1964 saw the release of 3 Sean Connery films: Woman of Straw, Marnie, and Goldfinger. Connery’s final film of that year propelled him to international superstardom breaking box office records in multiple countries around the world cementing James Bond as a cultural icon for generations to come. Much like The Beatles would achieve astounding breakthrough success earlier that very same year after their first US tour in February 1964, the James Bond franchise would achieve limitless new heights after the UK debut of Goldfinger in September 1964 and the US debut of the film in December that same year.
For Sean Connery, however, the colossal success of Goldfinger at the time meant that the general public might forever identify him as the iconic international British spy, James Bond. The man who was once a working class Scot who had previously been a lifeguard, a seaman, a bricklayer, and a coffin polisher was now a global sex symbol and a celebrity, but for all his success Connery seemed to recognize the constrictions of being typecast as any one single character even if that character propelled him to a lifetime of fame and wealth. In an interview with Playboy Magazine Connery remarked, “The problem in interviews of this sort is to get across the fact, without breaking your arse, that one is not Bond, that one was functioning reasonably well before Bond, and that one is going to function reasonably well after Bond.” He then concluded, “So you see, this Bond image is a problem in a way and a bit of a bore, but one has just got to live with it.” Connery’s frustration with the Bond phenomenon was a bit of a double edged sword since it was his success with Bond that brought him into consideration for other roles. Prior to Bond, Connery’s highest profile film had been Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959), but until he played Bond he remained a relative unknown.
Both Woman of Straw and Marnie were important early films for Connery. They provided him with his first acting roles since portraying Bond in the first 2 films of the franchise, Dr. No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963). It was his chance to prove to the world that he can do more than just portray a certain secret agent. Production began on Woman of Straw very soon after From Russia with Love wrapped in August 1963. Ken Adam, who had previously been the Production Designer on Dr. No and would eventually be the Production Designer for 7 Bond films, would also be the Production Designer for Woman of Straw. Peter Murton provided the art direction for this film as well. He would go on to be the Art Director for Goldfinger and Thunderball and take over production design duties for The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).
I must now warn you that some plot SPOILERS will be revealed for both films in this review as some of the plot twists are somewhat intriguing to discuss.
There is one piece of Bond trivia about the Woman of Straw that may elude some Bond fans who have not seen this film. If I were to ask you what was the first time that Connery wore the famous white dinner jacket and bowtie in a film, most likely your answer would be Goldfinger. After all, that’s one of the iconic and instantly recognizable pieces of Bond’s wardrobe in that film. If Goldfinger was your answer, you would be wrong. The white dinner jacket and bowtie was first worn during a dinner scene in a yacht in Woman of Straw. The dinner jacket even had the initials of Sean Connery’s character “AR” (Anthony Richmond) sewn inside although it would never be seen on film. Connery actually wears the iconic white dinner jacket in two different scenes in this film as he dons it yet again during the wedding banquet scene for a considerable amount of screen time. The only thing missing, however, is the red carnation on the left lapel, which certainly adds a touch of distinction to the white dinner jacket’s eventual use in Goldfinger. It is strange, however, to see Connery dressed practically identical to how he would be dressed in a Bond film only he happens to be playing a completely different character.
Woman of Straw (directed by Basil Dearden who would go on to direct Roger Moore in 1970’s The Man Who Haunted Himself) is actually quite a good film although it wasn’t highly successful at the time of its release. It’s based on a 1953 French novel by Catherine Arley and features Connery in the type of role he would rarely play in his career, a villain.
