From Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg: The 15 greatest Sean Connery film performances
“I’m an actor – it’s not brain surgery. If I do my job right, people won’t ask for their money back.”—Sean Connery
Scottish performer Sean Connery is one of the greatest actors of the last century. He was the first actor to play the iconic role of James Bond and subsequently went on to star in seven Bond films in total. His performances have been critically acclaimed and he has received an Academy Award, two BAFTA Awards (one being a BAFTA Academy Fellowship Award), and three Golden Globes, including the Cecil B. DeMille Award and a Henrietta Award. Not content with his haul of achievements, the actor also received a lifetime achievement award in the US with a Kennedy Centre Honour in 1999 and he was knighted in the 2000 New Year Honours for services to film drama.
Early on in his life, Connery worked as a milkman, a lorry driver, a lifeguard and even a coffin polisher at one point. He was also a keen footballer who was offered a contract by Matt Busby, the erstwhile manager of Manchester United but Connery turned it down. He recalled, “I realised that a top-class footballer could be over the hill by the age of 30, and I was already 23. I decided to become an actor and it turned out to be one of my more intelligent moves.” To add to his income, Connery helped out backstage at the King’s Theatre in late 1951.
That’s where his interest in the performing arts was ignited.
Here, on what is his 90th birthday, we celebrate one of the biggest acting talents of all time with a list of some of his best performances.
The 15 Best Sean Connery Films:
15. Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock – 1964)
Although it doesn’t rank among the best works of the “Master of Suspense”, Alfred Hitchcock, this 1964 romantic drama features Connery as a wealthy widower who marries a psychologically deranged former thief (played by Tippi Hedren). Connery maintains a compelling on-screen chemistry with Hedren throughout the film and makes it a worthwhile watch.
“[Hitchcock’s] preparation for movie-making was second to none,” Connery said of the great filmmaker. “In terms of what he wanted in the script. he’d visualize everything. I honestly enjoyed working with him.”
14. Finding Forrester (Gus Van Sant – 2000)
One of Connery’s final films, he plays the role of William Forrester, a reclusive author who mentors young prodigy (played by Rob Brown) in his Bronx neighbourhood. Connery’s performance becomes increasingly powerful as the self-indulgent novelist warms up to the young man and teaches him everything he knows.
While speaking about the film, Connery said, “You have no idea how many people…that were talking about how they were affected. The literacy and the literature that’s not being read now, what they really miss…there’s one chap that was talking about his daughter saying now that’s she gotten on to reading, it’s changed her.
“And she’s changed his life and her life and their kind of relationship because suddenly she’s got something internalizing going on. It’s so pleasing to hear people are moved by it and caught by it.”
13. Murder On The Orient Express (Sidney Lumet – 1974)
Based on Agatha Christie’s famous mystery novel, Sidney Lumet’s big budget adaptation boasted of a star-studded cast, including illustrious actors like Albert Finney (as the eccentric detective Hercule Poirot), Ingrid Bergman as a shy Swedish maid and Connery himself as the iconic Colonel Arbuthnot. This classic whodunnit is a special one because everyone is a murder suspect on the Orient Express.
Richard Goodwin (the producer) recalled, “Sidney Lumet was directing, even though his agent didn’t want him to. She called it ‘the dumb train movie’. She wanted him to work in Los Angeles, but he didn’t like it there. The cast were all such huge stars, yet somehow the film cost only $4.5m…Sean Connery got a percentage because he was such a big star.”
12. Time Bandits (Terry Gilliam – 1981)
This highly imaginative fantasy-adventure film comes from the acclaimed director who would later go on to direct Brazil (1985).
Visually stunning and thematically peculiar, it follows the story of a young boy who tours various historical eras, meeting Napoleon, Robin Hood and the great King Agamemnon (played by Connery who also plays a fireman). Time Bandits was Connery’s fantastic introduction to the surreal world of Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam said, “That was the early days of handmade films. Michael Palin and I wrote the script and there’s a scene with a Greek warrior when he’s defeated the Minotaur. He pulled his helmet off and revealed himself to be none other than Sean Connery or ‘an actor of equal but cheaper stature’. That’s what was actually written in the script with no intention of ever getting Sean Connery.”
