I just attended a showing of the much ballyhooed "The Dark Knight", and besides stepping in gum, found the movie as overstuffed as a Spanish olive. Though the late Heath Ledger's turn as the Joker transcends the rest of this hyper-adrenalized mess, "Knight" is just one more example of Hollywood creating movies with too much of everything, happening too fast, too loudly, and going on for too long. It's an effects-laden extravaganza, but without the requisite thrills or suspense.
I confess to feeling the same way about the new James Bond, as embodied in Daniel Craig (an actor I admired greatly in "Layer Cake"). His Bond is simultaneously super-human and politically correct: in "Casino Royale", he performs stunts akin to Superman, then- incomprehensibly- tries to rescue a drowning woman (Eva Green) who had actually betrayed him. Now the Bond I know would have left her underwater-or put her there.
Yes, I can already hear some of you saying it: characters change with the times. Still for me, the old traditionalist, who remembers what Bond's creator Ian Fleming had in mind- very much a flesh-and blood spy- there can be only one James Bond: Sir Sean Connery.
Though the gadgets and bizarre villains would increase with each production, Connery always hit the right note with his signature character because he played Bond as a man doing a man's job, who could derive pleasure from, but not get emotionally involved with, any woman. He was a top secret agent, and his life was his job. Yet behind his cool, detached air, there was something noble-and very human- about him.
When Fleming initially considered the ideal Bond on film, he came up with one name: Cary Grant. But when approached, Grant was already in his mid-late fifties, and wisely recognized (unlike Roger Moore, much later) that he'd be too old for the part.
The choice of Connery was inspired, because he combined a sense of class he had cultivated as an actor with the rugged, macho style that was closer to his hardscrabble Scottish roots, and his early experiences as a star footballer, amateur boxer and body-builder. The strapping 6'2 ½" actor brought to Bond an unspoken "don't mess with me" quality that would have been difficult for the more refined Cary Grant to achieve.
As one surveys the life and career of Sean Connery before, during and after Bond, there is an even more important factor to this star's success: his native shrewdness and intelligence. Quite simply, he never undervalued himself.
Bond made him but never held him: from the outset, Sir Sean was determined not to be typecast, and unlike any other Bond since, he succeeded. He also carried into his craft the drive and professionalism of a person who understood what work really meant.
Born Thomas Connery in Fountainbridge, a tough, working-class neighborhood in southwest Edinburgh, he was the son of a rubber and automotive works employee who struggled to support his family. Thus it seemed only natural that young Thomas (or "Tam", as he was then called) had landed his first part-time job by age ten, and toiled in a variety of occupations after, from dairy worker to coffin maker.
Always restless and eager to find success in the wider world, after a two year stint in the Royal Navy, he caught the acting bug in his twenties, and at this point started going by the name "Sean". After gaining the requisite exposure and seasoning in British film, theatre, and television, Connery finally landed in Hollywood in 1958, where he starred opposite a fading Lana Turner in "Another Time, Another Place" (a phrase the actor would memorably recycle years later as Bond, speeding away from his latest conquest). "Place" did not score at the box office, but it, along with the Disney children's film "The Little People", shot the following year, provided Connery with vital stateside exposure.
Indeed, the latter film, a prior working experience and acquaintance with "Dr. No" director Terence Young, and the all-important woman's instinct provided by Albert "Cubby" Broccoli's wife, helped decide who the first screen Bond would be. By this time, Connery had already filmed a wonderful bit in Darryl Zanuck's quintessential World War II blockbuster, "The Longest Day"(1962), in which, coincidentally, future "Goldfinger" nemesis Gert Frobe would also play a small part.
Though over a fifty year career, Sir Sean's output has experienced its peaks and valleys, few other stars have aged and endured so gracefully on-screen, with Cary Grant perhaps coming closest. Still, in the diverting "Entrapment"(1999), Connery carries off a subtle and totally believable romantic lead (opposite a stunning Catherine Zeta-Jones) approaching the age of seventy, beating Grant's previous record in "Charade"(1963), when that suave old heartbreaker was a full decade younger.
As Sir Sean celebrates his birthday this week, and I myself eagerly anticipate an upcoming trip to his beloved Scotland (for which the actor has done a great deal charitably), I'm listing my nine top Connery selections on DVD, in order of ascending preference. (One overlooked favorite that would have made this group an even ten is 1972's "The Offence", directed by the great Sidney Lumet, in which Sir Sean delivers one of his rawest, most powerful performances as a sadistic cop who snaps during an interrogation. Wake up, Hollywood- this title should be available on DVD!)