What I really liked about this film is that full villainy of Connery’s character is only slowly revealed throughout the course of the film even if you suspect it’s there from the beginning as I did. The film, however, is not without its flaws. Connery plays the nephew of an elderly wheel-chair bound wealthy English aristocrat, who also happens to be quite a despicable character in his own right. Charles Richmond (played by Ralph Richardson) is openly sadistic, racist, and misogynistic towards the people around him, particularly those who work for him. At various times he humiliates his staff forcing his black servants to leap over each other so that his dogs might imitate them, tossing out harsh and quite atrocious statements about women, and demonstrating a total utter disregard for human decency. The film goes out of its way to really make him an unlikeable character until his new nurse Ms. Maria Marcello (Gina Lollobrigida) unleashes a softer more sensitive side to the old man. Connery’s character, Anthony (Richmond’s nephew), conceals his hatred for the old man while at the same time remains dissatisfied with the fact that his uncle’s will leaves most of the vast fortune to charity leaving him with a paltry 20,000 pounds. He convinces Ms. Marcello to go along with a conspiracy that requires her to marry his uncle so that she can rightfully inherit the fortune once the old man passes away of natural causes after legally changing the will. Connery tells her that all he wants is 1 million pounds and that she could keep the rest. She reluctantly agrees to the arrangement without knowing the full extent of Connery’s scheme.
Despite playing a different character, one is frequently reminded of Connery’s portrayal of Bond. In addition to the white dinner jacket, Connery’s mannerisms and charisma around Lollobrigida is reminiscent of Bond. Also rather unfortunately, Connery’s treatment of women in his early films doesn’t get much of a boost here as he has a scene where he slaps Lollobrigida, and the character he portrays acts as if women cannot resist him. The slapping of women didn’t seem to bother Connery much either at the time since he said in that Playboy interview, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman–although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An openhanded slap is justified–if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it. I think a man has to be slightly advanced, ahead of the woman. I really do–by virtue of the way a man is built, if nothing else. But I wouldn’t call myself sadistic.” These days a quote like that from an A-List actor would probably lead to the annihilation of that certain actor’s career and rightfully so. The mores of the time, however, allowed for such a cavalier wrongful attitude to pervade.
Further complicating matters in the plot, however, is the fact that while Maria may not have a physical attraction to Charles Richmond, she genuinely comes to care about him. Her genuine compassion actually softens the heart of the old man, who surprisingly becomes quite sympathetic despite his previous despicable behavior. He doesn’t completely transform, but the film does allow him to show a more vulnerable and sympathetic side. Maria maintains that she intends to be fair to both her husband and to her conspirator since the plan was to wait for the old man to die of natural causes. She even prevents him from over-exerting himself in one scene quite possibly saving his life when he stubbornly attempts to reel in a shark (or a huge fish) during a fishing expedition. Many other films might have had the nurse character take an active part in expediting the old rich husband’s death, but this film really grounds Lollobrigida’s character as a decent but flawed human being. What she doesn’t count on is the fact that Connery’s character cunningly double crosses her setting her up as the murderer of her husband by coaxing her to go along with the charade of pretending her husband is alive on their cruise ship to allow him time to go register the new will after the old man seemingly died of a heart attack while still aboard. In reality, Connery’s character had poisoned his uncle and subsequently convinced Maria to pretend that her husband was still alive so that he could be found dead alone with her so that the police would arrest her as the only possible suspect. The staff would agree that they saw the old man alive leaving the cruise ship and so when the poison was revealed as the cause of death, Maria would become the only prime suspect. What Connery’s character didn’t count on is that his uncle’s love of classical music also gave him access to recording equipment and by a sheer twist of fate Connery’s character is killed in a fall down the stairs when running from the police who had discovered the evidence.
Woman of Straw is an entertaining and engaging film, and Connery’s performance in it is well-worth checking out for those who haven’t seen it. There are certain parts of the film that suffer. The part when Connery and Lollobrigida carry on the charade of Charles being alive after he’s dead is too reminiscent of Weekend at Bernies, and the Charles Richmond character didn’t have to display the kind of cruelty he does during the first half of the film. The film would have worked a lot more effectively had they reigned in that character’s misanthropy. Connery, however, gives a solid performance as the film’s villain. After the film had failed to achieve success, however, Connery voiced his displeasure with it in the Playboy interview. “. . .I wasn’t all that thrilled with Woman of Straw, although the problems were my own. I’d been working nonstop for goodness knows how long and trying to suggest rewrites for it while making another film, which is always deadly. It was an experience; but I won’t make that mistake again.” I think the film stands up as solid entertainment today as long as you’re willing to look past its flaws. It may not be a masterpiece, but it’s actually quite a good film.
