When You Only Live Twice opens, we find Sean Connery riddled with bullets, in an attempt to induce some sort of sympathy from the audience. If only he was because when he rises from the bottom of a slumber brought on by supposed machine gun fire, we find the Edinburgh born actor decidedly uninterested in giving anything to the audience, other than marching through the motions to finish the film in some sort of condition to walk off with a cheque of some kind. You Only Live Twice is patchy, while Diamonds Are Forever is awful, which is more the pity that they sandwiched a genuine masterpiece of British cinema, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Anybody who’s ever wished that Connery didn’t quit the role when he did should watch the back to back apathy of Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, as we see an actor uninvested in the story, the sex or the spectacle that surrounds him. It took an Australian beefcake, George Lazenby, to undo the wrongs set by Connery to bring Bond back to its vulnerable beginnings, capturing a spy at his most brittle and human.
Maybe working on On Her Majesty’s Secret Service would have captured that sense of purpose and pathos that was so pivotal to the Bond books, but I’m dubious considering that Connery was unprofessional enough to let the outside politics dictate his lead performance. Whatever misgivings his successor Roger Moore held for the role of Bond, or the producers who put him in so many perilous positions, he never let it affect his performance as Ian Fleming’s sleuth, but rather celebrated the pantomime and pastiche of the work in question.
The former Mr. Universe decided he had no interest in carrying on as a soldier of Her Majesty’s command, as was evident from the way he sleepwalked through his discussions with Q or thrust himself on the women that desired to slaughter and sleep with Connery’s Bond. Seemingly happy with his lot by Goldfinger, Connery was making it harder to justify his existence, especially evident in Diamonds Are Forever, the film that was responsible for the comical and misjudged decisions the series would take in the 1970s. Even the actor conceded that routine kicked into the series.
“Well, once you had done the first two, you just moved forward because the rules were established,” he admitted in 2002. “One wound up doing less and less as it were, because you did what you were expected to do and whatever else up to a point.”
By Diamonds Are Forever, the actor could barely bother himself to hide his brogue, imbuing unwanted “sh’s” in every “shentence”, much to the horrors of the censors, who were forced to listen to every misplaced word, cut after torturous cut. Although fans of Never Say Never Again could breathe a sigh of relief from the flabby posturings in Diamonds Are Forever, the yacht schmaltz he chose to replace it with had dated by the turn of the decade, and he wound up performing a series of arch-post modernistic appearances in an ill-formed attempt to appear “hip”.
But Connery was never hip, not even as the emblem of the counterculture he was supposed to represent. His first performance, Dr.No, had prowess, his second, From Russia, With Love, was better again, but by the time Goldfinger came around, Connery gave up, smoking in the corner where he should have spent his time acting.
Yet he was never the powerhouse actors that stalwarts Timothy Dalton or Daniel Craig were, and he could never have countenanced a script with the layers of Licence to Kill, or the intelligence of Casino Royale. If there was truth, it never appeared on screen, and he never had that astonishing moment of revelation the way Pierce Brosnan had in Tomorrow Never Dies, as James Bond comes across the corpse of a woman he did everything he could to protect.
Even Moore showed pathos when he put flowers on a grave during For Your Eyes Only, leaving Connery as the one Bond who stayed within the realm of one dimension, only breaking it once to wink at the camera as the credits for Never Say Never Again rolled. The credits weren’t the only thing that rolled as Connery waved goodbye to a role he never loved or gave it the commitment that it undoubtedly deserved.
But he got the ball rolling so that five infinitely more enjoyable takes could bring the character to newer and more interesting heights. Which is a shame, because his roles in Marnie, The Offence and The Man Who Would Be King show the kind of Bond he could have been, if he’d only been invested enough to do so. As it happens, he was less the man with the Midas touch as he was the man who pushed the series into the sea.