the way he deals with portraying in an elegant, meaningful way the bloody art of violence. In fact, when you all hear the name, Quentin Tarantino, what do you think of? Let me guess; the bloody opening to Reservoir Dogs, or the famous quote from Pulp Fiction “Oh, man! I shot Marvin in the face!”, or the Crazy 88 stand-off in Kill Bill Vol. 1, or the Jewish scalp hunters from Inglorious Basterds, or even the monumental finale of Django Unchained? 

Can it get any more violent?
Can it get any more violent?

The point is this: Tarantino can paint with violence. He can create images so gory, so gut wrenching yet always pleasant to look at. Perhaps it’s his delicious, suspenseful dialogue that keeps us glued to the screen. Or perhaps it’s his ability to pay tribute to his favorite directors in a very fun way for the viewer to enjoy. Or perhaps it’s his memorable characters that we love and follow anywhere be it the moody Mississippi or the French farm fields. He can easily turn a scene upside down from what we’d expected and still get away with it. Remember the scene from Inglorious Basterds that takes place in a cafe called La Louisiane? The scene starts off in a very innocent manner. The Jewish rebels, dressed as Nazi officers, are supposed to meet an informant who will give them key information for their next mission. Little details, like a German soldier having a party because of his son’s birth, or the card game organized by some of the customers, or even the sawed off shotgun kept under the counter by the suspicious bartender, all of these elements manage to have an impact on what will follow. Bloodbath. That’s right. Unexpected bloodbath. But with Tarantino, the bloodbath isn’t a simple bloodbath. It’s a classical western stand-off, where two rival sides are waiting for the right moment to act and when it’s on… well, it’s ON! Guns go off, people die.

You never know what's about to happen.
You never know what’s about to happen.

But how in the world can Tarantino get away with it? Why can he create such weird, unique situations and end them the way he does? Well, I know for a fact that the writer-director doesn’t like when people go sniffing around his work, trying to crack open his words and I understand that. I do.  However, sometimes I just can’t resist.

Tarantino is known for being a strong gun-control supporter and a man who’s against drug use. You wouldn’t know that if you were basing your information on Pulp Fiction or Death Proof. But, that’s the truth. In his movies, this is how I interpret his work, Tarantino shows us that no matter how odd, how regular, how ordinary we and our lives are, anything can happen. Kill BillBride at the beginning of the movie is a simple woman who wants to get married, have a family, watch her child grow, and then what happens? Her wedding turns into a massacre and she, on the other hand, becomes a highly trained assassin who wants revenge at all costs. This is Tarantino’s trademark: life’s oddities. Violence can become anyone’s hobby. We can walk down the street, catch a bus, go to work, or– we can go to a biker club and start a brawl, ending up in the hospital at the end of the day. The titular character from Tarantino’s Jackie Brown is a working class black woman caught up between an evil arms dealer and two annoying cops. To get back at her rivals, she becomes a determined con with a plan that only she knows to perfection. That’s that. Easy, right?

Don't mess with Jackie.
Don’t mess with Jackie.

And in fact, this is what it’s all about. Violence is not supposed to be considered as a brain-dead excuse for making a movie. It’s not supposed to be treated with disgust and anger. It’s a part of life. It’s something that takes place all over the world. It’s something we can all relate to, because when it comes to what’s important and worth the struggle, we all act.

Violence is the unexpected, the great mystery that keeps poking our world. Deal with it.