9) Murder On The Orient Express (1974) - When a financier (Richard Widmark) is brutally murdered on the famous train-line, every passenger is a suspect in the eyes of punctilious Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney). With the train stalled between Istanbul and Paris, he begins to question the motley group, and gradually uncovers the most unlikely of culprits. Here, in another Lumet winner (the director and Connery actually made five films together), an unrecognizable Finney transforms himself into Agatha Christie's renowned Belgian sleuth. Beyond his astonishing portrayal, the magic of this whodunit comes from the fascinating assortment of characters he interrogates, played by an outstanding ensemble cast: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Wendy Hiller, John Gielgud, and Sir Sean among them. Predictably, in addition to Finney, Connery, and Bergman (who snagged an Oscar), old pros Hiller and Gielgud really shine. "Murder" should be nirvana for any mystery lover, and the film bursts with '30s period charm. This is one train well worth catching.
8) The Great Train Robbery (1979) - In late nineteenth century London, crooked mastermind Edward Pierce (Connery) and partner Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland) devise a meticulous scheme to commit the crime of the century, a feat no criminal mind has ever successfully brought off: to steal a large shipment of gold from a moving train. A positive result will depend on highly intricate subterfuge and split-second timing, along with the help of Pierce's beautiful lady-friend, Miriam (Lesley-Ann Down). Will the trio pull it off? This highly engaging heist entry, scripted and directed by best-selling author Michael Crichton, exudes rich Victorian atmosphere and benefits from the surprisingly felicitous pairing of stars Connery and Sutherland. Ms. Down plays an eye-catching lady who could halt traffic and trains, as well as induce most any man to steal.
7) The Hunt For Red October (1990) - When a Russian nuclear sub goes off its intended course and heads directly for the United States, CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) must decipher whether its crew's intention is to attack America or stage a mass defection. With only veteran Soviet captain Marko Ramius (Connery) knowing the answer, tension mounts on both sides until the nail-biting finish. The first and best of the Tom Clancy film adaptations, John McTiernan's "Hunt" is a consistently engrossing and intelligent doomsday thriller. With the peerless Connery joined by Baldwin, Scott Glenn, James Earl Jones, and Sam Neill (particularly good here as Ramius's loyal second-in-command), "Hunt" delivers high-testosterone adventure packed with stars we know and love. I'd propose this title as a strong selection for a "boys' night in."
6) Goldfinger (1964) - Racing from Miami to Europe, British secret agent James Bond (Connery) attempts to foil Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), a notorious, ingot-hungry maniac with plans to detonate a nuclear device inside Fort Knox. But first he must outmaneuver the villain's evil sidekicks: sexy-sultry pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) and bowler-hat-whirling Korean killer, Oddjob (Harold Sakata).Armed with clever gadgets, good looks, and considerable wit, Connery's martini-swilling Agent 007 could not be any smoother Actually third in the series, Guy Hamilton's "Goldfinger" dispensed with the earnest conventions of the spy film for something cheekier: arch quips, cartoonish enemies, luxury sportswear, and exotic femme fatales. (Still, his most iconic image has to be actress Shirley Eaton - naked, gold-plated, and sprawled lifeless across a bed.) "Goldfinger" also features Bond's tricked-out Aston Martin and his inventive helpmate, "Q", played by the wonderful Desmond Llewelyn (in his second Bond outing), while Frobe, Sakata, and "Avengers" alum Blackman prove to be among the most formidable nemeses in the whole Bond franchise.
5) The Untouchables (1987) - During Prohibition, government agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) is sent to Chicago to foil gangster Al Capone ( Robert De Niro), who's making a killing selling illegal hooch in collusion with corrupt local cops and politicos. Dismayed at first by Capone's grip on the city, Ness eventually befriends older Irish patrolman Jimmy Malone (Connery), seemingly the city's only honest lawman, who helps squeaky-clean Ness put the screws to Scarface Al. Inspired by the 1950s TV series and scripted by David Mamet, this absorbing, operatic gangster flick explores the moral ambiguities of justice, and represents perhaps director Brian De Palma's finest moment in the director's chair. Costner excels as idealistic G-man Ness, schooled in the ways of the street by Connery, who deservedly picked up an Oscar for his superb portrayal of acerbic veteran cop Malone. With a teeth-clenching, tour de force shoot-out in a train station capping the action, "The Untouchables" is a nimbly directed, top-shelf crime thriller.
