To celebrate James Bond’s 50th birthday on screen (and the release of Skyfall), we’re going to take a look at the character and his films. We’ve already reviewed all the classic movies, so we’ll be looking at his iconic baddies, and even at the character himself.
Ian Fleming created James Bond. However, he crafted the character as a “blunt instrument”, a relatively bland character that might serve as a vehicle for all manner of adventures. It’s fair to argue that a lot of what modern audiences take for granted in the character of James Bond came from Sean Connery, the tall Scotsman who played the character for the first five films in the series, before returning once officially (and once more unofficially). Connery’s portrayal of the secret agent was so definitive that even Fleming himself retroactively gave Bond Scottish roots in tribute to the actor.
It feels strange, watching the early Connery films, that we see so much of Bond off duty. Although it was an adaptation of the seventh book in the series, Dr. No seemed to introduce us to a version of James Bond who was still getting used to his post. When he is reluctant to take the new sidearm offered by M, his superior threatens to return him to his former duty – giving the impression that this version of James Bond is relatively new to “double-0″ status. He isn’t quite as green-around-the-ears as Daniel Craig would be in Casino Royale, but Connery’s first two films make a conscious effort to introduce us to the man as much as to the job.
Fleming would steer clear of Bond’s personal life early in the series, with only the third book (Moonraker) exploring what Bond did between missions. In contrast, the first two Connery films take the time to demonstrate that Bond does more than simply travelling the world to fight evil. In Dr. No, we’re introduced to him gambling in a late-night casino, and returning to his home late that night. When we first meet the real James Bond in From Russia With Love, he’s relaxing in the company of what appears to be his steady girlfriend, cuddling in a boat together, drinking fine wine.
Of course, despite the fact that Sylvia Trench would be the only Bond girl to feature in two consecutive Bond films (unless you count Vesper’s shadow in Quantum of Solace), this angle was quickly dropped. We wouldn’t get a similar insight into Bond’s personal life and history until the Craig era, almost half-a-century later. Once Goldfinger came along, it seemed like Bond did nothing but work. In fact, during his vacation in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he’s still working – consciously hunting for Blofeld, even as he courts Tracy.
Still, Connery’s Bond is actually reasonably well developed over the course of his first five films, even though the actor’s performance solidified Bond into an icon relatively quickly. Like Fleming’s literary character, Connery’s Bond is very much a man who considers himself cultured, coming from an upper-crust background. “You forget I took a first in Oriental Languages at Cambridge,” he tells Moneypenny in You Only Live Twice, suggesting a fine and expensive education.
There’s no indication of class resentment, as we’d see in Craig’s interpretation years later, with Connery’s Bond celebrating his fine taste. In fact, if he weren’t so devilishly handsome and charming, he’d seem like a bit of a square. Searching for a bottle of wine, he advises a lover, “My dear girl there are some things just aren’t done, such as drinking Dom Pérignon ’53 above a temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs!”
Bond relishes hanging around in casinos wearing his tuxedo off-duty, and he considers a poor choice of wine at dinner to be absolute proof that he’s dealing with a double agent. While dining with M and Colonel Smithers, Bond is able to identify the brandy served by taste, “I’d say it was a 30-year-old fine, indifferently blended, sir… with an overdose of bon-bois.” M rather coldly deadpans, “Colonel Smithers is giving the lecture, 007.” All this comes rather naturally to Bond, and it seems to be a bit of a hobby. (It’s certainly not as awkward as Roger Moore’s strange ability to know everything about anything.)
Moore would certainly play up the angle of Bond as a gentleman, but Connery’s portrayal has a bit of an edge to it. Moore’s Bond seemed to behave like a gentleman because it was the right thing to do, while Connery’s Bond seems to treat class boundaries as something that separates him from the riff-raff. There’s an especially cutting note in his voice as Goldfinger shows off his prized horse. “Lovely animal, isn’t she?” There’s a rather obvious note of contempt in Bond’s voice as he replies, “Certainly better bred than the owner.”
