Outside of playing James Bond, Sean Connery made five films with director Sidney Lumet – we look back at their various collaborations.
For better or worse, James Bond is a definitive role. Every actor who has ever played 007 has had work around it to some extent in their subsequent roles. Ahead of his (apparently) final Bond outing in next year’s No Time To Die, Daniel Craig already seems to be working hard on breaking this type with his characterful performances in Logan Lucky and the upcoming Knives Out.
Out of his predecessors, Sean Connery has the most successful post-Bond career by a considerable distance. To be fair, he has more time on his side than his fellow Bonds, but he only well and truly arrived on the A-list after he was finished with the franchise. With all due respect to the other 007s, you can’t say that of anyone else.
But with EON Productions holding the reins of the franchise, the Bond films have always been quite production-heavy affairs, usually with a fairly quick turnaround from one instalment to the next. Unsurprisingly, Connery broke out by working with directors, much like Craig has started doing.
The most fruitful continuing collaboration of Connery’s career came with American director Sidney Lumet. The pair made five films together over three decades, sharing a mutually beneficial working relationship. Lumet fulfilled Connery’s desire to be challenged and treated seriously as an actor. In return, Connery afforded Lumet creative freedom from financiers by putting his star power behind his projects, even if their commercial prospects were mixed.
Their longstanding collaboration yielded five interesting and decidedly un-Bond-like roles for Connery, casting him as a military prisoner, a burglar, a policeman, a colonel and an arch-criminal, each offering more nuance than his more popular breakthrough role.
The Hill (1965)
“We’re all doing time. Even the screws.”
Next to the breakout success of the Bond franchise, The Hill came right in between Goldfinger and Thunderball. With that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that Connery seems less engaged with his super-spy antics in the latter part of his tenure. By comparison, Lumet’s film is a real workout for his then-underappreciated acting talents.
The film takes place in a British military prison (or “glasshouse”) in the Libyan desert during World War II. Led by Regimental Sergeant Major Bert Wilson (Harry Andrews), the officers put the inmate soldiers through their paces to try and break them down, and then build them back up into “something the army can be proud of”. The titular hill is at the centre of this punishing regime – a man made obstacle course over which the men are ordered to double up and down in the baking hot sun.
Connery plays Joe Roberts, a sergeant major who has been convicted for beating up his commanding officer, whose unease with authority make life harder for himself and his cellmates, especially when tragedy befalls one of their number. It’s a part that’s worlds away from Bond, right at the peak of his popularity in that role.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1965, Lumet recounted: “I told him ‘I’m going to make brutal demands of you, physically and emotionally’, and he knew I’m not a director who has too much respect for ‘stars’ as such.”
But Lumet had nothing but praise for the actor, adding: “The result is beyond my hopes. He is real and tough and not at all smooth or nice. In a way, he’s a ‘heavy’ but the real heavy is the Army.”
Based on his play, Ray Rigby’s script offers plenty of opportunity for Connery and his co-stars to act their hearts out. For instance, a pivotal showdown between Roberts and Wilson is the best scene in the film, with the two sergeant majors trading bellowed arguments as Roberts runs the gamut from pragmatism to fury to complete emotional collapse.
Filmed in Almeria, Spain, the film is a suffocating study of masculinity in a confined space. It’s shot in black and white, but you still feel the scorching temperature at every moment. On location, the temperature rarely dropped below 45°C and many of the cast and crew suffered from dysentery throughout the intensive shoot.
However, it’s a film that lets the physical demands of the shoot show in the actors’ performances. It’s one of those rare ensemble films where every part is perfectly cast, and Connery broods magnificently in the centre of it all. The film was criminally underrated at the time – although it had its champions, some reviewers bizarrely mocked it as “a James Bond film without any women in it”, which shows the difficulties the star was already having with typecasting at this point.
Nevertheless, Connery had relished the challenge and considered the film to be an unqualified personal success, even if it wasn’t a commercial hit. Encouraging the actor to plumb hitherto unseen depths, Lumet gave him a much-needed showcase and provided the crucial foundations for his long post-Bond career.
The Anderson Tapes (1971)
“It’s just dog eat dog, but I want the first bite.”
