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31 October 2020

Shaken. And Stirred.


Another icon leaves us. That's the news I woke up to, this morning. And I’m both shaken and stirred. (Will I ever stop writing tributes this year?) 

I watched very few English movies growing up. For one, they took a long time to release in India. Secondly, I didn’t really understand the accents. And third, they really weren’t as entertaining as the ‘masala’ films I grew up watching.

But when I'd just entered my teens, I devoured my father’s Ian Fleming collection and fell in love with the saturnine ‘hero’ who was so unlike the usual protagonists of fiction. The fast-paced stories were thrilling to someone who was just learning about the Cold War. There was enough ‘reality’ to ground these books (of course, since Ian Fleming was a naval intelligence officer and a journalist).

My first introduction to the films based on these novels was Dr No, which I watched in Lido in Bangalore. I remember sitting on the edge of my seat – I loved every minute of it. It was also my first introduction to Sean Connery who played the spy.

Later, my father took me to every Bond film that re-released: From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Never Say Never Again (a remake of Thunderball) ... Seven films as the spy with the ‘License to Kill’. Seven films in which the protagonist was a cold  killing machine, someone who can, and did skirt the laws of various countries in his quest to track down the villain, who could be borderline cruel.

 Connery fit the role to a T. He had an ‘old’ face, even when he was young – craggy, asymmetrical, with a weariness that seemed part of his soul. He epitomised the sexy, charismatic, no-time-for-love, dangerous British spy, much like Jeremy Brett came to epitomise Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in the minds of millions of viewers.
So much so that when Connery walked away from his character after Diamonds are Forever, and Roger Moore took over the mantle, fans were dismayed, as ‘Bond’ became less dark and dangerous, and more humorous and light-hearted. Besides, Roger Moore who was identified as ‘The Saint’, Leslie Charteris’ bold buccaneer, did not ‘fit’ the author’s description of James Bond. “Moore is just too ‘pretty’ ”, complained one critic when Live and Let Die released.

Strangely enough, Connery himself was not the first choice to play James Bond in the first Bond film. Neither was Ian Fleming very impressed with him. He’s said to have quipped, “I’m looking for Commander Bond, not an overgrown stuntman.” He had hoped for David Niven. However, the success of Dr No and the response that ‘James Bond’ received, especially from women, set all doubts at rest.

The James Bond films were ‘male’ films – the view is masculine, as is the perspective. The women were merely eye candy with names like Pussy Galore and Solitaire. Kissy Suzuki, Honey Rider, Vesper Lynd. They were there for Bond to seduce, and later die. The films didn’t waste much time on ‘romance’, except in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’, where  Bond marries Teresay ‘Tracy’ Darco, only to witness her being killed by arch-villain Bloefield. (On Her Majesty’s… starred George Lazenby, in his only outing as James Bond.) For Connery, that wasn’t the problem; the problem was that he was bored playing Bond. “I have always hated that damned James Bond,” he’s said. “I’d like to kill him.” So fed up was he, in fact, that he gave his fees for Diamonds are Forever to charity.
Forever tied to Bond, perhaps, but Connery has stepped out of the role before. To play Mark Rutland in Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated Marnie, which Hitchcock fans love to hate. But my personal favourites among Connery’s early non-Bond films are Sidney Lumet’s slow-paced police thriller The Offence (1973) and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which he starred with friend Michael Caine.
But Connery’s best was yet to come. As he grew older, he seemed to grow more light-hearted. The dour Scots expression had given way to an avuncular presence – but the balding, bearded, warm presence would still evoke an audience response, as was evidenced in Robin and Marian (1976) where he starred as an aging Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian.
You can see the 'hero' change to become  the character. As Jim Malone, the Irish American cop from The Untouchables (1987) – which won Connery an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, he is the veteran who mentors Elliot Ness (Kevin Costner), a federal agent and supports him in his endeavour to put Al Capone (Robert De Niro) behind bars. In one of the film's iconic dialogues, he tells Ness, "You want to know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way."
Or The Russia House, based on John Le Carre’s spy thriller, where Connery plays Bartholomew Scott-Blair, a British publisher, who is forced to become an undercover agent. Or even
The Hunt for Red October (1990) in which he plays a Soviet submarine captain, who wants to defect to the west.
But perhaps it was his much-loved turn as Professor Henry Jones, Sr., a crazy eccentric professor of medieval studies that has remained in the minds of a younger generation of movie-goers. Steven Spielberg always had Connery in mind for the role; Connery, only 12 years older than Harrison Ford, was initially reluctant, but then decided that the character of a gruff, Victorian, Scottish father was too good to give up. “Only Sean Connery could have played Indy’s father,” George Lucas had once said.
The last film in the Indy Jones trilogy will forever be my favourite because of Sean Connery’s interactions with Harrison Ford in the film.
But even though Prof. Henry Jones is a hoot, I first ‘met’ Sean Connery as Bond. James Bond. And he will always be the most definitive Bond for me.

Goodbye, Mr Bond. RIP. You will be missed. 

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