Connery’s Bond seemed very much like a product of his time, a man who honestly believed that his moral authority stemmed from his class and nationality. Moore’s Bond seemed more genuinely compassionate and humanist, while Connery’s Bond could be a lot more brutal in service of his objectives. In a way, I think, that’s why it’s easier to accept the casual sexism of Connery’s Bond. Undoubtedly, it’s as bad (if not worse) than anything that happens in the Moore era.
In Goldfinger, he practically forces himself on Pussy Galore. In Thunderball, he blackmails a nurse into sleeping with him, preying on her fear of losing her job. Indeed, he’s casually dismissive of all the women in his life. In Dr. No, his first jokes with Moneypenny seem especially crass, noting he would take her out, “Only M would have me court-martialed for… illegal use of government property.” Later on, he tries to steal a taxi from a bunch of stewardesses at the airport, walking right past them into their taxi. He only offers it to them when they cause a scene over it, and he seems less than thrilled to have to do so. He casually dismisses his female companion while he talks with Felix. “Dink, say goodbye to Felix. Man-talk.”
However, the sexism of Connery’s Bond seems a bit easier to swallow because he seems like less of an all-round good-guy than Moore ever did. In Dr. No, for example, he kills an unarmed Dent after getting his answers about the eponymous villain. “You’ve had your six,”he deadpans before firing his own shots. The same film features Connery suggesting he could get violent with a female character – emerging from the bathroom, playing with a white towel as if it were a garrotte. That’s a nice suspenseful moment that still gets me.
In fact, you could argue that the lyrics of the theme to Thunderball suggest some sort of strange moral ambiguity around the character. Listening to them, it seems that they could apply to as much to Connery’s Bond (“… any woman he wants he’ll get…”) as to Largo or Blofeld (“… he looks at this world and wants it all…”). It hints that Connery might not be a nice guy, just because he happens to be a good guy.
There’s a sense that – as much as Connery’s Bond likes his fine brandies, his expensive cigarettes and tuxedos – he’s still an inherently brutal and violent man. He’s the kind of secret agent who understands the brutality that must come with the work that he does, as much as he might try to hide it. As a result, his less endearing traits exist as shading to a more nuanced character. (In contrast with Moore, where the sexism is awkwardly positioned as part of his charm.)
Connery’s first five films actually have a bit of a narrative and character arc to them. I am not, of course, referring to the linking thread of S.P.E.C.T.R.E. that is first mentioned in Dr. No, builds through the films that follow (except Goldfinger), before culminating in You Only Live Twice. While it is a narrative element that adds a charming piece of continuity, it’s so ridiculously inconsistent from film-to-film that it is more of curiousity than an arc. Although I do like that Connery’s last film, Diamonds Are Forever, was the last we heard of Blofeld and S.P.E.C.T.R.E., as if anchoring them to his Bond.
The character arc occurs more as a result of Connery’s performance than anything in the scripts themselves. Connery’s departure from the role after You Only Live Twicewas a devastating blow for the franchise. Indeed, I still maintain that hiring George Lazenby because he physically resembled Connery was a demonstration of how deeply Connery’s decision to leave shook the film series. However, I think his complaints were reasonable. After all, Connery contributed massively to the character of Bond, to the point where he remains the definitive Bond in the public imagination, fifty years later.
Throughout his films, Connery seemed to grow a little more tired, a little more exhausted. This was undoubtedly due to behind the scenes pressures, but it reflected in the role. Connery’s enjoyment and humour was palpable in his first three films. In Thunderball, things seemed a little more by rote. In You Only Live Twice, after Connery had decided to depart the role, his performance is practically subdued. He’s still debonair and charming, fun to watch and gives a solid central performance with a rather silly script, but there’s a sense that he’s quite worn out by it all.
You know Bond isn’t trying very hard when he falls back on “What’s a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?” It makes Quantum of Solace‘s “I can’t find the… um… stationary” seem positively inspired. As Bond seduces the villainous femme fatale, he whispers to himself, “Oh, the things I do for England.” Connery doesn’t deliver the remark as sarcasm, but as a somewhat bitter reflection. To be fair, Connery never once seems to be quite as uncomfortable as Lazenby did in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, but there’s a clear sense of diminished enthusiasm.
