But what of Connery’s own relationship to the role that made him famous? How does a working class boy who left school at fourteen and got a “Scotland Forever” tattoo in the Navy feel about incarnating the ideal of the post.-war “Tory imagination”? Connery himself has been inconsistent on the matter, alternately professing gratitude and sympathy, disinterest and occasional outright hostility.
It’s hard to imagine in 2010 that Connery could ever have been a radical of any kind, but as his celebrity reaches truly global proportions, as he becomes a superstar, he appears determined to undercut and expose the fantasy of the Bond movies at every turn. By the mid-Sixties, with Goldfinger reaching a new peak of popularity, Connery is still a long way from being knighted Sir Sean, twenty years away yet from his thoroughly undeserved Oscar for DePalma’s The Untouchables and a lucrative dotage, interrupting his golfing every six months or so to somnambulate through roles as silver-wigged mentors and sexy father-figures in a set of forgettable action movies.
There is something more, in the non-Bond work that he takes throughout the Sixties and early Seventies than the desire of an actor over-identified with a single role to try and break free from its constraints. There is something grim and conflicted in it which reveals not just the core of Connery’s own multiple hostilities but some of the central social and psychological conflicts of the times themselves. In the febrile, mordant Marnie, Hitchcock’s last really interesting movie before he returns to England and reaches a kind of grisly apotheosis with Frenzy, he plays a character who blackmails a women into marrying him, rapes her then sets about curing the problem of her frigidity, the very model of the perverse, sadistic core of the sensitive, liberal new-man. Following Goldfinger he makes The Hill with Sydney Lumet, returns to Bond for Thunderball then retires from the role in order to work with Lumet again in The Anderson Tapes and the Mc-Carthy era blacklisted director Martin Ritt on the nihilstic The Molly McGuires, in which he plays the leader of a group of militantly unionised mine workers in bloody conflict with the mine owners and the police who support their interests. He returns to Bond for the money in Diamonds are Forever and then uses the promise he has wrangled out of the studio to make The Offence, again with Lumet. In place of a version of Macbeth that fails to get off the ground, he stars in the unashamedly unhinged Zardoz by John Boorman, publicity stills from which, revealing a deeply hirsute Connery in a puce thong holding a ray-gun occasion gasps of disbelief to this day.
As the Bond films grow broader in scope, more spectacular and sillier, as Bond becomes more and more iconic Connery’s own choices grow darker and wilder until by the time of The Offence, his career peak and also among his least known films, a film he believes the studio “buried”, he has moved as far from Bond’s cool heroism as it’s possible to get. The Lumet films seem to offer up a response to Bond, to say: there is the fantasy, there is the Tory imagination at work, synthesising present and past in a beguiling dreamwork, here is the grim, rupturing reality of the conflicts, here is the dark heart of our national crack-up.