4) Dr. No (1962) - While in Jamaica investigating the murder of a fellow British agent, James Bond (Connery) and American CIA operative Felix Leiter (Jack Lord) discover that the mysterious, reclusive Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is planning to blackmail the U.S. by diverting rockets launched from Cape Canaveral. Together with gorgeous Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), 007 makes the perilous journey to Dr. No's isolated island compound at Crab Key, battling an army of deadly henchmen in an attempt to curtail the Chinese scientist's crazed scheme. Shot on location, the color-saturated, action-packed "Dr. No" introduced the world to British Secret Service Agent 007, played by a 32-year-old Connery. More intense and cold-blooded than he would become in later Bond films, Connery's 007 is still a model of charm and confidence in this exceedingly well-plotted actioner, especially when it comes to the ladies. And the sexy, bikini-clad Andress, first seen emerging nymph-like from the ocean, set the gauge at "super-hot" for future Bond girls. Don't say "No" to this thrilling spy adventure.
3) The Man Who Would Be King (1975) - Based on a late nineteenth century tale by Rudyard Kipling, British sergeants Daniel Dravot (Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) are tired of soldiering, and it seems their ungrateful country has tired of them. They find themselves without prospects in India, and resolve on a daring plan: they will travel to remotest Kafiristan in search of untold riches. Once there, the two con the natives into believing that Danny is a god, and their mission is accomplished, so as long as the populace never learns their king is mortal. Veteran director John Huston had wanted to do this project for years (originally with Gable and Bogart), but only got the chance in the mid-seventies. Still it's hard to think of better casting for the two rogue adventurers than Connery and Caine, whose real-life friendship helped spark a genuine, often amusing on-screen chemistry. A deft combination of humor and suspense, the film's climax is unforgettable. Christopher Plummer also lends solid support as author Kipling. Don't miss this late Huston treasure-trove.
2) The Hill (1965) - At a military stockade for British soldiers in North Africa, five men, including outspoken prisoner Joe Roberts (Connery), endure the humiliations of a hard-nosed Sergeant Major (Harry Andrews) and his henchmen, who assign their charges various torturous duties. After a fellow prisoner dies as a result, however, Roberts protests, spurring the full-hilt abuse of the warden and his staff. Will they manage to break his spirit? Sidney Lumet's agonizing, tightly directed prison film features a convincing and simmering turn by Connery, fresh off his flashy role as Bond in "Thunderball", here portraying a stalwart soldier who endures brutalization at the hands of Andrews's no-bull sergeant from hell. Ossie Davis steals at least one scene as a rebellious West Indian, but look for Michael Redgrave, too, as a brig staffer with a more humane disposition. Gritty and powerful, "The Hill" celebrates the heroism of defiance.
1) From Russia With Love (1963) - James Bond, a/k/a British Secret Service Agent 007 (Connery) is assigned to retrieve a Russian decoding device before it falls into the hands of Soviet agents. Pursued by butchy East German assassin Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) and diabolical psychopath Red Grant (Robert Shaw), the dashing 007 has his hands full in Istanbul, but that doesn't prevent him from dallying with Russian tigress Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a double agent with ties to SPECTRE. This stylish second entry in the Bond franchise features a somewhat warmer yet no less dashing 007, played to the hilt with campy savoir faire by Connery. Director Terence Young streamlines the action, too, and in the absence of fancy gadgets (those came later), gives audiences thrilling, well-orchestrated chases and clashes, culminating in a heart-racing death match between Connery and deadly, dyed-blond assassin Shaw aboard the Orient Express. The kittenishly seductive Bianchi is fetching as Bond's dicey love interest, and veteran Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz also excels as Bond's savvy Istanbul contact (sadly, he was dying of cancer during the shoot). Still, it's German chanteuse Lenya who has the most fun, springing poisonous blades from her shoes. Racy and exhilarating, "Love" breathes new life into Ian Fleming's classic novel.
Final note: also watch out for the late September release of yet another Connery/Lumet collaboration, 1971's "The Anderson Tapes", co-starring the sexy Dyan Cannon in her prime. (By the way, she was also Cary Grant's former spouse.) While perhaps not quite on a par with the titles listed above, "Tapes" remains a highly diverting caper movie that outperforms many more recent entries in this sub-genre. It also contains the film debut of a certain fledgling actor named Christopher Walken!