To those of a certain generation, James Bond 007 will forever be defined by the way the original movie Bond, Sean Connery, played him. Recalling where you were when you saw Goldfinger for the first time has almost the same impact as many other momentous events in our young lives. As I was reminded this morning in an email from Darryl, my school buddy, “Remember when Bob Barr, you, and me went to see Goldfinger at the Palos Verdes Fox theater? We sat through it twice. Great memories.”
Ah, yes. He didn’t have to remind me. It seems like yesterday. We also sat through the Goofy cartoon short playing with it in order to do that. At that point I hadn’t even seen the first Bond film, Dr. No, and I do recall liking the second one, From Russia With Love, a lot. But Goldfinger was something else. It was, for me, the first franchise action movie that made a real impression. Sequels and franchises barely were a blip then. But Connery and Bond started it all. No question about that. That we are still fawning over Bond six decades later, and that the much-delayed newest installment, No Time To Die, is being given responsibility for perhaps saving the future of movie theatres, says it all. Connery deserves much credit for establishing our own bond with Bond, and all the others from Roger Moore to Daniel Craig know well they owed him a debt of gratitude. The end of every 007 film always says “James Bond Will Return.” It is sad to think the reality is this James Bond won’t be returning. But boy, what he left behind!
I was thinking about Connery earlier this week, and even happened to have taped my Tuesday film review (The Craft: Legacy) wearing the t-shirt replicating the original Goldfinger poster that I found when cleaning out the garage during Covid times. A commenter noticed the visible advertising slogan: “Everything He Touches Turns To Excitement.” I wouldn’t say that was true of every movie Connery would go on to make, until he decided to disappear from the screen near the beginning of this millennium. But there were more than a few exciting enough for several careers, if you ask me. Actually, there isn’t a day in the past few years that I don’t pass by Connery’s photo peering at me from the drug store display of Bond toys from his early Bond films that I got in a Heritage Auction for a few hundred dollars, and was immediately offered twice that to sell shortly after. Never. See a photo of it at right.
However my first very strong memories of Connery came earlier than Bond, when he played Michael McBride, the strapping young caretaker who falls for Darby’s daughter in the charming 1959 Disney film, Darby O’Gill And The Little People, a must for baby boomers who might want to even see Connery sing in a rare moment of his career. Shortly thereafter came that near continuous string of 60’s Bond movies, five in a row, before ending with his sixth and “final” time playing the role in 1971’s glitzy Vegas-set Diamonds Are Forever. He’d famously had enough of Bond at that point, even if we had not. He would go off the reservation 12 years later in reviving an older version of the character in Never Say Never Again, an ironic title considering his adamant statements that he and 007 were done. It was an outlier, not part of the Broccoli family’s hold on the Ian Fleming creation, but rather one that got by because a producer, Kevin McClory, held the rights to Thunderball, and this was positioned as a “remake.” I don’t have much memory of that one, to tell you the truth. But Connery managed to escape the stigma of being so associated with one iconic character, no easy trick, by being smart about the non-Bond movies he would make during and after his run with the world’s most famous super agent. That unexpected return to Bond in the 80’s made no difference.
My personal favorite Connery films run the gamut, including Sidney Lumet’s searing WWII prison picture The Hill; an underrated 1964 suspense thriller called Woman Of Straw, with a top-billed Gina Lollobrigida; a great early 70’s caper flick called The Anderson Tapes, also from Lumet, who teamed with Connery again in 74’s stylish Murder On The Orient Express and a little gem called Family Business in ’89; 1975’s The Wind And The Lion, but especially John Huston’s rousing Kipling epic, The Man Who Would Be King, opposite good friend Michael Caine from the same year. That movie is definitely a keeper.
A friend of mine and I nearly walked the length of San Francisco when we were working there briefly to see Robin And Marian, the lilting love story that marked the screen return of Audrey Hepburn opposite Connery’s wise Robin Hood in 1976. And, of course, he really was on a roll in the late 80s, winning an Oscar for his unforgettable turn as the world- weary Irish cop Jimmy Malone in 1987’s The Untouchables; perfectly paired with Harrison Ford as his colorful father in 1989’s Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade; and then commanding as the Soviet Submarine Captain in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October.
There are others worth checking out if you want to take a deep dive into Connery’s filmography, notably 1970’s gritty Irish coal miner story The Molly Maguires, from the great Martin Ritt; a rare, if not completely successful stab at pure comedy opposite Joanne Woodward in 1966’s A Fine Madness; and an early 1958 supporting role opposite Lana Turner in the sudsy Another Time, Another Place, which might best be remembered for what went on behind the scenes when Turner’s jealous then-boyfriend Johnny Stompanato came to the set to cause trouble for the young Connery, who decked him. That was just a few months before Stompanato was murdered in Turner’s Beverly Hills home.
Connery’s only dance with Hitchcock, 1964’s Marnie, opposite Tippi Hedren, is still an acquired taste, and definitely not my favorite from Sir Alfred. But it remains fascinating to watch, even if this psychological drama doesn’t always hit its marks. Reportedly, Hitch tried to lure Grace Kelly out of retirement and Monaco to play the Hedren role. Now that could have been some pairing. Alas , it was not to be.
The movies that were to be, the many gems made by Sean Connery, are more than enough to define a career well-played and a life well-lived. He was certainly a man’s man and a woman’s dream. But when you see the breadth and depth of his acting range over the decades, he really was one of the greats. He was not content to ride to glory as that suave guy who liked his martinis “shaken, not stirred,” though he certainly could have. Nevertheless, even though his name, and the headline of every obit today, will forever be linked with that of Bond. James Bond (and certainly in the memories of my youth), there was More. Much more to this man who would be King.