When I learned that Sean Connery had died on October 31 at age 90, it felt for a moment as if things had slipped out of gear. Later I read that Connery’s wife of 45 years, Micheline Roquebrune, had said that he’d had dementia in those last months and “was not able to express himself… It was no life for him. At least he died in his sleep and it was just so peaceful.” I can only imagine what it must be like to lose one’s self before actually dying, but it has to be a hard way to go. I don’t like to think of him like that. I prefer to see him as someone vital and virile, a strong physical presence with authority. Of course, this impression is based on years of seeing him in films; those were the characters he tended to portray. He projected intelligence and strength, but strength with feeling.
Sean Connery will be forever known as the first, and for many the best, James Bond, but I think his most interesting work can be seen in films other than those of that iconic series. Right from the start he was determined not to be trapped by the Bond character. Four of the five “official” Bond films he appeared in were made from 1962 to 1967. In the midst of that period, Connery also acted in Woman of Straw (1964), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965), and A Fine Madness (1967).
It was in the post-Bond years that Connery gave some of his best performances. One of my favorites is John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-starring with Michael Caine. Huston had tried to get this film made for many years. He planned to do it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the fifties. Subsequent proposed pairings included Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. While it’s interesting to imagine the film with those casts, I think it was worth the wait. Connery and Caine are wonderful together. This was reportedly Connery’s favorite movie role.
Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976) is a favorite of mine, a film with great sentiment and emotion. Imagining Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Merry Men twenty years later is a great idea, cleverly worked out. Audrey Hepburn makes a lovely Marian, and Robert Shaw is excellent as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who clearly has a fondness, or at least respect, for Robin. One of my favorite lines is when he says of Robin before their final encounter, “He’s a little bit in love with death.”
Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), though entertaining, is not a great film, but Connery’s performance certainly is. For his role as Chicago cop Joe Malone, he received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This brief scene with Connery and Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness gives a good sense of who Malone is.
Connery should also be given credit for taking on John Boorman’s profoundly weird Zardoz in 1974. Once you’ve seen the WTF image below, you can never unsee it.
But now to The Hill. Connery made five films directed by Sidney Lumet: The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Family Business (1989). I’ve not yet seen The Offence, in which Connery plays a burnt-out police detective who beats a suspected pedophile to death while interrogating him. This certainly sounds like Lumet territory, and based on the performance Lumet got out of Connery in The Hill, I look forward to seeing it. Family Business, which I watched recently, is a rare Lumet misfire in which Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick play grandfather, father, and son involved in a hapless criminal enterprise. For me, nothing worked, it was all totally off, top to bottom.
Of these five films, the clear winner is The Hill. It was critically well received but did very little business in theaters. I’m betting not that many people have seen The Hill, or have even heard of it, but those who have know what a blistering piece of work it is.
In Sydney Lumet’s excellent book Making Movies (1995), he writes, “The Hill is the story of a British Army prison in North Africa during World War II. Only the camp is for British soldiers, sent there for discipline problems or criminal behavior. It’s a brutal place, filled with sadistic punishments that are meant to break the spirit of anyone unlucky enough to be there.”
There is no music under the main title sequence. This opening shot runs 2 minutes 27 seconds without a cut. The camera pulls slowly back and cranes up and out to give an overview of the prison grounds. Here it is.
Sydney Lumet is quoted as saying, “There really isn’t a lot of story. It’s all character — a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.”
Sean Connery signed on because it was such a change of pace from James Bond. He said at the time, “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put up money for The Hill.” He later saw it as a personal triumph that lead to more challenging roles.
Before filming began, Lumet told Connery, “I’m going to make brutal demands of you, physically and emotionally.” Anyone familiar with Lumet’s work knows that he gets intense performances from actors in highly charged situations. The circumstances of the shoot also made “brutal demands.” The Hill was filmed at an old Spanish fort in Almeria, Spain, starting in September, 1964. Temperatures climbed to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and above on a daily basis. In Making Movies, Lumet writes “…the exteriors were shot in the desert. The light was blinding, the heat so horrendous that during the day we dehydrated completely. After a few days I asked Sean Connery if he was peeing at all. ‘Only in the morning,’ he said.”
The excellent cast includes Connery as a prisoner busted for refusing to carry out a suicidal order and punching out the superior officer who gave it, and Harry Andrews as the Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of the camp, and Ian Hendry as the truly sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams, whose actions bring everything to a boiling point and beyond. Others in the cast include Ian Bannen as the humane Staff Sergeant Harris, Michael Redgrave as the medical officer, with Ossie Davis and Roy Kinnear as fellow prisoners.
Harry Andrews is a powerful actor, but Sean Connery is more than a match for him, as can be seen vividly in this ferocious scene where they go head to head. If you didn’t know you were in a Sidney Lumet movie before, you do now.
In Making Movies, Lumet writes of his collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris on the visual style of The Hill. “Wanting a very contrasty negative, we used Ilford (film) stock, which was rarely used because photographers found it too contrasty. We decided to shoot the entire picture on three wide lenses: the first third on a 24 mm, the second on a 21 mm, the last on an 18 mm. I mean everything, close-ups included. Of course, the faces became distorted. A nose looked twice as big, the forehead sloped backward. At the end, even on a close-up with the camera no more than a foot from the actors’ faces, you could see the whole jail or enormous vistas of the desert behind them. That’s why I used those lenses. I never wanted to lose the critical element in plot and emotion: these men were never going to be free of the jail or of themselves. That was the theme of the picture. I wanted their surroundings powerfully present at all times.”
It’s my firm belief that in The Hill Sean Connery gives one of his very best performances. When you know that this film was released in the same year as Thunderball, it’s interesting to think that if Connery could have played Bond like this, he would have been a really dangerous character.
The Hill is available for rental on Amazon Prime.
The screenplay for The Hill by Ray Rigby won at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.
Sean Connery’s obituary in the New York Times can be accessed here.
My earlier post on the first three Bond films with Sean Connery can be accessed here.
That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks