James Bond wasn’t the first movie series, but it was arguably the first modern movie franchise. Similarly, though Sean Connery wasn’t the first actor to play a character over a number of films, he could be considered the first real franchise star—and, by extension, the first star to try and escape one. The Scottish actor, who died on 31 October at 90, will be remembered first and foremost for playing Ian Fleming’s secret agent in seven films over 21 years. Yet, his attempts to dodge the 007 persona, almost from the start of the series, are just as intriguing.
The first Bond film, Dr No, came out in 1962. Its massive success meant that four more films with Connery in the lead were shot and released in the next five years: From Russia With Love (1963), Goldfinger (1964), Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967). In between the second and third film, Connery made Marnie with Alfred Hitchcock. He plays Mark Rutland, a coldly charismatic owner of a publishing company who becomes fascinated with Tippi Hedren’s Marnie, a compulsive thief with a host of psychological issues. It’s possible Hitchcock wanted to use a bit of Connery’s developing Bond persona: he’s mostly in sharp suits, is watchful and witty, and powerfully attractive (Marnie has no interest in men until she meets him). But Mark’s efforts to diagnose and cure Marnie’s seeming frigidity (after they marry, he rapes her) place him in another category: that of the controlling Hitchcock male, a type played by Cary Grant in Notorious (1946) and Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo (1958). It was Connery’s first challenge to audiences.
Today, it’s not enough for actors to play larger-than-life heroes for lots of money—they have to pretend it’s meaningful. Connery didn’t feel that obligation. In 1965, he told interviewer Oriana Fallaci that while he wasn’t ashamed of the Bond movies, he would “get angry when they ask me if I’d like to be James Bond, if I’m like James Bond, if they should call me Connery or Bond, when they plague me with idiocies of that kind”. By 1967, five years and as many films since 007’s birth in cinema, he wanted out. “I had become completely identified with it, and it became very wearying and very boring,” he said. He wanted to do other kinds of films—to show he wasn’t just someone who “fell into this tuxedo and started mixing vodka martinis”. So he walked out, and George Lazenby took over.
People often forget that, aside from two returns to Bond in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Never Say Never Again (1983), Connery was 007 for just five years, an almost Beatles-like packing of colossal cultural influence into a short span of time. But what of the remaining 35 odd years of his career? After the half-decade of Bond, he spent a good deal of energy getting as far away from the character as possible. One early attempt was Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires (1970), set in Pennsylvania in the 1870s. Connery plays the leader of a militant Irish worker’s group that’s disrupting work in the coal mines. In a moustache and cap, his face streaked with black, he’s a low-key presence opposite Richard Harris’ charismatic Pinkerton detective who’s been sent to infiltrate the group. Connery seems to welcome playing a man of weight and conscience—the feeling he puts into the line “I have no coolness in me at all” is tremendous.
It was with Sidney Lumet's The Offence (1972) that Connery seemed to violently exorcise the ghost of Bond. The film, which returned Connery to Britain, was his third with Lumet after The Hill (1965) and The Anderson Tapes (1971). He plays a brusque detective-sergeant named Johnson, who’s haunted by visions of grisly crimes he’s investigated. The rape of a schoolgirl pushes him over the edge, and he beats the lone suspect (an unforgettable Ian Bannen) to death in custody. As Johnson is questioned, we see, in flashback, the events leading up to the death.
The Offence is based on a play by its screenwriter, John Hopkins, which shows in the long, grueling scenes between Johnson and his wife, the detective superintendent, and the suspect. It’s an unremittingly bleak film, and Connery’s performance is unflinching in its darkness. When he discovers the frightened girl in the woods, Johnson gets on top of her and holds her down—though his intention is to calm her, it’s impossible not to think of this when he breaks down later and admits to having violent fantasies of rape and murder himself.
Then there’s the argument with his wife, in which he grabs her roughly, berates and, at one point, seems ready to assault her. As uncomfortable a scene as it is to watch, it’s even tougher if you know of Connery’s own attitude towards domestic violence. He said in a 1965 interview that he wasn't against slapping women, though he wouldn’t do it with a closed fist. Asked in 1987 by Barbara Walters if he regretted that statement, he said no. His first wife, Diane Cilento, claimed in her autobiography that he beat her during their 11-year marriage. This brutishness was usually passed off as roguishness or virility in most of his films, but it stayed raw and ugly in The Offence, and in Marnie, where he tells Hedren’s character, “I'm fighting a powerful impulse to beat the hell out of you”.
In the 1970s, Connery oscillated between the mainstream—part of the starry ensembles in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) and A Bridge Too Far (1977), clowning with Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian (1976)—and the esoteric (1972's Zardoz, in which he wore, at different times, a red loincloth and a wedding dress). Then he faded for a spell, only to resurface with a sharp white beard and an air of hard-won wisdom as the 14th century Franciscan friar detective in The Name of the Rose (1986). His reward was two scene-stealing parts, in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), as one of the agents hunting Al Capone, and as Indy Sr. in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). My generation knew him as a wisecracking tough guy in films like The Rock (1996) and Entrapment (1999), before The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) exasperated him enough to call curtains on his career.
In Marnie, when Mark calls his to-be wife a “little method actress of a liar”, it’s an in-joke by Hitchcock, who didn’t think much of actors asking what their motivation was. It’s unlikely Connery did either. No matter the part, his approach was always forthright. Even while straining, he seemed at ease. And occasionally, when he was shaken, he was stirring.