SEAN CONNERY

Sean Connery, the legendary Scottish actor, shook of his mortal coil on Halloween this year at the age of 90 and the world is a little less interesting because of it. In the midst of a global pandemic and a contentious American presidential election, the loss of Sir Sean Connery got sort of lost in the media shuffle of other coverage. 

From my private library. Think I’m a Sean Connery fan?


  However, to a fan such as I, it was anything but lost. Like most movie fans, he was my favorite James Bond but many of his non-Bond films were favorites, as well, especially the ones made during the Bond years. In many ways, he was the last true movie star: Handsome, rugged, charismatic, and an actor of criminally underrated depth and ability. 
  Luckily, when I was still researching Lee Marvin Point Blank, I was hired by good friend Bill Krohn to research the making of several films handpicked by filmmakers in a tribute book titled Serious Pleasures to commemorate the 1997 anniversary of Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival. The films chosen that I was fortunate enough to write about included the first published work of my Point Blank research  that I reposted here. Fortunately, Woody Allen (!) chose The Hill (1965), as a personal underrated favorite worthy of rediscovery and I was the one who did the ‘Making Of” essay about it. It remains one of my personal favorites as well. Here then is that 1997 essay published in French and Italian only but translated by yours truly. I consider it a worthy inclusion to the myriad of Connery tributes. Rest in peace, Sir Sean. Your legend will always loom large.
– Dwayne Epstein
   
THE HILL

Chapter opening for my essay on THE HILL.

Woody Allen’s thoughts on THE HILL translated: “WITHOUT COMPROMISE by Woody Allen
THE HILL, for whatever reason, is little known to American viewers. In the career of Sidney Lumet, which includes a large number of great films, THE HILL is perhaps the best. In any case, I place it among the best American films. The execution of this gripping story is wonderful, whether it’s a series of gorgeous renditions or the inspired photo. It’s a brutal, uncompromising spectacle, and every time I see it I’m amazed that a film of this quality has gone unnoticed at this point.”

In 1964, when Sean Connery was starting to feel trapped playing the popular but unchallenging James Bond, producer Kenneth Hyman approached him about doing The Hill, a script written by Ray Rigby from the stage play he co-wrote with R.S. Allen, based on Rigby’s experiences in a North African detention camp during World War II. Connery initially declined because he was hoping to make a film version of The Adventures of Moll Flanders with his wife, Diane Cilento. 
   When the project fell through because Cilento was tied up filming The Agony and the Ecstasy, Connery reconsidered Hyman’s offer even though Thunderball was scheduled to start production shortly. Happily, director Sidney Lumet, who was already attached to the project, had a reputation for completing his films at break-neck speed, because he edited in the camera and demand that his actors deliver on the first few takes. 
  Connery signed on to play Joe Roberts, a busted non-conforming officer doing time in a hellish military prison, with no illusions about what a tough role it would be, or why he would be playing it. “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put the money up for The Hill,” he said later. Ian Fleming purists had always felt that Connery’s receding hairline, preceding lined face and tattooed forearms acquired in the Navy, worked against Bond’s image, but they were perfect for playing Joe Roberts. As an added touch, he decided to go without his toupee for the first time and grew a moustache for the role.
   For Sidney Lumet, it was a chance to work with a cast of classically trained actors like Harry Andrews, of whom he said: “When you get that kind of training….It’s brimming over. You can’t contain it. Everything is so rich. To have that kind of weight going for you in a supporting part is just magic.” He could have been speaking of anyone in the cast, which included Alfred Lynch (who co-starred with Connery in the minor service comedy, On The Fiddle), Roy Kinnear, Ossie Davis, Jack Watson and Ian Hendry. A bonus for Connery was the inclusion of an old friend from his earliest days as an actor, Ian Bannen.
   Exteriors were filmed in Gabo De Gata near Almeira, Spain. Prior to the cast’s arrival, the prison encampment with its punishment hill were constructed under the supervision of art director Herbert Smith and production manager Dick Frith. Since the Spanish desert sand did not mix with cement, one hundred tons of sand had to be shipped in, as well as 2,000 gallons of water for the oasis around which the camp constructed. Five hundred workers toiled for two weeks erecting the ominous hill, a 35-foot-high monstrosity made of 10,000 feet of steel and 60 tons of lumber, stone and sand. Once filming began, twelve men raked the sand daily.
   Even though exterior filming began in October, the temperature remained a blistering 115 degrees. For the next five weeks Lumet put cast and crew through ten-hour work days, six days a week. The close camera angles made stand-ins impossible, so actors were required to run up and down the hill with full packs in as many continuous takes as were needed to get the shot. “Doing it in several takes would have been charity,” said Lumet, “The actors knew it would be difficult but but they were all rugged men who were able to fulfill what were expected of them.” Lumet himself took the the Hill to make the point.
   “We were in the bloody desert and the food and water were ghastly,” recalled Ian Bannen. “It’d be hard to find words to describe the location…[It] was as smelly as Aberdeen on a hot day. Fishy-smelling, that’s what it was like. Just awful.” But Lumet was not a sadist — quite the contrary. “I think Time Magazine summed it up when it said Sidney makes love to his cast and crew,” added Bannen. “He’s a great sweetener.” All the actors fell ill, including the stoic Connery, who pulled a tendon and suffered a short bout of what he called “Spanish tummy.”
   Lumet and cinematographer Oswald Morris used a variety of lenses to shake the story free of its stage origins. Most of the action is set against the landscape at the beginning of the film, for which a 25mm lens was used; as the characters deepen, the 18mm lens is increasingly brought into play, not only to track feelings but to distort the officers’ faces as their power crumbles. Lumet also made extensive use of a handheld camera, with jerky zoom-ins during moments of shock and tension. 
   Following two weeks of shooting in a London studio, the film wrapped and Connery went immediately to work on Thunderball. Connery’s disdain for the Bond films was understandable: While he was filming with Lumet the British tabloids ran headlines like “Bond Takes The Hill,” and suggested that his rugged appearance in one behind-the-scene still was the result of a falling out with the Bond producers, and that it would ruin his image. “I’m not conscious of any image,” Connery bristled. “I play a part because I want to play it. Even if The Hill is not a success, does it matter? Some of the finest films haven’t been commercial successes.”
The Hill premiered in competition at Cannes, where it tied with France’s Platoon 317 for Best Screenplay. It was released in the U.S. early in 1965, making it hard for Academy voters to remember it by year’s end. Ironically, the wildly successful Thunderball won an Oscar for special effects. Despite good reviews, The Hill did poorly in the all-important U.S. market, but made money in Europe. Ian Bannen recalling seeing it in Greece; “It was incredible. I never witnessed cheering and applause like that in a cinema before.” One factor in the film’s domestic failure may have been the thick accents of most of the cast; several prints were actually made for the American market with subtitles, to no avail. As Mark Twain once said, “America and England are two countries separated by a common language.”

