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.

Messiah

Today’s topic: the analysis of what is to me the greatest thriller ever made; David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). 

{As a WARNING, anyone who hasn’t seen the film or finds its subject matter (violence and gore) too difficult to bear with, please stop reading since spoilers and violent descriptions/pictures are to follow.}

David Fincher’s opinion on people is well known to film enthusiasts and his fellow collaborators, his view on who we are is a very crude, straightforward yet brave one: “People are perverts, that’s the foundation of my career.” If we have a look at Fincher’s work, his films always tackle the subject of evil, perversion and dishonesty. His movies very often revolve around who has the ultimate power, who is in a position to set the rules, who is in charge of a specific situation. And like the themes of his movies, Fincher’s direction is very unique. A rare, revolutionary voice in today’s cinema: “People will say, “There are a million ways to shoot a scene”, but I don’t think so. I think there’re two, maybe. And the other one is wrong.” He always aims for the perfect, most suitable vision for the right moment. That’s why his rigorous shooting technique (shooting a car parking in front of a hotel over twenty times) is well known as a symbol of the ultimate effort in a day when movies are shot in a few weeks thanks to CGI and sound stages. Yes, I’m referring to you, Avengers. My point is, Fincher may be brutal as a filmmaker but within that brutality there’s beauty, pure beauty that no one can steal from him.

The hopeless bloody countdown.
The hopeless bloody countdown.

Aside from his crowning Oscar winning work in The Social Network, and the legendary craftsmanship of the classic Fight Club, Fincher has been known to most viewers as the man behind the 1995 thriller, Se7en. It’s a jarring film, its brooding tone will never leave you, right? But why is that? After all, it was Fincher’s only second feature after the studio-forced disaster of 1992, Alien 3. He was a young newcomer with a few films under his belt as an assistant cameraman and photography assistant in the early 80s, and a lot to say. But the competition’s always tough. So what is so outstanding about his second film? Se7en is not only a mystery, detective story. It’s a study of the forgotten parts of our society. The seven deadly sins represent the worst of the worst, yet all the victims can be considered innocent. Innocent because of the world they live in. Detective Mills and Somerset, played respectively by a young Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman, aren’t exactly the heroes we expect them to be. Why should they; they live in a city where it always rains, in a country where murders are a daily routine, bread and butter for the public. In fact, Somerset is growing old and the city is kicking him down, he doesn’t even have the courage to look outside the window anymore. He cringes in disgust. Sighs in desperation. It’s filthy, rainy and blood flows in the sewers. The city remains nameless, and slowly becomes a closed trap, a place with no escape route. You live and you die there. It rains. There is no hope. Embrace it.

There is always a start to an end.
There is always a start to an end.

Mills and Somerset’s relationship represents every attempt of every human being to bond with another within this particular world. I may sound as if I’m repeating myself, but take a close look and pay attention to the details. When the movie starts out, the two don’t like each other, in fact, Fincher underlines it to this point that in some scenes he sets Mills on the far end of a room from Somerset. As the investigation progresses the two get closer, literally. The camera doesn’t cut away between the two anymore. It frames them both at the same time. They grow fond of each other, they feel responsible for one and other, and they know what drives both of them to do what they do.  And by the time they are regular partners, buddy cops really, the ending hits them. The cruel, gruesome ending strikes both of them and sets the two apart, depicting this way a very realistic relationship that most of us can relate to. Because the world we live in is not only beautiful, joyous and inspiring, it is also raw and devastating. It’s the things that we don’t pay attention to that drive this world to the legendary apocalypse. It’s what we pass by every single day and don’t mind looking at. Maybe we don’t want to look. We don’t want to know. After all, truth is often merciless.

A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.
A friendship that is about to be shattered to pieces.

John Doe, the mysterious serial killer, played by Kevin Spacey in his prime (delivering a monumental performance yet again), calls himself the messiah of this generation. It may sound as the words of a madman, which he is. But really, what was Doe’s objective, his ultimate goal? He wanted the world to wake up, shake it to its core and shake people’s minds while at it. Force feeding an obese man until his stomach burst, torturing a well respected lawyer, keeping a drug dealer alive for a whole year strapped to his bed with few drops of water and the minimal amount of food, forcing a pill popping girl to commit suicide, cutting up a prostitute with the help of a sharp bondage toy, and finally going into Mills’ house and cutting his pregnant wife’s head, is the proof that for someone to notice something in today’s world there needs to be a gruesome crime. For Doe, it wasn’t a crime. It was sweeping the floor, clearing the useless dust and dirt off the streets. And to just quote the character: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.” In a very twisted, sick, dark way it’s the truth. We tolerate all the wars, all the drug trade, the bombings, the fanatics, the pedophiles, the rapists. We see all the world’s filth on the news and our sole reaction is to shake our head, shrug and stand up and go make some tea. We brush our teeth and we’re off to bed. John Doe took the matter into his own hands, setting the example by even sacrificing himself: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

The walking conclusion.
The walking conclusion.

Mills, after hearing about the gory murder of his pregnant wife, loses his wits. He’s a human being after all, but Fincher manages to add something more to it. Whenever the camera focuses on the detectives, it’s shaky. But when it comes to a close-up of John Doe down on his knees, waiting for the big finale, the camera is set on a tripod demonstrating that Doe’s in charge. Steady as a rock. Believe what you want to believe, but the madman has power over the men of the law. Madman? At the very end is John Doe the real psychopath? Mills, knowing that by killing Doe the case will be dropped and he’ll lose everything he’s fought for, ignores it and guns down the prisoner. Food for thought.