Masterpieces were probably not in director Basil Dearden’s purview. The words “masterpiece,” “genius,” and “auteur” have been frequently and deservedly applied to the director of Connery’s 2nd 1964 film, Marnie. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Marnie would be the Hitchcock’s follow up to The Birds (1963). The director had originally attempted to pry Grace Kelly out of retirement for the title role, but when it was put forth that the Princess of Monaco would be acting as a sexually dysfunctional thief, it was decided that it would be against the best interest of Monaco and so Grace Kelly declined the role. Tippi Hedren, who had starred in The Birds and happened to be Hitch’s blonde starlet of the moment under contract, took over the title role. This is actually a very complex yet very brilliantly executed film.
Before accepting the role, Connery demanded to see the script as he had deliberately wanted to avoid playing any type of spy or secret service type of role such as Carey Grant played in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). When told by Hitchcock’s agent that most actors in Hitchcock films accept their roles prior to reading the script and that not even Carey Grant had asked to see scripts prior to committing to his films, Connery simply responded, “I’m not Cary Grant.”
The film went through several screenwriters before going into production. Part of the reason for this is that Connery’s character would be given a rape scene. Based on a novel by Winston Graham, Marnie is the story of a female thief with a traumatic childhood history who gets entangled with one of her would-be victims when instead of turning her in to the authorities, he forces her to marry him. The rape scene during the honeymoon had been the primary reason why Hitchcock had wanted to make the film. When Evan Hunter, the film’s 2nd screenwriter, had proposed that the rape scene be altered to enable the character of Mark Rutland to be more likeable to the audience, Hitchcock immediately fired him and hired a new screenwriter who would guarantee that the rape scene be put into the film. A female screenwriter, Jay Presson Allen, would eventually pen the screenplay that would satisfy Hitchcock’s vision for his film.
Needless to say, this film would probably face heavy criticism if were made today because of its treatment of women. The rape scene in the film is done in a way that isn’t very graphic (Hitchcock avoided showing actual graphic violence in most of his films), however, it’s clear that what Connery’s character does is a violation. The problem is that the violation of the rape scene isn’t truly acknowledged within the film itself. Marnie does attempt to commit suicide the next morning, but Mark saves her from drowning herself further validating the point of view within the film that Mark is some sort of hero. Within the film, Connery’s character is validated further when Marnie chooses to remain married to him after his efforts to help her out of facing arrest as well as help her recover her suppressed childhood memory. The film would like the audience to still view Connery’s character as some sort of hero because of his efforts to save and cure Marnie despite the fact that the Mark Rutland character is clearly selfishly motivated.
The film begins as Marnie has just completed a con job taking money from a safe after being hired as a secretary for Sidney Strut (Martin Gabel) despite not having any references. Her recurring scheme is to gain the confidence of her employers so that she can eventually gain access to and steal from the safe. When she applies for a new secretarial job to attempt the same scheme again, Connery’s Mark Rutland character recognizes her due to his prior business dealings with Strut. He isn’t absolutely certain at first because Marnie had changed her name and appearance but once he deduces that this is the same female thief he takes her into his confidence and allows Marnie to unwittingly continue the attempted theft. He tells Marnie that he considers himself a zoologist and that he’s immensely interested in the study of animal behavior. All the while, he notices certain things that trigger a kind of psychosis in Marnie. The color red, lightning, and the touch of men are all things that Rutland discovers are triggers to Marnie’s symptomatic behavior. When Marnie is exposed, Rutland blackmails her into marrying him and even agrees to anonymously pay off Strut, the previous employer that Marnie defrauded.
