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.

To Be a Perro

Cruelty. Today’s subject matter will be cruelty portrayed in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut — Amores Perros. For some this movie can be tough as hell. Who doesn’t cringe at scenes that consist of bloody dog fighting? Who doesn’t cringe expecting the worst after the movie’s opening title: Life’s a Bitch?  No dogs were harmed in the making of this picture is the first disclaimer that appears on screen. Deal with that. Iñárritu, before entering the world of Hollywood and becoming one of the only three directors to win back-to-back Oscars for best directing, did at first make his small debut in Mexico. Small but effective, and considered to be one of the best directing debuts in the history of cinema and one of the best foreign language movies ever made. Ladies and gentlemen, this movie opened up doors that no one dared to open. To blend cruelty with love and despair? Art. Amores Perros has a heart and a razor sharp machete.

amo
The punisher and the punished.

Mexico City. A place where anything can happen. A place where you either wear a gun or make money off your dog’s death. A place where dreams are kept in a cage and all you can do is ceiling gazing. The lives of three people will collide after a horrendous car accident. There is blood involved. But no matter how deep we delve into the depths of physical pain and loneliness, Iñárritu will always observe the omnipresence of love. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, The Wolf of Wall Street), enhances the light, the grain of the picture, the bright colors that highlight the life on the filthy streets. The music goes from heavy Mexican rap to the delicate chord strumming songs composed by the great Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) because that’s the essence of life: it is a bitch that can either bite or caress. You don’t get to choose. The characters sure don’t. Octavio, El Chivo and Valeria sure don’t. They know cruelty more than anyone.

amoresperrosm720p-1
Octavio and his love. A love worth fighting for.

Octavio, played by the up and coming Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Motorcycle Diaries) is a young man who wants to get out of this hell hole. His older brother is a punk and a robber, and Octavio is in love with the brother’s wife, Susana. It is only a matter of time before Octavio finds out how to make money for his escape as quick as he can: dog fights. Life forces this young man to rely on the pain of his pet in order to get away from all this evil around him. He’ll take Susana and the baby with him. Plain and simple. Or maybe not. You see, Octavio’s young man’s dreams are immediately crushed by the ruthless force of life. Octavio embodies innocence, immaturity, inexperience. These are all qualities that make life difficult, that make of life an almost impossible task. Octavio will be forced to crawl into the dark world of drug dealers, gangsters and dog fighters. As the film progresses and Octavio’s story begins to go down along with all the bloody events, Iñárritu slowly unravels the boy’s helplessness. The camera starts to feel detached from the young man. It is not a comforting presence anymore. We feel dirty, involved, touched by Octavio’s struggles.

amoresperros1
Ceiling gazing.

Valeria, on the other hand, is a super model who gets involved with a married man. The two start living together and everything seems possible. Everything seems achievable. Love gives life a shape and form, doesn’t it? Valeria embodies beauty and success. Her whole career has consisted of posing in front of a camera and walking down the stage and accepting beauty awards. That’s all there is to her. But life’s cruel actions will mess this up. Valeria will be victim of the terrible car accident. Valeria won’t be the woman she once was. Her dog, Richie, will jump into a hole in the floor in order to find a lost toy, but he won’t come back. Richie will whimper and scratch against the wooden ceiling that is the floor. Daniel, Valeria’s boyfriend, will go crazy trying to free the dog and get him out to make his girlfriend happy. Richie is a symbol of humanity. Iñárritu won’t let him out until Daniel and Valeria have gone through the painful part of their relationship. It’s a test. And humanity doesn’t give up. It’s always there. Fighting off rats and surviving in the dark. It’s only a matter of time until humanity crawls out, breathing, alive.

66694966
The model – Valeria.

And then there is El Chivo, one of the most impressive characters ever put on screen, played to perfection by Emilio Echevarria. This is a man who has seen it all. He embodies the fading past, the painful weight of memory. El Chivo is a man of experience, once a guerilla fighter, now a paid assassin. He lives the live of a homeless man, surrounded by dogs, his only friends. Whatever happened to him in the past it’s for you to discover. He is father time and his presence feels almost holy and spiritual in some twisted way. He will take care of a dying dog and help the poor beast recover. He will square off and try to make peace between two business men, brothers, at war with each other. He is a force that is mostly felt rather than seen. When he walks down the street he is invisible to the people passing by. And yet, his actions count. Not only to strangers but his long lost family as well. He can take any physical shape or form. He can sport a Marxist beard or walk clean shaven dressed in a smart suit, but he will always be felt. He will always have a say. He will confront life and at the same time he will be life’s servant. That is all i can say about El Chivo. The rest is yours.

vague-visages-eye-on-inarritu-amores-perros-three
Trying to fix the past is not easy.

Amores Perros is certainly similar to the later Brazilian film City of God. Both are ruthless depictions of life on the street. However, City of God, as brilliant as it is, works much better as a documentary. It serves cold facts and chews on a plot that has not much to offer in terms of analyzing the bigger picture. It is as bloody as Amores Perros but it does not work as well as the latter does. Iñárritu paints with blood and emotions. For him life is a bitch because we are not powerful enough. We will never be. We want to be but that is highly unlikely to happen. The three intersecting stories of Octavio, Valeria and El Chivo offer the viewer the essence of life. Love, anger, revenge and the bitter taste of past mistakes make of life a cruel bitch. A bitch that will always prevail. Only El Chivo will walk this earth forever.

amores-perros-2000
The omnipresent guardian.

Biutiful Man

Today’s topic: the presence of death in film. It’s always there, isn’t it? That cold feeling in your stomach, afraid that the character you’re following might be a few steps away from his last one. Goose bumps. Will the movie end? What’ll happen if he/she dies? Death can be the running engine of an entire film. We wait for action, and often action results in a character’s death on-screen. It’s what sometimes stimulates us to watch the movie – we wait for something to happen, we wait for the story to unfold, we desperately need an event to occur in the last minutes of the running time. However, out of the many death-driven films out there (Mar adentro, Amour, The Downfall) the most curious and, oddly enough, beautiful  one I’ve ever encountered is Iñárritu’s 2010 acclaimed drama, Biutiful. Ironic title.

Lead by a staggering performance given by Javier Bardem, the film tells the story of a man, named Uxbal, who is destined to die. Soon. And he knows it. That’s it. That’s the whole plot for those who’ve never heard of this project. Uxbal is as human as humans can get. His hair is becoming grayer and grayer, his skin pale as milk, his eyes like oil wells, dark. He lives in the rough neighborhood of Barcelona, where the tourists refuse to come visit. They’re right. Only a dead man like Uxbal can walk those streets. He’s got nothing to lose, yet at the same time, everything. His two kids, looking up to him. Looking up to who? A man who lives off other people’s lives. In this case, immigrant Asian workers trapped inside illegal underground workshops, sewing clothes that will end up on Barcelona’s black market. Uxbal treats them better than the usual smugglers, in some scenes reminding us of the good Samaritan. Does it matter? He is a criminal living off his last days. A cloud over his head, waiting for the right moment to let it rain.

Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it's gone.
Family man. Last chance to make things right and then it’s gone.

Uxbal has powers. He hears voices. Spirits telling him the end is near. He urinates blood. Wipes it with a handkerchief. Does it matter? You’re going to go, old man. However, Uxbal is not afraid of dying. He knows it’s not up to him to decide. But he must fix some things. Fix the cracks he’s opened. He must put food on the table. He must  kiss his little daughter’s forehead. He must teach his children a few valuable life lessons; no swearing, always fight for what’s right, never back down, and learn English. Death slowly  creeps into Uxbal’s soul and body, weakening his physique, stepping on his back until he can’t stand up from the toilet. He coughs, and every time he does it, a minute goes by. A moment flies away. Uxbal’s ultimate goal is to get off the streets, stop the criminal activity. Stop the pain he’s been inflicting on other people his whole, entire miserable life. That’s when in one of his workshops there is a gas leakage that kills all the sleeping employees; women, elders and babies. That’s blood on Uxbal’s hands. It’s the ultimate punishment. A reminder that no one gets away without consequences. Death might take you away from the world you’re living in but it won’t take you away from your sins. There is no way out of that. Forgiveness is what he asks for. In vain. Death is no listener. You need to get dirty one last time. Uxbal does. Dragging out the bodies by night, to the beach, to the open sea, making it look like a refugee tragedy. The bodies, floating in the open sea are everything that Uxbal’s tried to fight during the last moments of his life. There is no redemption, no last minute salvation. It’s take it or leave it.

The last crime.
The last crime.

Uxbal cries. Death has stolen his tears. His cheeks are dry. Is he really crying? That’s what death does to you. It makes you wonder if you’re still feeling anything, if you still got what it takes to be considered a human being. It makes you think about all the evil things you’ve done while you were alive and hits you with the reality: it’s too late, old man. You’re gone. You’re history. Your thoughts, your opinions, your advice and suggestions, they don’t matter anymore. Your words of love, anger, frustration and happiness are gone with the wind. Uxbal spins around, takes a deep breath and looks up at the night lights of Barcelona. What now, spirits? Is it time? One last word to his daughter. The death of a criminal. A peaceful death. They hold hands. And while she admires his family ring, a beautiful object that has connected Uxbal’s predecessors since the early ages, Uxbal drifts off…

Uxbal’s in a forest. That’s death. Peace, quiet, silence. It’s snowing. A man appears out of nowhere. An angel? Uxbal’s lost father? They smoke together. Laugh.

That’s when Uxbal, for the first time in his life, feels clean. Saved.

Ending the journey of life.
Ending the journey of life.