Connery hung up his Walther PPK for the first time after making 1967’s You Only Live Twice and then reunited with Lumet to make a decidedly unglamorous crime drama. While modern audiences understandably problematise the way his unreconstructed Bond treats women, The Anderson Tapes begins boldly by mocking Connery’s sexuality.
This one opens in prison too, as Duke Anderson is pictured giving a cringe-worthy monologue comparing opening a safe to sexual conquest. Unrepentant though Anderson may be at the end of his 10-year prison sentence, It’s clear that this screening of his police interview for the assorted inmates should embarrass the felon, with the film holding up his casual misogyny for critique.
The Anderson Tapes continues in this voyeuristic but decidedly unsexy tack as this career burglar enters a society that has changed while he has been banged up. As he assembles a team of fellow wrong’uns (including Christopher Walken, in his first major screen role) to burgle his girlfriend’s upmarket apartment building, he is fairly ignorant of improvements to surveillance technology. As a result, he doesn’t realise that everyone involved is being tracked by various operators and agencies.
Even if the film has dated in the years since it was made, it’s still remarkably ahead of its time as the first major techno-thriller of its kind. Released in 1971, it came out exactly one year (to the day!) before the Watergate scandal broke and made electronic surveillance a global talking point. Shot on a tight budget over just six weeks, the film is a fairly standard crime caper, but its subtext lends it a squirrelly intensity that’s underscored by Quincy Jones’ beeping electronic score.
Once again departing from the unflappable secret agent mould, Connery plays a confident and criminally proficient character whose best-laid plans are frustrated not only by the authorities but by his fellow conspirators, including an unpredictable thug that his mob backers have instructed him to kill in the course of the job.
Beyond the forward thinking of its social and technological commentary, the film arrived at just the right time for its star. Unlike The Hill, The Anderson Tapes was a hit with American audiences and earned solid reviews for Connery’s performance, which gave him further star cred outside of the franchise that made him famous.
The Offence (1973)
“God! Oh God!”
The duo’s next film was perhaps the most discussed and dissected of their collaborations, and it was certainly the most unusual. When George Lazenby surprisingly quit as 007 after just one film, United Artists and EON coaxed Connery back to reprise the role of Bond in Diamonds Are Forever by offering him a then-unprecedented £1.25 million payday and a pledge to back two low-budget film projects of his choosing.
While his planned adaptation of Macbeth never came to pass, Connery optioned the screen rights to the 1968 play This Story Of Yours, written by Z Cars writer John Hopkins, and asked Lumet to direct the film version. This gruelling character study follows Connery’s Detective Sergeant Johnson, a police officer of 20 years’ standing, who snaps while interrogating an alleged child molester in custody.
As in the stage version, Hopkins’ screenplay is structured around three extended dialogue scenes, but the cinematic version plays with flashbacks and editing to create a more dream-like and unreliable narrative.
Even in comparison with his previous works with Lumet, The Offence challenges Connery in a role that few other big movie stars of the time would have gone near. It seems incredibly brave in retrospect, for him to play a character who is coloured as both abusive and abused through the course of the drama. What’s more, Johnson is balding, overweight, and given to terrifying fits of anger and upset.
In an interview sometime before the film’s release, Connery remarked: “I will be interested in how the public takes it… Some people may detest [my] character. The British have always been so anti-analysis in every sense of the word, but this film goes into analysis of why this detective became what he is.”
Artful as it is, the film is relentlessly bleak and audiences simply didn’t come out to see it. Although the executives at United Artists were true to their word in backing the film, Connery was vocal in the press about their mishandling of its release, arguing that they should have aimed to premiere the movie that the Curzon in London rather than the Odeon Leicester Square.
Though far from perfect, The Offence remains an interesting curio, especially for Connery’s brave, wrenching performance and the way its narrative represents cycles of abuse. Love or hate it, the film is arguably the most experimental film born out of an actor-director collaboration defined by departures from form.
Murder On The Orient Express (1974)
“Trial by twelve good men and true… is a sound system.”
