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Sean Connery (1930-2020): This diamond is forever

Sean Connery played suave, tough, complicated, tormented characters, made unforgettable by the way he owned the screen

Ian Fleming created James Bond, but Sean Connery made him breathe
Ian Fleming created James Bond, but Sean Connery made him breathe

James Bond stands at the craps table when a zaftig woman in a purple dress leans over. “Hi,” she smiles. “I’m Plenty.” “But of course you are,” replies Bond, placing his chips before the dies are thrown. “Plenty O’Toole,” she continues. Here Sean Connery, briefly but unmistakably, nearly looks into the camera before his next line. He is about to deliver a zinger in the unashamedly camp Diamonds Are Forever, but first he almost meets our eye. Breaking the fourth wall, however, would not quite be considered cricket. Instead he straightens up, smiles, and asks, “Named after your father perhaps?”

It sounds like something from a Wilde play (or a Carry On film). In a series infamous for innuendo, this may be the most outrageous. Connery delivers it with a convivial playfulness that reassures us he knows the absurdity of the line, the film and the moment. The reason we daren’t resist Connery’s 007 performances is because he is slyly aware—of himself, and of the effect he is having on us—as he slaloms through the silly films. There is a tenderness to what he says, and to the way he slays.

Cinema has seen few actors as believably tough, as believably articulate. Sir Thomas Sean Connery left us this weekend, and I’m certain Robert Mitchum, Humphrey Bogart and Steve McQueen will pour him quite a welcome up there. How many performers have worked with both Alfred Hitchcock and Nicolas Cage? How many would attempt it? The great Scotsman had a rich filmography, with filmmakers from Sidney Lumet to Steven Spielberg, actresses from Audrey Hepburn to Catherine Zeta-Jones. He played complicated, tormented, suave characters, made unforgettable by the way Connery owned the screen. The magnetism can be overpowering.

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Actors inhabit our memories in montage. A shot from Goldfinger: A man strapped to a table with a laser beam poised precariously between his legs. Marnie: The quiet, unnerving stare he gives his leading lady while reading a book late at night. The Anderson Tapes: The slow-burning righteous anger as he calls advertising a legalised con-game. Time Bandits: King Agamemnon, removing his helmet after slaying a beast. The Hunt For Red October: A submarine commander ordering his crew to turn towards a missile instead of away. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade: A father showing a son what an umbrella can do. Finding Forrester: An old writer using his privilege to give a young voice a chance. The Untouchables, where, in his Oscar-winning performance as a racist cop, he taught us never to bring a knife to a gun fight.

Connery held a gun with promise, and a cool eroticism. He’s wearing a tuxedo in Dr No when, entering his apartment, he senses an intruder inside. He quietly slips his shoes off and enters the doorway kneeling, his Beretta in hand—a gun so small it was said to be used exclusively by ladies, and by 007. The door opens to a beautiful woman practising golf, using Bond’s carpet and an upturned bowler hat as a putting green.

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Other Bond actors can compete only for second place. To this day, probable double-o-sevens have to audition using a scene from Connery’s From Russia With Love—where Bond, wearing only a towel and carrying his gun, walks to his bed to find a woman between the sheets. It is an ideal scene to demonstrate the character’s unflappability, his alertness, his charm, his appeal. What can test an aspiring secret agent more than walking a few steps in Connery’s bespoke shoes?

Ian Fleming created James Bond, but Connery made him breathe—in a fashion calculated to make us gasp. Fleming was famously against casting the burly Scot, but became so enraptured by Connery’s performance that he added the actor’s heritage into the later novels, giving the secret agent a father from the Highlands. 1962’s Dr No changed everything. The way he says his name, for instance. “Bond-pause-James-Bond.” The actor improvised that introduction, believing that the name by itself sounded too flat. “Mr?” enquires a lady in red. “Bond,” he says as he lights a cigarette, halting to snap the lighter shut, “James Bond.” That specific, signature pause might be more important to the franchise than most of the plots.

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Then there’s the accent. Connery’s speaking voice sounded clear and deliberate in the early spy movies, but as he moved on—determinedly distancing himself from the Bond films and character—his full, natural “sh”-heavy timbre barrelled through, giving us a distinctive unique lisping-lion roar that is part Edinburgh brogue and part unfiltered Connery. Like Bogart, say, or Connery’s old chum Michael Caine, this is the kind of movie-star voice often imitated, never equalled. There is only one Connery, and you could always hear him coming.

The 007 films Dr No, Goldfinger and From Russia With Love are available on Apple TV. Other Connery films available on streaming networks include The Untouchables (Netflix), The Rock (Disney + Hotstar), Entrapment (Amazon Prime), The Hunt For Red October (Jio Cinema), Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Netflix, Amazon Prime), Family Business (Amazon Prime) and The Anderson Tapes (MX Player).

I first saw Diamonds Are Forever in the early 1990s, in a single-screen theatre in Delhi. The film was then two decades old, but Bond films remained an event in cinemas around the world. Watching Connery on a big screen, a wink in his words and a glint in his eye, remains hard to forget. The actor—equally at ease in those impeccable Goldfinger suits, as well as that impossibly garish Zardoz outfit—brandished a double-edged sword. The larger-than-life performer allows the viewer to forget their own lives, and to be enchanted by those of the characters. Sean Connery made us live twice.

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Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    02.11.2020 | 12:00 PM IST
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