“In Japan,” Tiger tells Bond at one point, “men come first, women come second.” Bond quips, “I just might retire to here.” Connery manages to slip just enough world-weariness into the line to convince you that he might genuinely mean it. Despite her limited screentime, and the fact she’s unceremoniously killed off to make way for Sissy, Bond seems to genuinely warm to Aki – notice how quick he is to warm to the idea of marrying her. (Of course, once she’s dead, he doesn’t hesitate to throw a hissy fit when Sissy won’t sleep with him, and to hook up with Sissy later.)
You Only Live Twice actually provides a relatively nice break point for Connery’s take on James Bond. It’s the first of the truly camp Bonds, with spaceships that eat other spaceships and truly ridiculous helicopter fight sequence. M’s submarine base seems to foreshadow the “where’s Wally?”approach to MI6 headquarters during the Moore era. There’s a sense of change in the air. Coupled with Connery’s tiredness, it creates the impression that it’s the end of an era. Connery even gets to finally bring Bond face-to-face with Blofeld, the true spectre haunting these early films.
I tend to like the idea that there multiple Bonds – that the audience shouldn’t believe that there’s one consistent character played by six actors. I’d argue there are too many differences between them for that to be the case. I think the Connery-to-Lazenby-to-Connery transition is what convinced me. I don’t believe that Lazenby’s shockingly sincere and candid Bond could be the same as the more brutal and jaded Sean Connery Bond. Nor do I believe that any man would respond to the death of his wife in the way that Connery does in Diamonds Are Forever, embarking on a brief rampage of revenge before carrying on as if nothing happened.
Connery’s portrayal of Bond in Diamonds Are Forever is even more relaxed than his work in You Only Live Twice. Connery acts as if he is showing up as a personal favour to the producers – even if he is getting paid for the privilege, and donating his wages to a worthy cause. I like the idea that this might be the same Bond who retired in the wake of You Only Live Twice, pulled back out of retirement by his successor’s mental breakdown.
There’s something far too professional about his rampage of revenge at the start of Diamonds Are Forever. There is anger there, undoubtedly, but it could be contempt for a villain who broke one of the unspoken rules of the game they play. Indeed, Connery doesn’t seem especially upset when he discovers that Blofeld is still alive, and the climactic fight between the pair of them doesn’t seem any more personal than their interactions in You Only Live Twice.
Certainly, the idea that Connery is suffering from the loss of his wife doesn’t fit with any part of Diamonds Are Forever. It would, for example, seem rather callous for Moneypenny to joke about engagement rings with the same guy who recently lost his wife. Instead, Connery’s casual portrayal of Bond suggests an agent just going through the motions on this case. If Connery is there as a favour to the producers, then Connery’s Bond is there as a favour to her majesty’s secret service, filling a temporary void until a more permanent replacement could be found.
I will confess that I think Connery did camp a bit better than Moore did. I would rank Diamonds Are Forever, for example, a little higher than Moonraker or The Man With The Golden Gun. Perhaps it was because his portrayal felt a little bit more ironic and sarcastic, and thus less irritatingly earnest. Or perhaps because his performance still had the slightest hint of darkness about it, a cynicism that Moore could never quite match, that offset the campy moments a little better. I’m not sure. I think it’s fair to say, perhaps, that Connery was a stronger dramatic actor than Moore.
Connery is still thedefining James Bond, to the point that actors following him still find themselves measured in his shadow. His original run of five films still stand up as the most consistent five films in the history of the franchise, and I’m hard-pressed to think of another film series that maintained such relatively high quality over five films. Fleming created Bond, but Connery defined him. It’s a shame that he left the role feeling that the producers didn’t appreciate his contribution to the character and the franchise.
Hopefully he knows that audiences always did.
The six faces of 007:
We’ve got full reviews of all of Sean Connery’s Bond films, if you want to check ‘em out:
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | Beretta, bond, Connery, From Russia With Love, ian fleming, james bond, James Bond in film, Lotte Lenya, Miss Moneypenny, Moneypenny, Moore, Roger Moore, Russia With Love, sean connery