Somerset ends the movie with the famous quote, which in my opinion, tells the whole hidden story not only behind the movie itself, but our reality as well: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part.” And that’s it. Fight for the better.

Losing every bit of humanity.
Losing every bit of humanity.

The Duke

Today’s topic: the controversial icon. I’ve known the name ‘John Wayne’ since I was a little child. It made me feel safe, it made feel right at home. That familiar face, those reassuring blue eyes, and that walk. He would come up on screen and it was celebration time for me and the entire family. An old friend. That’s who John Wayne is to me. Because let’s face it, maybe not my generation, but anybody who’s lived through the 50s, 60s or 70s  must remember what it felt like when the big man hit the theaters. Of course, a lot of people think of him as the racist, homophobic, over-the-top republican washed up Hollywood actor. Yet, there must be a reason why he’s still famous and remembered by millions as “The Duke”.

You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.
“You want that gun, pick it up. I wish you would.”

Go ahead, complain about how every movie of his was about cowboys shooting Indians, cowboys taking over the prairie, cowboys killing buffalos. I won’t argue. But there is a lot more to who he really was than just that first impression. Wayne (with an acting career that spread well over 50 years), in fact, was an inspiration to such future celebrities like Frank Sinatra, Roger Moore, Martin Scorsese and Michael Caine. He was great friends with Dean Martin, Bob Hope, Walter Brennan and James Stewart. He was revolutionary in the way he brought the Western genre to the big screen time after time and still managed to be a box office hit. However, Wayne was and still is misunderstood by the public. Seen as the ‘macho’ type, the one who always comes fists first, words later. The kind of character who punches someone and then asks the questions. A very common mistake committed by Hollywood, that still applies to today’s situation. John Wayne was type casted in the last twenty years of his career. He would be hired to make B-movies where he knocked the guy’s teeth out, or rammed through a door with his powerful kick. But as Wayne said many times: “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me. I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne. I know him well. I’m one if his closest students. I have to be. I make a living out of him.” 

In fact, many people don’t know this or refuse to believe it, but John Wayne’s walk was invented by the actor. Like the greatest performances we see on screen by actors like Daniel-Day Lewis, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio, Wayne would undergo tough, compelling changes in the way he behaved and talked. The famous walk was invented and built in its entirety by the actor himself. He wanted some of his characters to have a past, dark motivations, scarred memories. He wished to push the character development as far as possible, to the extreme edge. And look how he fooled whole generations of viewers, letting them believe that it was all part of his true self. The slurred speech, the funny look, the way he reached for his rifle, Wayne had it all under control and all hidden under a great actor’s mask. A hidden identity.

The angry bastard in Red River.
The angry bastard in Red River.

Of course, he also had a bad reputation amongst other Hollywood stars and well known directors; he would argue like a madman with frequent collaborator, the legendary John Ford (director of Stagecoach, Rio Grande, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), up to the point where the two would start cursing at each other and one of them would walk off set. During the shooting of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948), Wayne and actor-friend Walter Brennan would fight with co-star newcomer Montgomery Clift over political ideas; Brennan and Wayne were hardened Republicans while Clift was a convinced Democrat. Clift, after the movie got released, said he’d never work with the two again, especially with John Wayne. The Duke was  famous for his heavy drinking and chain smoking that eventually led to his death in 1979. He was also a strong supporter of the Hollywood Blacklisting, convinced that “un-american Americans need to stay out of here”.

So what is there to admire? Wayne’s passion and love for what he did. He loved acting, he loved people and he loved life. He loved simplicity and when we watch him act out his lines we see honesty and truth in the way he delivers them. Want to see an unusual, subtle performance by the tough guy who breaks people’s noses? Watch The Quiet Man (1952) and notice the transformation. For me, it will always be the 1959 Western, Rio Bravo (one of Tarantino’s favorites). The way Dean Martin’s character introduces the big man, Sheriff John T. Chance. His confident walk, his posture and warm look. A familiar face in a saloon full of bandits and drunks. There would always be hope when he  appeared on the big screen. His presence would and still does, make everything seem better. He can be the bad guy, the asshole, the hardened Sergeant, but he will always have a positive impact on how we view the picture. And I’ll never forget when Bruce Dern’s character in The Cowboys murdered John Wayne in cold blood. The tears I cried when I was a kid watching that scene. The many nightmares I’ve had since seeing that final bloody shootout. How could a nobody just go ahead and kill the man who’s never been killed before? How could someone put a deadly bullet into the back of a legend? I couldn’t comprehend and to this day I don’t have the courage to watch that scene in its entirety. It takes guts to kill John Wayne.

The way, Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.
The way Wayne revolutionized acting in The Searchers.

What’s my point? Perhaps I’m just talking to myself, perhaps I just want to remind myself of some childhood memories or perhaps I just like to brag about some of the forgotten idols. Whatever it is, I like to think that Wayne is and always will be appreciated for his presence, his warm smile and the fact that John Ford admitted that “Wayne will be the biggest star of all time”. Don’t let the controversies fool you, because we all live in a world that’s built on controversies. That’s no news.

The Duke will always be The Duke.

Sail on, Captain, sail on.
Sail on, Captain, sail on.