By Mark Huerta
In a massive blow to film fans everywhere, Sir Sean Connery died at the age of 90 on Oct. 31. Perhaps Scotland’s greatest contribution to humanity, he graced the silver screen with a variety of performances, always with his distinctive Scottish accent. Connery is best known for being the first actor to play James Bond, cinema’s most famous character. He defined what it meant to play Agent 007 — smooth, charming, ruthless and always ready for a one-liner. Then, later in his career, Connery was at his finest when playing older sage characters who had to teach the ropes to ambitious youngsters. So, to celebrate his life and work, here are several of Sean Connery’s finest films, all available for streaming on Amazon Prime.
“From Russia With Love” (1963)
Of all the James Bond films, this one is the closest to an actual espionage film. In it, agents of the evil organization SPECTRE conspire to humiliate and kill James Bond. The plan is needlessly complex. Bond is lured to Istanbul to pick up a Soviet decoding device. Accompanying the device is Tatiana Romanova, played by Daniela Bianchi. She is posing as a Soviet defector but is really trying to lure Bond onto the Orient Express so that he can be killed by SPECTRE henchman Red Grant, played by Robert Shaw of “Jaws” fame.
In the original book by Ian Fleming, the villains are members of the Soviet counterintelligence service SMERSH. The filmmakers, however, sought to depoliticize the work, so the entirely fictional SPECTRE organization was used instead. Regardless, this film is a supremely suspenseful and enjoyable one. Connery fits into the role of Bond like a glove, hitting each of the many character beats the film requires with ease. Another standout in the cast is Bond’s Turkish contact Kerim Bey, played by Pedro Armendáriz in his final film role. He provides a certain warmth and shadiness to the part that is wonderful to see on screen. The most exciting parts of the film occur onboard the Orient Express, though, with Bond and Red Grant on the same train and Bond unaware of the danger.
“From Russia With Love” is an essential Bond film. It lacks the grandiose villains and schemes of other films in the series, but what it lacks in that regard it makes up for by being a genuine spy thriller with an excellent cast.
“Highlander” is one of the most bizarre films I have ever seen. The film is about a race of immortals who must all fight each other to the death, as “there can be only one.” Our protagonist is an immortal Scotsman named Connor MacLeod, played by American actor Christopher Lambert, who delivers a rather wooden performance with an unconvincing accent. And that accent looks especially bad when Sean Connery flies in on horseback to meet MacLeod. Connery is inexplicably cast as an immortal named Juan Sánchez-Villalobos Ramírez, who teaches our hero that he is in fact immortal, saying, “You cannot die, MacLeod.” Why exactly the producers cast actual Scot Sean Connery as an Egyptian-born Spaniard in a film called “Highlander” will remain an all-time Hollywood mystery. Still, Connery appears to have fun with the part, and this film is undeniably fun. After all, the giant competition where immortals kill each other with swords is called “the Quickening.”
The script of this film is something else. It is as if aliens watched a supercut of grandiose lines from old fantasy and sword-and-sandal epics and decided that was how English was spoken in all circumstances. Every line of dialogue is a great pronouncement of some sort (I have incorporated two into my plot summary), but it works in this film. The film is ridiculous and over-the-top in its premise, so the rhetorical excess that occurs whenever a character speaks seems more justified.
“Highlander” can hardly be described as good, but it is indeed memorable and filled with quotable lines. And it doesn’t hurt to have Sean Connery reading some of those lines, either.
“You Only Live Twice” (1967)
All of Sean Connery’s outings as James Bond are worth a watch, but one of his most overlooked efforts comes in 1967’s “You Only Live Twice.” This film has all the tropes one would expect in a Bond film. Bond is in Japan investigating the disappearance of Soviet and American rockets. The path ultimately leads him to master criminal and SPECTRE chief Ernst Stavro Blofeld, played brilliantly by Donald Pleasance, and his massive lair in the middle of a volcano. Blofeld is attempting to provoke a nuclear war between the Americans and Soviets at the service of an unnamed third power.
When Mike Myers infamously parodied James Bond villains in the “Austin Powers” film series, he based his comedic supervillain, Dr. Evil, on Blofeld in this film. Donald Pleasance builds an archetype with this performance; scarred, bald, Mao-suit-wearing supervillains who stroked cats in their volcano lairs would become the norm for Bond villains because of Pleasance’s creepy, megalomaniacal performance. And then there’s the volcano lair. Production designer Ken Adam deserves the credit for this one, which still looks impressive over 50 years later. The lair even has a monorail!
“You Only Live Twice” is underrated among the Bond canon, especially considering just how many Bond film tropes it cemented. Connery seems a bit less interested in the part than in prior outings, but he still brings in a solid performance that helps make the fantastical in this film feel grounded. Add an iconic villain and an awe-inspiring set, and you get the magic that is this film.
Contact Mark Huerta at huertam ‘at’ stanford.edu.