   Undaunted, Ken Hyman went on to produce another film for MGM that starts in a military prison, The Dirty Dozen (1967), which became the sixth highest-grossing film in the studio’s history. Sidney Lumet worked again with cast members Kinnear, Andrews and Bannen, and has made four more pictures with Connery to date. As for Connery, he cites The Hill as “An example of a film that wasn’t a success with the public but eventually became a supposed classic. The idea was to make an ensemble film and we made it.” It remains his personal favorite among all his films. 

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MY FAVORITE FIGHT SCENES, PART 4 OF 5

Presenting the pentultimate installment in my own choices of favorite movie fight scenes. I became even more aware of the distinct changes that took place thru the decades, due to researching Lee Marvin Point Blank and discovering Marvin’s important influence on screen violence. This time, the late 60s lead into to the early 70s, with both known and obscure choices. Nautrally, Lee Marvin is duly represented.

16. DARK OF THE SUN-1968

Rod Taylor unrelentingly takes on Peter Carsten for the murder of Jim Brown.

Rod Taylor (left) unrelentingly takes on Peter Carsten (right) for the murder of Jim Brown.

Unrelenting. That single word is the best way to describe Rod Taylor’s battle with his opponent in the underrated action opus Dark of the Sun. One of the 1960s many international productions, this one deals with mercenaries carrying out a mission in Africa to save both missionaries and a cache of diamonds…they are, after all mercenaries. The film contains plenty of action, incuding train battles, buzzsaws and such obligatory eye candy as Yvette Mimiuex.
But, the growing animosity between team leader Rod Taylor and former Nazi team member Peter Carsten, results in one of the most brtual and unrelenting fight scenes of its era. When Taylor leaves the team momentarily, Carsten kills Taylor’s comrade Jim Brown and attempts to abscond with the goods. When Taylor returns and discovers what transpired, no amount of common sense or cajoling can stem the tide of his anger. A rousing climax to a film that just made me a Rod Taylor fan all over again. I’ve read that his fight scene in Darker Than Amber (1970) with William Smith is even better but since I’ve yet to see it, this will have to suffice. Maybe if I revamp this list in a few years I’d have seen it and changed my mind. Until then, Dark of The Sun. Unrelenting.

