Sean Connery died Saturday at the age of 90. Best known for originating the role of James Bond in movies, the Scottish actor had a career that lasted nearly 60 years, most of which he spent playing a variety of “man’s man” roles — from suave spies to violent brutes. At a time when most popular British thespians were known as Shakespearean-trained aesthetes, Connery became an international star with a screen presence that was earthier and sexier. His musical highland burr and awe-inspiring physicality immediately drew eyes and ears, even when he was playing opposite some of the most accomplished and attractive performers of his generation.
These 15 movies go beyond Bond (though there a couple of can’t-miss 007 adventures in there) to illustrate how Connery commanded the screen, from his roguish youth to his distinguished latter years.
“Dr. No” introduced James Bond to the big screen, but the second film in the series beefed up the mythology, expanding the entire concept of a superspy suavely combating would-be world conquerors. In the character’s first heyday, Connery grounded the increasingly outlandish gadgets, villains, sidekicks, and femmes fatale. While later Bonds (including some played by Connery) would became almost too cartoonishly glib, the 007 in “From Russia With Love” has a certain gruff gravity, even as he’s effortlessly seducing women and dispatching SPECTRE operatives.
The third of the Connery Bonds established many tropes of the series: The stand-alone pre-credits action sequence, a tricked-out Aston Martin DB5, the eye-catching international locales and an array of silly gadgetry. (Bond is advised never to use the passenger-side ejector seat button, which of course only raises expectations.) “Goldfinger” is absurd beyond parody, with one of the best (and most plausible) evil-villain schemes in the franchise, and its lightness of touch makes it a standout among early 007 adventures. It’s the sort of movie where Bond has to free himself from a metal slab while a laser beam slowly moves toward his body.
In one of Alfred Hitchcock’s more disturbing thrillers, Connery plays the wealthy Mark Rutland, drawn to Marnie (played by Tippi Hedren), whom he knows to be psychologically damaged. He marries her anyway, and dedicates time and resources to fixing her wide range of problems — from kleptomania to a violent fear of sex. As played by Connery (and written by the screenwriter Jay Presson Allen, adapting Winston Graham’s novel), Mark can be seen either as the kindly guardian of a troubled person or as a total sicko who gets off on controlling someone too broken to fight back.
While Connery was becoming one of the world’s most popular movie stars as James Bond, he consciously took roles in films that let him show different sides of his personality and talent. The director Sidney Lumet pushed the star to give his best performance of the 1960s in an adaptation of Ray Rigby’s play “The Hill,” about a brutal British military prison designed to break the spirits of insubordinate soldiers. In a complex study of how the values of strength and discipline sometimes conflict, Connery plays a former officer who challenges the authority of his jailers and becomes a hero to his fellow inmates.
The image of a pony-tailed Connery with a Fu Manchu mustache, thigh-high boots and a red loincloth has been known to turn some potential viewers away from the writer-director John Boorman’s visionary postapocalyptic allegory. But if you can accept that a lot of the silliness in “Zardoz” is purposeful, it’s surprisingly easy to fall under Boorman’s strange spell, and to appreciate Connery’s fearless performance as a rebellious warrior whose terrifying rawness shakes up a utopian society of timid intellectuals.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’
In Sidney Lumet’s hit adaptation of the Agatha Christie whodunit, Connery joins a cast of international stars (Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and John Gielgud among them) who fall under the penetrating gaze of Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) after a passenger is murdered on a train. There’s not much to “Murder on the Orient Express” as cinema, since the bulk of the film involves Poirot interrogating the passengers one by one in the same train car. But it’s the ultimate brainteaser for amateur sleuths in the audience, even if they’re unlikely to see the big twist coming.
Connery had one of his best screen partners in Michael Caine, in the director John Huston’s extraordinarily entertaining adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s rip-roaring novella. The pair play globe-hopping mercenaries and con men who stumble into an Afghan community where they’re briefly hailed as gods. A tongue-in-cheek take on old-fashioned Victorian adventure, the film sees Connery doing what’s almost a spoof of the classic British pulp hero — more dim and thuggish than noble.