11. From Russia With Love (Terence Young – 1963)
Connery followed the unprecedented success of Dr. No (1962) with Young’s 1963 film which placed him in the iconic role of Bond again. He falls into an assassination trap involving a naïve Russian beauty while he tries to retrieve the encryption device that was stolen by SPECTRE.
The studio doubled the budget offered to Eon Productions with $2 million, and also approved a bonus for Sean Connery, who would receive $100,000 along with his $54,000 salary. Robert Shaw and Connery did most of the stunts themselves. Connery’s portrayal of the enigmatic secret agent still remains the best.
10. The Name Of The Rose (Jean-Jacques Annaud – 1986)
Connery stars as William von Baskerville, an intellectual monk who does not conform to the institutional dogmatisms. He investigates a series of mysterious deaths in an isolated abbey with Annaud setting up an ominous atmosphere for the plot to unravel. Connery won the BAFTA for Best Actor for this performance.
The director recalled, “He was a royal fine figure of a man. His build took the door frame. I invited him to sit. He did it as in the theatre, like Polyeucte or Agamemnon. He opened the script on page 1.”
Adding, “He said with a deep voice: ‘Let me read, boy’. My mane was already whiter than my skirt, and he called me ‘boy’. He read the first cue; he gave me goose pimples. What I was hearing was what I had heard inside me for almost two years. I stopped him on page three.”
9. The Wind And The Lion (John Milius – 1975)
Milius’s film is loosely based on a real incident from 1904 and follows the story of a rebellious sheikh (played by Connery) who kidnaps a feisty American woman (played by Candice Bergen) in order to make a political statement. Connery does not indulge in racial caricatures and instead, adds depth to his character by delivering a nuanced performance.
“When I first arrived in Madrid, they were filming some of the White House scenes with Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt at The Palace Hotel,” co-actor Darrell Fetty recalled. “Man, it was exciting to be there – a major, old-time Hollywood production starring Sean Connery with an International cast and a huge European crew.”
8. The Rock (Michael Bay – 1996)
Michael Bay’s 1996 action thriller was critically unsuccessful and still comes across as a loud mess but Connery’s brilliant performance makes it a must-watch film for all his fans. It features a renegade military commander (played Ed Harris) who threatens to launch a nerve gas attack from Alcatraz prison against San Francisco. Connery plays the role of Mason, a clever ex-con who is the only prisoner ever to escape the fortress. He teams up with a chemist (played by Nicholas Cage) to put a stop to the imminent attack.
“That was fun. Second movie. It was a good one,” Bay recalled. “Connery taught me a lot on that one. First of all, he’s a very tough actor and I had worked with many, many tough athletes — some of the best in the world from Jordan on down doing Nike commercials. So I was used to working with very tough people.
“But remember, I was very young doing that movie. I remember the very first day [Connery] is dressed dark in long hair and he’s in an interrogation room. And I remember I was so scared to give him my first bit of direction. I said, ‘Uh, Mr. Sean, could you do that a little less charming?’ That was my first bit of direction to him, and he goes, ‘Sure, boy’.”
7. The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan – 1990)
Arguably the best Tom Clancy film adaptation, The Hunt For Red October stars Connery as Marko Ramius, a Russian submarine captain who is on his way to the States. The Soviet Union insists that Ramius wants to launch a nuclear strike but a CIA analyst, Jack Ryan (played by Alec Baldwin), thinks he is trying to defect. Connery shrouds his character with a veil of ambiguity and keeps the audience guessing what his intentions are. He won a BAFTA nomination for his wonderful performance.
Connery explained why he almost turned the film down, “I had reservations about it. I thought this kind of Cold War intrigue might be dated because of recent events. It turned out that the studio had failed to fax the first page of the script, which explained that it took place before Gorbachev.”
6. The Hill (Sidney Lumet – 1965)
Lumet and Connery made five films together over three decades but this is the finest of them all. Set inside a British army prison in North Africa during WWII, Connery plays Joe Roberts, a former Squadron Sergeant Major who is convicted of assaulting a commanding officer. As punishment, Roberts and the other prisoners are forced to participate in a Sisyphean task: climbing an artificial hill over and over again.
Lumet was full of praise about Connery, ”The thing that was apparent to me-and to most directors-was how much talent and ability it takes to play that kind of character, (who’s) based on charm and magnetism. ‘It`s the movie equivalent of high comedy, and he did it brilliantly.”
5. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston – 1975)
Based on the famous short story by Rudyard Kipling, the 1975 film features two former British soldiers, Dravot (played by Connery) and Carnehan (played by Michael Caine), who decide that colonial India does not have enough for them. That’s why they set out to explore Kafiristan where they are mistaken for Gods by the natives. Both Caine and Connery put up great performances as the leads in Huston’s colonial allegory.
Huston waited a long time to make this film, and its history is a legend in itself. He originally cast Bogart and Gable, but then Bogart died, and the project wasn’t realized until 1975. However, Huston’s final casting of Connery and Caine was perfect.
4. Dr. No (Terence Young – 1962)
This was the film that established Sean Connery’s on-screen persona as the charismatic, intelligent and crafty British spy, James Bond. As Bond, he undertakes a mission in Jamaica to find out about the disappearance of a colleague but he uncovers the insidious plan of Dr. No (played by Joseph Wiseman) who aims to disrupt the U.S. Space programme. Connery made the role of James Bond an iconic one.
“The only real difficulty I found in playing Bond was that I had to start from scratch,” Connery said. “Nobody knew anything about him, after all. Not even Fleming. Does he have parents? Where does he come from? Nobody knows. But we played it for laughs, and people seem to feel it comes off quite well.”
He added, “I don’t suppose I’d really like Bond if I met him. He’s a man who makes his own rules. That’s fine so long as you’re not plagued with doubts. But if you are – and most of us are – you’re sunk,”
3. The Untouchables (Brian De Palma – 1987)
Set in Prohibition-era Chicago, Brian De Palma’s crime drama where Connery plays Jimmy Malone, an Irish-American police officer who tries to make Federal Agent Eliot Ness (played by Kevin Costner) understand that the only way to take down famous mobster Al Capone (played by Robert De Niro) is to play dirty. Connery is fantastic while performing the bad cop routine, quite different from the other tough guy roles he is famous for. He won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for this role.
“I thought the part was very original and different,” Connery reflected, “and a very interesting storyline. All the actors were very experienced and professional. Everybody played an important element in the film. Brian was so open for ideas and suggestions. Working with him was everything that I expected.”
2. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Steven Spielberg – 1989)
Harrison Ford stars as the iconic Indiana Jones and teams up with his estranged father (played by Sean Connery) in the third instalment to the acclaimed series. Connery and Ford make a brilliant and humorous on-screen duo as they stop the Nazis from laying their hands on the Holy Grail. The narrative is especially touching because the father-son story was close to Spielberg’s heart.
Spielberg remembered, “Sean was in a great mood most of the movie because he was able to be funny. He was able to use his comedic skills, and Harrison was in a fantastic mood because he was able to be the foil for the father. It was the most fun we had between actors in all of these movies.”
Connery spoke highly of the director, “I got on famously with Steven, and speak with him often. There was no seduction talk, no movie-star stuff. And Harrison’s a pro, he’s terrific. We got a really good relationship going. Steven was marvellous for ideas. You only have to look at the sequence where I’m in the tank. It was originally scheduled for a day, two days maybe. I think it went to seven days in the end.”
1. Goldfinger (Guy Hamilton – 1964)
Undoubtedly Connery’s best film performance in what is quite possibly the finest Bond film of all time, Guy Hamilton’s 1964 addition to the Bond legacy is full of iconic moments and pits Bond against the eccentric Auric Goldfinger (played by Gert Frobe) who plans to contaminate the Fort Knox reserve.
Ian Fleming’s novels became immensely famous in the States once it was known that President John F. Kennedy was a huge fan of them. Connery immortalized himself in the public consciousness as James Bond and Goldfinger was the apotheosis of his career.