17.THE SCALPHUNTERS-1968

Scalphunters

Burt Lancaster as Mountain man Joe Bass (right) tries to teach a lesson to runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis, left) as the plot continues around them in The Scalphunters.

By the end of the 1960s, not only had the studio system and ancient production code bitten the dust, the but social upheaval of the times had permeated films of every genre, including the sacred western. No all such attempts at social relevance were successful but The Scalphunters certainly was. The simple plot of a mountain man trying to retreive his stolen pelts from a gang of merciless scalphunters is complicated by the presence of a runaway slave, a wily madam and a band of often drunken Indians.
Fans of star Burt Lancaster’s will recognize the film as a bit of a vanity project since it includes the likes of childhood friend and acrobat partner Nick Cravat as well as longtime stunt double Tony Epper as scalphunters, and ex-girlfriend Shelley Winters as the madam. Even former TV executive Telly Savalas, whom Lancaster successfully talked into giving acting a try, wonderfully chews the scenery as the lead villian. Probably the weakest link, at least in my opinion, is Ossie Davis as the runaway slave. He seemed miscast, as another black actor form the period, such as Al Freeman or Ivan Dixon, might have been better suited in the role.
Alll that aside, the climatic and lengthy battle between Lancaster & Davis through mud, sand, dirt, and crevasses, is wonderfully rendered as the remaining plot points go on without them even noticing! Lancaster was in his 50s when he made this but you’d never know it from his physical performance. The film doesn’t preach it’s point of view. It’s done in a style of rousing fun. REALLY worth a second look!

18. CHISUM -1970
Chisum
Why is this movie on the list, you may ask? Well, picture this: it’s the summer of 1970 and Tim Romero and I decide to go to the movies. Only decent thing playing for a couple of ten-year-old boys is this John Wayne programmer. So we go. Sit through the tedious plot (a largely fictiously tale about Billy the Kid, I later learned) and we are just about to leave out of sheer boredom when John Wayne turns to his buddy Ben Johnson and drawls, “Break out the Winchesters.” Johnsons smiles big and says, “Why sure.” Tim and I give out a hoot and we are in little boy heaven.
While a gun battle rages, John Wayne seeks out lead bad guy Forrest Tucker and proceeds to beat the holy hell out of him. Folks, it just doesn’t get any better than this for a little boy summer matinees. Not great movie making by any stretch of the imagination but I watched it again recently and felt like that little kid again. Nostalgia aside, I genuinely feel sorry for young film goers who think comic book films and their attended CGI effects are worth their time and energy. Unless you’ve felt that child-like adrelaline rush of hearing “Break out the Winchesters,” you are just plain missing out on a great childhood moment.

19. EMPEROR OF THE NORTH-1973

EmperorNorth

The real clash of the titans as hobo Lee Marvin challenges sadistic railroad man Ernest Borgnine in Robert Aldrich’s Emperor of the of the North.

This one could quite possibly earn the right to be called my favorite fight scene of all time as it has, in my opinion, never been equalled. The making of director Robert Aldrich’s violent, non-sentimental, Depression-era fable of non-conforming hobo Lee Marvin challenging the railroad establisment in the person of sadistic conductor Ernest Borgnine is covered in-depth in Lee Marvin Point Blank, of course. All I can add here is the fact that  the fight scene at film’s end may not be beleviable for some people from a realistic standpoint, as it’s been pointed out, but within the realm of the story, it is perfectly in keeping with the film’s style and overall theme. Axes, chains, and 2×4’s may not be worthy weapons in modern films but it certainly makes sense for the Depression!

20. MEAN STREETS– 1973

Robert DeNiro, with pool cue in hand, takes on all comers in Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets.

Robert DeNiro, with pool cue in hand, takes on all comers in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets.


Once again, there is not a whole lot more I can add to anything that’s been said of Martin Scorsese’s and Robert DeNiro’s breakthrough film that has not been said a dozen times already. The modern day noir exploded on the screen in 1973 and rattled the minds of moviegoers in the process. There is so much to take in when viewing this masterpiece that several viewings is just not enough. Lasting images permeate every frame, drenched in overly saturated color and photographic stylings.
It’s inclusion here is for one such image. When Harvey Keitel and his buddies go to pick up an overdue loan at a pool hall, it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose. The most eye-popping aspect of the brawl is, without a doubt, DeNiro as Johnny Boy. He scrambles to the top of a pool table and plays ‘King of the Mountain’ to anyone who tries to get near him. He’s as crackling an explosive as the cherry bomb he drops in the mailbox in the film’s opening. Try to find a more beleviable street fighter in a movie than Johnny Boy. G’head, I dare ya!

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