Lumet made some of his most acclaimed films during the 1970s, including Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network. In the middle of the decade, he also helmed the definitive adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Orient Express for Paramount. Lumet’s agent didn’t like the idea of him going off and making a British film after the success of Serpico, but the director had his sights set on the classic Hercule Poirot whodunnit.
What’s more, he wanted his murder mystery to feature an all-star cast. In casting major actors as all of the suspects, Lumet reasoned that there are no small parts and the suspense would be fuelled by the audience’s presumptions about each star. He’s spot on there, and his approach works well enough that Kenneth Branagh did the same thing when casting his 2017 remake.
Connery was the first actor Lumet called, in part because the two got on famously but also because the director felt that if he could secure the biggest star first, the rest of the cast would fall into place. The star gladly took on the role of Colonel Arbuthnot, with his contract granting him a percentage of the box office takings as well as the $100,000 salary that his fellow cast members received.
As it turned out, the rest of the cast jumped at the chance to work with Lumet, who was by now well known as an actor’s director. Led by Albert Finney as Poirot, that cast included the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Michael York.
Murder On The Orient Express was by far the best received of Lumet and Connery’s collaborations at the time of release. Nominated for six Academy Awards (with Bergman winning Best Supporting Actress for what amounted to five minutes of screentime), the film was a critical and commercial smash, becoming the first fully UK-financed film ever to top the weekly US box office chart.
Although it’s an ensemble-driven piece, it grants Connery a different kind of role again. The Colonel is a role he might have seemed too young to play in earlier years, but he plays it well here, showing off some of the comic timing (that pause when he clarifies Miss Debenham is “NOT a woman… she’s a lady”) which came out more and more in his later roles.
Family Business (1989)
“When did you get it in your head that it was so bad to be a thief?”
The 1980s saw Connery’s star on the rise again as he continued to thrive in supporting roles. He also received awards attention, first for his role as William of Baskerville in The Name Of The Rose, for which he won a BAFTA for Best Actor, and then for his turn as Irish cop Jim Malone in The Untouchables. His Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for that film makes him the only Oscar-winner to have played James Bond. (No, David Niven doesn’t count.)
Right at the end of the decade, Connery came full circle by playing Henry Jones Sr, father of a partly Bond-inspired hero, in Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, but also worked with Lumet one last time on the low-key heist film Family Business. If you think Harrison Ford (11 years younger than Connery) was a bit old to play his son, wait until you see Dustin Hoffman (only 7 years younger) in this one.
Connery plays Jessie McMullen, a veteran rogue who’s proud of the life he’s lived, even if it puts him at odds with his son Vito (Hoffman), who went straight when his son Adam was born. Now that Adam (Matthew Broderick) has grown up, Jessie believes he can tempt his grandson into a life of crime, despite Vito’s protests.
The genealogy behind this casting is mind-boggling, with Hoffman’s character being positioned as the son of a Scots-Irish immigrant and a Sicilian woman. Written by Vincent Franklin, the film is a bit lightweight – a comedy-drama that’s neither funny nor interesting enough to be especially memorable, but there’s an easy, watchable chemistry between the leads.
Even if it’s not an auspicious ending to the long collaboration between Lumet and Connery, it’s notable for once again subverting the latter’s renewed stardom. After a decade spent playing the older, wiser head, he’s perfectly charming as the sly, experienced granddad, and Lumet makes the most of the familial tensions that arise from the three unlikely generations.
Sean Connery continued to be a major movie star throughout the 1990s, with major hits including The Hunt For Red October, The Rock, and Entrapment. He was knighted for services to film drama in 2000 and retired from screen acting in 2003 after a famously bad experience on The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He has often called Lumet the best director he ever worked with.
Sidney Lumet made a few more films after Family Business – he even tried to pull a Connery on Vin Diesel by casting him in the 2006 legal comedy-drama Find Me Guilty, with mixed results, and he also received an Academy Honorary Award at that year’s Oscar ceremony. His next film, the ensemble-driven 2007 drama Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, would be his last, and he passed away in 2011.
Connery and Lumet’s five collaborations were a mixed bag, but between them, they had a solid relationship between actor and director like no other James Bond actor has enjoyed, before or after playing the part.
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