Friday, November 20, 2020

More Than Just Bond: Deceased Artiste Sean Connery in the films of Sidney Lumet

Though he became famous in the Sixties and worked all over the world, Sean Connery was an old-fashioned Hollywood movie star. He was certainly Scottish to the core (one of his two tattoos testified to that), but his charisma, bearing, and style on camera meant that he was always “Sean Connery,” no matter what role he was playing.

He was also ambitious as hell, and once he had achieved superstardom as James Bond (in a quintet of films that have certainly been equaled but not bettered) he burned to leave the role forever and start doing some real acting. (He had done a lot of theater before starring in films.)

He made a handful of incredibly excellent films in the Sixties and Seventies, but once the Eighties came around and he was over 50 and had even won an Oscar, he settled into a run of commercial properties that didn’t exercise his acting skills at all. (The exceptions can be counted on one hand.) But when he had extended himself in the Sixties and Seventies, he did terrific work in unforgettable (although not super-popular — or popular at all) films.

Before I discuss his collaborations with Sidney Lumet, with whom he made some excellent films, just a note or two about Connery the movie star. Firstly, he was one of the first male sex symbols to appear in his natural bald state onscreen. Think of the older bald stars who wore wigs for years (John Wayne, Bogart, Sinatra) and the stars who came later than Connery but still wore absurdly phony wigs (Burt Reynolds being a prime example — and, of course, William Shatner). Connery was comfortable in his baldness and was so preternaturally confident onscreen that he still was voted “sexiest man alive” often, as not only a bald man but a senior bald man.

The other aspect that instantly identified Connery was his Scottish burr. A regional accent was nothing new to movie stars — think of the always-British-even-when-he-played-average-American-Joes, Mr. Cary Grant, and European stars who gave terrific performances with their native accents. For Connery, the burr was a point of pride, since it marked him as a Scot in the British film industry (to many Americans his burr was just “another British accent”).

Before the movies,
as an artist's model.
The Scots and the Irish joined with the Cockneys in being defiantly regional in the class-conscious world of British entertainment. Of course, Connery’s friend and fellow “King,” Michael Caine, proudly flaunted his regional accent as well.

Connery’s retention of his burr wasn’t a problem in some of his best films, but it was completely ridiculous when he played Arabs or other “foreign” races. Even when playing characters who had never stepped foot in Scotland, Connery always had the burr. The sibilance emphasized in recent impressions of Sean arrived in his later work — perhaps a tic gained in old age or a way to deal with dentures or other dental probs.

Much was made online of two quotes from interviews he did that reflected his “old world” view of the relationships between men and women. Again, outrage over everything (and the search to find something to be outraged over) is a prime occupation in these times.

Whenever one is confronted with information about the “underside” of a much beloved show-biz figure (which incidentally was seemingly never a problem for anyone Connery dated or married — there has been no ex-partner who complained about sexist behavior from him), one is best served to remember John Waters’ quote about Fassbinder (which I’m paraphrasing here). When talking  about the great RWF (whose work he loved), Waters said, “I hear that he was a monster, but I never had to live with him.” Words to live by.

The most familiar look.
In private, Sean certainly knocked back a few. One of the few times he was a bit “disorderly” in public was viewed by my father, who was a major Connery fan. It seems Sean appeared on a local television show hosted by the writer-raconteur Malachy McCourt along with Richard Harris (who costarred with Connery in The Molly McGuires in 1970, most likely the date of the appearance). Connery clearly had a few before the program, to the extent that he used a UK expression that should not be used on the air (even on U.S. TV) — the channel the program aired on (Ch. 5 in NYC) showed McCourt’s show live, in the fashion of David Susskind’s “Open End.” Hellraiser Harris had to move in for “damage control” and take command of the interview.

From "The Bowler and the Bunnet."

In any case, Connery’s pride produced one item I found while researching this piece, a U.K. TV rarity that was posted online and pulled down in the weeks since Sean’s death.