Things come to a head when Rutland’s jealous sister-in-law, Lil (Diane Baker), suspects that something isn’t right with Mark and Marnie’s marriage. Lil’s sister had been married to Mark until she died. Lil had expected Mark to fall in love with her, but instead he unexpectedly married Marnie. Lil then invites Strut to a party at the Rutland estate and Strut recognizes Marnie as the secretary who had stolen from him. This leads Marnie to engage in further perilous behavior until Mark decides to get to the bottom of Marnie’s past and takes her to see her mother in Baltimore for the film’s ultimate confrontational scene. Mark encourages Marnie’s mother (Louise Latham) to help Marnie remember the traumatic childhood experience that led to Marnie’s subsequent psychosis. Flashbacks reveal that when Marnie was 6 years old, her mother was a prostitute. One night after letting in a sailor (Bruce Dern), a thunderstorm scared the little girl, and this led to the ultimate traumatic event when the sailor started to touch the girl and Marnie’s mother intervened leading to a fight between the two. Marnie killed the sailor with a fireplace poker leading to the blood gushing from his head all over his white shirt, which explained Marnie’s aversion to the color red as well as to men in general. With Marnie’s traumatic childhood memory recovered, she leaves her mother’s house with Mark telling him that she’d rather remain married to him than go to prison. It is implied that Marnie is now cured of her previous sexual frigidity.
When asked if Connery was happy with his non-Bond films, he replied, “Marnie–with certain reservations, yes.” Despite the unfortunate need to include the rape scene, I would have to agree that Marnie is indeed an excellent film. The movie is both a drama and a suspense film in one package although the drama surrounding the title character takes center stage. While I don’t condone the actions of the Mark Rutland character, I do think that the heart of this film lies in its psychological and emotional impact. While the characters are immensely flawed, the film goes through very deliberate efforts to get at the emotional core of the Marnie character, who is portrayed brilliantly with vast contradictions starting with the fact that she is both a thief and a victim. The Mark Rutland character becomes a bit of a pseudo-psychoanalyst with the emphasis placed on his desire to study animal behavior. He views Marnie as a wounded traumatized animal but he becomes drawn to her at the same time and even gets stimulated by the psychosis that draws him to her knowing that she is repelled by him at the same time. It’s this emotional and psychological complexity that elevates the film to make it something beyond an average drama while Hitchcock’s technique in filming various scenes throughout the film accentuates the suspense and the highs and lows of important character moments. Fans of the cinema who haven’t yet viewed this film should certainly find it and watch it. Even though I am a fan of Hitchcock, this is one film that I hadn’t seen until now, and I’m very happy now that I took the time to watch it and analyze it. It’s truly a film worthy of deconstruction, and many consider it to be Hitchcock’s final masterpiece.
Connery was still filming Marnie when production for Goldfinger began in Miami. This is why Connery was never actually in Miami in Goldfinger for the scenes of the film that take place there. Between filming From Russia with Love, Woman of Straw, Marnie, and Goldfinger I don’t believe Connery had a month off. He was certainly a busy actor desperate to prove to himself that he can take on anything. His career and his life would soon catapult to a whole new level after the completion and release of Goldfinger. Reflecting on his life and career so far in the Playboy interview, he concluded “I find there are two sorts of people in the world: those who live under a shell and just wait for their pensions, and those who move around and keep their eyes open. I have always moved around and kept my eyes open–and been prepared to raise my middle finger at the world. I always will.”
Whatever one might think of Connery, the man was certainly very decisive. Though he gave very few candid in-depth interviews in this early part of his career, he didn’t mince words. The world may have wanted and expected him to forever be James Bond, but Sean Connery only ever desired to walk his own path and find his own destiny. In 1964, those first two non-Bond films were stepping stones to something greater.
- PLAYBOY November 1965, PLAYBOY INTERVIEW: SEAN CONNERY: a candid conversation with james bond’s acerbic alter ego (http://seanconneryonline.com/art_playboy1165.htm)
- Woman of Straw on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058754/
- Marnie on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0058329/?ref_=nm_knf_t2
By Jack Lugo