Sean Connery’s code-red allure

Forging the fantasy of debonair hoodlum James Bond around his coiled insolence, Sean Connery put lead in the pencil of the British ruling class. Thankfully, he also left us with saner emblems of cops, robbers, lovers and book publishers to salute him by.

Sean Connery in Goldfinger (1964)

It wasn’t just that he was the best James Bond. He had enabled the entire franchise, an achievement over which we need mixed feelings now. So Connery was beloved for having introduced the notion of a suave and impeccable thug, as oddly equipped with haughty manners and killer lines as he was trusted with hysterical automobiles and scholarly weapons systems. Did we really love that aplomb and its casual assumption that every lush woman in sight was for the taking? Was that how the British secret services worked? Can one imagine M, Q and James rubbing shabby shoulders with George Smiley? If Connery’s Bond was the most emphatic and cherished brute British film has ever managed, how did we go along with this supercilious superman? Is it possible that 007 was the most disastrous and misleading role model our culture has ever rejoiced in? As damaging as the Queen herself – his ultimate partner in absurd authority?

Sean Connery at the premiere of From Russia with Love (1963)

No, this isn’t the way to start a respectable obituary, and it’s not as if one can blame Sir Sean. But it’s useful in trying to come to terms with a raw working-class Scot who amused himself with the secret satisfaction of being necessary to the exhausted and demoralised British upper class and all those aspirants who wanted to act like toffs and snobs (but hard with it).

Sean knew – and James took energy and daring from it – that he was an outrage to British high society. After all, he came along at the perilous moment when his type and the Empire were giving up the ghost. The son of a cleaning woman, he carried a coiled disdain for classiness that never offended his betters but gave them courage or nerve to carry on like figureheads in charge of the world still. Say ‘Carry On, 007’, and you may suddenly understand how his mocking stance might have worked with the other great movie franchise of the 1950s. Can’t you hear an ongoing dialogue over the years between Connery and Kenneth Williams? Then think of Joe Orton as their writer.

Sean Connery with Princess Diana at the premiere of The Hunt for Red October (1990)

I know, the entire factual theory of obituary is being abandoned, and the abiding Ms in our world won’t stand for that. But I am trying to suggest how far Sean Connery’s Bond was as daft as it was crucial, and as odious as it was essential. Thus it’s important to understand that Ian Fleming himself pointed out that Sean was not James, and then began to adapt his character to the unstoppable mastery of the figure on screen.

Beyond that, it’s plain now that Bond, and our subsequent bondage in being his slaves, would not have happened without Connery and the way several people – Fleming, Cubby Broccoli, Harry Saltzman and Kevin McClory – recognised without full understanding that the humour and insolence in Connery might make the rather boring character work in pictures.

The best proof of that trick may be his Mark Rutland in Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), where 007 gets to the 000 heart of emotional fascism and the kind of man who feels a duty to imprison women with a handsomeness and indifference that meant so much in Hitchcock’s smothered dreams. Mark ought to be an unplayable character, or one that deserved the younger Fernando Rey in a Buñuel film. But if you look at Marnie afresh, it becomes a cruel comedy and a subversive commentary on Bondage.

Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery in Marnie (1964)

And we loved Sir Sean, sanguine at the loss of his own hair, the way in which he was iconic yet unimpressed with his legendary self – indeed, the way he only occasionally stooped to being an actor, instead of a droll star, mulling over his lines as if they were single malt, and waiting for those rare opportunities where he was as natural and inescapable as the really axiomatic movie stars. You see, he was a poor kid from Edinburgh, an able seaman in the Navy and just messing around with silly jobs, who found himself seeming like God (that was a role Buñuel could have understood for him – I can see that Sean removing his toupee indoors and hanging it up with his top hat).

It was a strange career in which he had to escape James, but was always in danger of bumping into other people’s attempts to cash in on the legend. I hope I never have to see another James Bond film again, but there are Connery outings that I revisit whenever the chance comes along.

The Offence (1973)

There is The Offence (1973), directed by Sidney Lumet but created and written by John Hopkins, in which he is a veteran policeman who has been warped by all the violence he has had to deal with, and who breaks while interrogating a man accused of rape. That other man was played by Ian Bannen, a pal to Connery in the years before they were widely known. It is a lacerating film in which the manliness of the copper is taken apart. In truth, it’s a John Hopkins film, but you have to allow how hungry Connery seemed for the carcass of Bond.

The Untouchables (1987)

Don’t let’s forget his other cop, the Chicago stalwart Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables (1987), for Brian De Palma, in which hot American kids like Kevin Costner and Andy Garcia regard him with awe while guessing that they were about to see one of the great death scenes of all time and a supporting actor Oscar. It is no discredit to feel that Connery simply turned up on set and ‘did’ Malone, without re-takes or doubts. There is the same unequivocal calm in his Captain Ramius in The Hunt for Red October (1990), with the “One ping” attitude to danger.

Michael Caine and Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

He was magnificent with another pal, Michael Caine, as Danny Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). This was an antique adventure film, a proof that director John Huston and many of us were determined to stay boys.

Talking of which, there was an air to Connery – well past the age of 70 – that gave the impression of knowing and understanding women. Never mind the gossip, but he was not often hired in for love stories. I know, he was fond and autumnal with Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976). But for me that falls short of his romantic role I love the most.

I am talking about his Barley Blair in The Russia House (1990), scripted by Tom Stoppard from the John le Carré novel, and directed by Fred Schepisi. It was a picture that did not do aggressively well, despite a good story and an exceptional gang of supporting actors – and Michelle Pfeiffer as the Russian woman Barley may be able to extricate from the Soviet Union.

Michelle Pfeiffer and Sean Connery in The Russia House (1990)

It does not seem like an obvious love affair (the stars were nearly 30 years apart), or an easy alignment of acting styles. It is another old-fashioned film: Connery had been shaped imaginatively in the 40s and 50s, and he was not well disposed to modernist inventions. Yet Barley is enchanting and very ordinary, and he and Pfeiffer seem lit up from within by the unexpected delight of being together. Barley is a publisher, but not a star: you can believe he turned down the first Fleming book because he reckoned no one would swallow such nonsense.

There are other films, of course, and plenty of poor pictures as well as the seven Bonds which I refuse to name. There’s no need, because if you’re interested the titles are engraved on the inner circle of your soul – or on your son’s christening ring. I think we ought to be ashamed of 007, but the sight and sound of Sean still moves me to tears.

Sean Connery as Barley Blair in The Russia House (1990)
  • Sean Connery, 25 August 1930–31 October 2020.