In 1967, Connery directed a documentary, “The Bowler and the Bunnet,” for Scottish television about an initiative in a Scottish shipbuilding firm to share the company with the bosses and management. The doc is only 36 minutes long and is very much of its time, with flashy camerawork and editing and a “social conscience” mixed with the (correct) assumption that the best way to keep the viewer interested was to have Connery walk through the locations quite a lot.

The topic is very serious, so Sean himself provides the comic relief playing “footy” with the younger workers, showing off the parts of the ships, and hovering above, behind, and nearby when work or a meeting is transpiring (and one Glasgow cinema used for one of the latter is playing a double bill of Dr. No and From Russia With Love).

It’s lighter fare than the politically engaged films about factory work made by auteurs like Chris Marker, and also has Connery in “professional” mode (for that year), hiding his baldness under a cap (the titular “bunnet”). And yes, he’s already got a mustache — his one-two punch, along with his very prominent eyebrows, to move attention away from his dome and back to his face.


Setting aside Marnie (1964), which is either a later masterwork by Hitchcock (as argued in Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films) or a slapped-together compromise (as argued in Donald Spoto’s books), the first significant dramatic starring role that Connery had was given to him by a director whom I’ve written about before, the great Sidney Lumet. Lumet was often referred to as a “great New York director,” and that constrictive label can be completely dispelled by three of the films he made with Connery.

The first one, The Hill (1965), had a terrific starring part for Sean, as a very proud British soldier who lands in a WWII British prison camp run by two sadists. Thus, the macho side of Connery is present, but his character isn’t anything like Bond — he’s a devoted military man who is in the camp because he struck an officer. Thus, he is both more of a straight-arrow than Bond and more of an inherently “political” character.

"Shorn" indeed.
Connery wanted very much to not look like Bond in his other films, and so he has the mustache in the film that he wore in private life, as well as a cropped haircut that worked well with his balding pate. He wanted to be regarded as a working actor and not a “personality,” and so he is an antihero in the picture but is also a martinet who lives by a code of ethics that constantly brings him into conflict with his superiors.

The plot finds a cellmate of Connery dying from rough treatment at the hands of one of the sadistic officers. Connery’s character stands firm in wanting to report the incident as a murder to the camp’s commander. The theatrical origins of the film are apparent throughout — although the scenes shot on the titular hill (a form of torture for the camp inmates) are memorably grim, the plot and theme are best conveyed through tense and often insulting dialogue. Connery discussed (starting at 26:59 in the clip below) with Irish critic Mark Cousins how the film’s best scene wasn’t in the play, and was written to flesh out the theme of the piece.


Lumet was certainly a director whose best work showed a growth over the years, but he began to infuse his work with modernist visual techniques in the mid-Sixties, most prominently in the finale of Fail-Safe and the memory montages in The Pawnbroker (both 1964). Here we encounter images and editing that showed Lumet’s awareness of European cinema and the manner in which the new auteurs were conveying emotions visually.

Lumet was also a superb director of actors, and even his meagerest films usually had terrific casting for the supporting roles. In The Hill, he employs a number of top-notch British actors and one great American — Ossie Davis, playing a West Indian soldier imprisoned for stealing liquor. Davis’ character is the only person who stands with Connery against the camp officers, and he has several standout sequences, including one where he reports the murder of their cellmate to the camp commander wearing only his underwear and jumping around like a gorilla (but reinforcing quite seriously that an inmate was tortured to death).

The Hill was lauded by critics (and won Best Screenplay at Cannes) and it did establish once and for all that Connery could do more than lift an eyebrow while aiming a Walther PPK. It also did show that Lumet could direct any kind of material with style and intensity. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The next film Lumet made starring Connery is a *very* New York piece, The Anderson Tapes (1971). A caper film shot in some great NYC locations, it has an intriguing premise that never quite amounts to anything, other than letting the film look and sound very flashy.

Connery and Lumet shoot The Anderson Tapes.