‘Robin and Marian’
A film about aging and almost-forgotten legends, Richard Lester’s 1976 historical romance “Robin and Marian” has Connery as Robin Hood, returning from the Crusades to find Nottingham’s poor still suffering, the Merry Men scattered, and Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) living a life of anonymous service as a nun. Typical of Lester, there’s an enjoyable casualness to “Robin And Marian,” even as the heroes are worrying that they’re too past their prime to escape certain death. And though he still had decades left to go in his career, Connery is entirely convincing as an aged Robin, fighting to convince his true love that there’s still life left in her wearying bones.
The director Michael Crichton’s crackling adaptation of his own novel has nothing more or less on its mind than delivering a twisty, entertaining little caper and it pays off handsomely. Looking resplendent in their mid-1800s top hats and mutton chops, Connery and Donald Sutherland are an appealingly roguish team of thieves conspiring to steal a gold shipment from a moving train. This isn’t any ordinary smash-and-grab job, however: They first have to acquire four keys from different sources to access two heavily guarded safes. Crichton devotes himself to detailing the complicated logistics of the heist; fun and suspense follow.
The plot of Terry Gilliam’s children’s fantasy — or at least Terry Gilliam’s idea of a children’s fantasy — sends an ordinary little boy through a portal in his wardrobe closet, where he joins a band of thieves as they jump from one notable time period to another. Connery appears as King Agamemnon of ancient Greece, who adopts the boy after he inadvertently assists him in slaying an enemy. It’s the most joyous section of the film, as Agamemnon treats him with fatherly affection and the kingdom cheers him as a conquering hero. The kid looks like he would happily stay in that time and place forever, so it’s a comedown when he’s whisked along to his next stop: the Titanic.
Connery won the best supporting actor Oscar for his robustly entertaining turn as Jim Malone, an Irish-American police officer who risks his neck to help Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) assemble a team and bring Al Capone (Robert De Niro) to justice in Prohibition-era Chicago. Connery’s speech about “The Chicago Way” is the standout and it’s also illustrative of the partnership that anchors the film, with Malone providing the muscle and moxie essential for Ness to get Capone. “The Untouchables” is also crackerjack entertainment, reconciling the ostentatious style of the director Brian De Palma with the studio sheen of a Hollywood prestige production.
‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’
Even though the director Steven Spielberg added Connery to the “Indiana Jones” universe primarily as a nod to the actor’s James Bond persona, he fits perfectly alongside Harrison Ford — two growly action heroes playing characters who deftly defy death on a daily basis. As Indy’s emotionally distant father, Connery brings some poignancy to the franchise, and perhaps was even responsible for loosening Spielberg up a bit. “Last Crusade” is lighter and funnier than any other film in the series, with a refreshing smoothness to the storytelling.
The first and best of the Jack Ryan thrillers casts Connery as a rogue Russian submarine captain who enters into a dangerous cat-and-mouse game with Alec Baldwin’s Ryan, who has to figure out whether the officer intends to defect to America or threaten its Eastern shore with a nuclear payload. Connery’s Russian accent may be suspect, but his stolid yet soulful presence in “The Hunt for Red October” is critical to the dramatic tension, which hinges on hidden motives and shrewd calculation. Though the director John McTiernan was the top genre filmmaker at the time, hot off “Predator” and “Die Hard,” much of the suspense here comes from the heady, high-stakes chess match between the two leads.
‘The Russia House’
By appearing as a small-house British publisher in this classy adaptation of John le Carré’s novel, Connery was able to revive his 007 spy persona while adding the maturity and gravitas of a plausible real-world espionage plot. A murderer’s row of character actors — including Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney, J.T. Walsh, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer — fill out the cast, but “The Russia House” is notable mainly for the romantic chemistry between Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer, who co-stars as a Russian who slips him notebooks that cast doubt on the Soviet Union’s capacity for nuclear war.
For a thriller as flagrantly ridiculous as “The Rock,” actors of Connery’s stature are an essential ballast to keep the enterprise from flying off the rails. In Michael Bay’s flashy tale, Connery plays a former Alcatraz inmate and escapee who accepts a pardon in exchange for his expertise in helping break up a kidnapping scheme on Alcatraz Island. When a disgruntled Marine general (Ed Harris) and his men hold tourists captive on Alcatraz in exchange for $100 million, Connery and Nicolas Cage’s F.B.I. chemical weapons specialist are brought in to keep them from launching deadly rockets into San Francisco. “The Rock” is like watching a 136-minute trailer for itself, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously.