Tuesday, November 3, 2020

The Untouchable (and oh so touchable!) Sean Connery

Who would have thought that a husky working-class kid from Edinburgh—one who cadged jobs as a milkman, an artist’s model, and a coffin polisher—would one day find worldwide fame as a symbol of suave British masculinity? That was the through-line for the late, great Sean Connery, whom we lost this past week at the age of 90. His first professional stage job, as a chorus boy in the London company of South Pacific, didn’t seem to promise much. But once he was cast (to the chagrin of author Ian Fleming) as the screen’s first James Bond, he shot to fame for playing the brilliant, sexy spy in 1962’s Dr. No and six other Bond films. Fleming had been hoping for the witty and charming David Niven to portray the character he’d created, but Connery’s well-disciplined machismo in the role completely won him over.

 Connery could have portrayed Bond, James Bond, with enduring success for decades to come, but it’s a mark of the man that he sought to move beyond the role that had made him an international sex symbol. Still, whether he was performing for Alfred Hitchcock (in Marnie), Michael Bay (The Rock) or Steven Spielberg (as Indy’s professor-father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), he generally stuck close to action roles, in which he effectively played leaders and authority figures. One unusual detour was appearing as a middle-aged Robin Hood opposite Audrey Hepburn’s Maid Marian in Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian in 1976. But perhaps the pinnacle of his career came eleven years later with his Oscar-winning role in Brian De Palma’s (and David Mamet’s) operatic take on The Untouchables.

 From my Roger Corman days, I’ve always had a certain affection for Al Capone movies. I worked on Capone with writer Howard Browne (a onetime Windy City newsman who insisted in true hard-boiled fashion that he “loved Chicago the way you love a woman”). Our Capone was Ben Gazzara; later I helped work on the script (by my pal Michael Druxman) of Dillinger and Capone, starring Martin Sheen and F. Murray Abraham. The Untouchables features the great Robert De Niro as the Italian-American mobster, who in this version reminds me vividly of some politicians I could name. I love his silky blandishments when meeting the press (“Yes! There is violence in Chicago. But not by me, and not by anybody who works for me, and I'll tell you why, because it's bad for business.”) I also adore the tears he sheds at the opera, as well as—most especially—the glee with which he goes about keeping his flunkies in line.

 In this version of the Capone story, it’s the good guys who take center stage. The leading role of treasury agent Eliot Ness is played by Kevin Costner, who looks terrific in the production’s Armani suits but otherwise remains his usual slightly bland self. His posse consists of Charles Martin Smith as a dorky but smart accountant as well as a young Andy Garcia in the role of an Italian-American aspirant to the Chicago police force. And then there’s Connery, playing a world-weary Irish-American beat cop who’s doubtless too honest for his own good. Connery is the soul of this production, as a man so bitter at the corruption he sees all around him that he’s willing to risk everything in order to save his city from itself. In a film that has bravura moments but also its share of logic glitches (not to mention an excessive amount of gore), the grizzled but heroic Connery stands out for his humor and his heart. 





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