That premise, simply put, is that a band of thieves planning to rob the inhabitants of an affluent Fifth Avenue apartment building are under constant surveillance for various reasons (none of which concern them directly). The idea itself is a brilliant one, which surely could’ve spawned a terrific crime picture that also said something about the surveillance state (and this back in ’71!). Unfortunately, though, the surveillance aspect just becomes an intermittent gimmick that provides amusement and answers the eternal question raised in caper movies (namely, how will our antiheroes get caught?).

Connery is ex-con Anderson, who leads the criminal crew; among his cohorts is an impossibly young Christopher Walken (in his major-studio feature debut). The supporting cast contains familiar faces from the movies and TV, including Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Ralph Meeker, Alan King, Val Avery, Dick Anthony Williams, Garrett Morris, Stan Gottlieb, Anthony Holland, Richard B. Shull, Conrad Bain, and Margaret Hamilton!

Aging Connery, young Walken.

The comic scenes, of which there are many, are well-played but distract from the storyline proper. And Quincy Jones’ musical score is electronic enough to reinforce the surveillance theme, but can’t make it mean anything in the long run. Lumet’s Achilles’ heel was his not being a scripter — Anderson was one of several of his pictures that could’ve been great but needed rewrites, if not by the director then basically anyone else. That said, the film was a box-office hit. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


United Artists was so intent on getting Connery back into the Bond franchise in the early Seventies that they would agree to anything. The result was his starring in Diamonds Are Forever, and a two-picture deal that produced only one film, The Offence (1973), which was a box office flop but contains arguably Connery’s best-ever dramatic performance on film.

Lumet directs
Connery and Bannen.
Connery produced the film and chose Lumet to direct. The material being adapted was another play, which showed its roots even more clearly than The Hill, being primarily a sequence of bravura two-character scenes. The plot revolves around plainclothes police sergeant Johnson (Sean Connery), who is having a mental breakdown and becomes emotionally caught up in the apprehension of a child murderer, Baxter (Ian Bannen). During his interrogation of Baxter, whom he is certain is the killer, he beats him to death. Johnson has a terse discussion with his wife (Vivien Merchant) before he submits to his own interrogation by a police superintendent (Trevor Howard).

The third act of the film is the full interrogation with Baxter, leading up to Johnson beating him. (Previous glimpses of the interrogation were brief.) Baxter’s taunting of Johnson makes Johnson understand that he has similar instincts. (Lumet intercuts images of Connery being gentle and doting to the last, intended victim, as if he too was a pedophile.)

While Anderson missed the boat entirely, The Offence is both a great drama and it makes two great points: about police work blunting the emotions of the officers, and that the best method of detective work is an identification with the criminal that the policeman can’t pull away from. (A similar theme was presented in Richard Tuggle’s 1984 Eastwood vehicle Tightrope.)

These themes are reflected in two unforgettable scenes. The first is Johnson recounting the horrors he’s seen as a policeman to his wife, whose looks he openly insults — the film is a grim, dark portrait that meticulously chronicles the mindset of a cop “on the edge.” At this point, the police procedural aspect of the film goes away and we’re in a superb (if unforgivingly dark) character study.

The second scene that can’t be forgotten is the full interrogation. The scene begins with Johnson in a rare upbeat moment, joking with the suspect. Shortly in, though, Baxter begins to taunt him so effectively that we realize that Johnson will turn violent to shut him up.

It’s a beautifully played sequence that leads one to believe Baxter wants to be punished by the “hard man” Johnson and is taunting him to receive his comeuppance. (Baxter’s smiles at Johnson contain a great degree of masochism.) “Nothing I have done,” says the child-rapist murderer to Johnson, “can be one half as bad as the thoughts in your head.” When Johnson condemns him verbally, he responds, “It’s there in everyone, you know that. There’s nothing I can say you haven’t imagined….”

Lumet was famous for giving actors their “Oscar performance,” and The Offence certainly contains Connery’s best dramatic moments onscreen. Contrarian and cranky-man that he was, Sean dismissed the film in the Mark Cousins interview. Cousins hazards when they reach the early Seventies in the Connery chronology, “The Offence, of course, was a great picture.” To which Connery replies, “Yeah, yeah, all my family went to see it.” By this point (1997), Connery was strictly interested in making movies that did good box-office and no longer challenged himself.

For his part, Lumet carefully weaves in modernist techniques, the most important being our view of the world inside Johnson’s head — with an interrogation lamp blurring out various moments where he loses his temper. The Offence was released the same year as Serpico, and thus is an excellent (if totally non-NYC) precursor to Lumet’s well-known New York cop pictures (Serpico, Prince of the City, Q&A). (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The fourth time Connery worked with Lumet he had a supporting part in a star-studded ensemble in one of the greatest of all movie whodunits, Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Again, we are far from NYC in this film (with Martin Balsam, Anthony Perkins, and Lauren Bacall providing the only American presences in the film — and Balsam does a terrific Italian accent).

Murder is indeed one of the best-ever adaptations of Agatha Christie, with one of her perfect solutions to a murder mystery. The cast is sublime, with Albert Finney doing a beautifully cartoonlike (yet still dead serious, when he needs to be) interpretation of Hercule Poirot, and every guest star but two being a very likely suspect.

Connery plays an older, much more rigid version of the type of character he played in The Hill — a military man devoted to the concept of honor who actually helps Poirot assemble the solution to the mystery with his comments about the efficacy of the jury system. (“12 good men and true. It’s a sound system.”)

The balance that Lumet and scripter Paul Dehn found between a tongue-in-cheek approach to the material and a strict adherence to the codes of the genre is nothing short of miraculous. It is both a perfect Hollywood movie of the Seventies (in its wry approach to adapting a classic mystery novel) and a perfect Thirties movie (offering both a tight script and a bevy of unassailable performances).

The film only gets better with age and, of course, didn’t need to be remade but was, several times — in 2001 with Alfred Molina starring as Poirot, in 2010 with David Suchet as the Belgian super-sleuth, in 2017 as an audio play with Tom Conti exercising his “little grey cells,” and again in 2017 with Kenneth Branagh both directing and starring as Poirot in another one of his misguided moves as a filmmaker. And that’s not counting a Japanese remake…. (Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


The last Connery-Lumet collaboration, Family Business (1989) is a perfect example of Eighties “bloat” in major studio moviemaking. Two big stars — Connery and Dustin Hoffman — are spotlighted, the plot is an excuse for a series of rather tepid comedic and dramatic scenes, and every aspect (right down to Cy Coleman’s bombastic, Broadway-sounding score for a non-musical crime picture/family drama) is the product of a “big” approach that fails.

Connery and Lumet, later on.
From the first, the film makes no sense, as Connery plays the father of Hoffman, who in turn plays a Scottish-Sicilian-American former mobster (!) who doesn’t want his son (the always non-magnetic and un-absorbing Matthew Broderick) to get involved in the world of crime. The missed opportunities in The Anderson Tapes are nothing compared to the mistakes made here — the most obvious being the father-son pairing of the leads. (Connery’s character lives in a completely Irish-American milieu, but it is emphasized that he emigrated from Scotland several decades ago.)

Unlikely relatives.
The film is poorly paced, with the first section devoted entirely to humor and the second attempting to make us feel for several patently unrealistic and unrelatable characters. It was a dud at the box office and was dismissed by critics. Its one memorable moment finds Connery yelling at his unlikely son, “Up yours, guinea midget!”

(Click the “Watch on Odnoklassniki” link in the thumbnail.)


A final bonus: The 1990 BAFTA tribute to Connery. You can see him win many awards on YouTube, but this is one of the best ceremonies, as it avoids the Hollywood touch (as at the AFI tribute, where Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) is seen to be his pre-eminent role outside of Bond) and instead gives us a group of people he had worked with and who admired him, including Herbert Lom, Gina Lollobrigida, Honor Blackman, Richard Attenborough, Billy Connolly, Ursula Andress, Roger Moore, fellow King and good friend Michael Caine, and even Sidney Lumet.