Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 25, 2011
Sir Sean Connery is celebrating his 81st birthday today and I thought it would be a great time to share my appreciation for his terrific performance in Basil Dearden’s entertaining thriller, WOMAN OF STRAW (1964). The handsome Scottish actor with a deep gravely voice and piercing dark eyes has appeared in more than 65 films during his long career but WOMAN OF STRAW is one of the few films where Connery was given the opportunity to shed his good guy image and portray a ruthless villain.
This effective mystery takes place on a lavish British estate ruled by the cruel hand of Charles Richmond (played brilliantly by Ralph Richardson). Charles is a cantankerous old man who gets his kicks insulting his servants and tormenting his dogs while his live-in nephew Anthony (Sean Connery) looks on in bemused disgust. After being bitten by one of his pets, Charles demands that his nephew hire a nurse to look after his wound and much to their surprise, a lovely Italian woman by the name of Maria (Gina Lollobrigida) arrives at the door. Both Charles and his nephew are charmed by Maria’s natural beauty and gentle manner. Charles is eager to employ Maria as his fulltime nurse but his nephew has other plans. Anthony convinces Maria to stay and seduce the old man so they can both benefit from his fortune. Although Charles is an utterly despicable human being, Maria marries him and ends up developing real feelings for the old man before he drops dead. And this is where the plot really gets interesting, so you might want to forgo further reading unless you’ve already seen the film, you see; Sean Connery’s character has been scheming against both Maria and his uncle. He’s got murder on his mind and plans to keep his uncle’s fortune all to himself but to do so he’ll have to convince a jury that Maria is responsible for his uncle’s death and that won’t be easy.
What I admire most about Connery’s memorable performance in WOMAN OF STRAW is the way he underplays his character early in the film before transforming into a murderous monster. Connery had just finished starring in his second James Bond film, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963), and he was riding high on his success and sudden superstardom. But he was worried about being typecast as the suave and handsome spy so he jumped at the chance to play the ruthless Anthony in WOMAN OF STRAW. In the film, Connery uses his sex appeal to lure Gina Lollobridigida’s character into complacency while convincing the audience that he’s worthy of their sympathy. It’s a difficult trick to manage but Connery has rarely looked as handsome as he does in this film and his masculine confidence is disarming. You want to like him so his villainous turn is particularly jarring. Connery’s performance is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Boyer in Gaslight (1944) and Rex Harrison in Midnight Lace (1960). These men are masters at disguising their true intentions. But once their treacherous nature is revealed they waste no time in turning into ruthless cads who have merely been masking their evil identities under expensive suits, phony smiles and bucket loads of charm.
According to various witnesses on set, there was genuine animosity between Sean Connery and his female costar. Gina Lollobrigida was a world-renowned actress at this point in her career but she had a reputation for being temperamental and difficult to work with. When filming ended Connery wasn’t shy about expressing his dislike for her and announced that, “I’ll never work with that woman again.” Connery’s hostility towards Lollobrigida may have benefited his performance because he directs some particularly venomous lines at her with a lot of vigor. In one scene where Connery was asked to slap his costar, he supposedly delivered the hit with more force than was necessary causing a minor uproar on set. Needless to say, Sean Connery is an imposing man when he’s playing a good guy so his bad tempered take on a truly nasty character is more than a little chilling. I think Connery’s downright creepy in WOMAN OF STRAW and I wish he had gotten the opportunity to play characters like Anthony Richmond more often. Once you’ve seen the film it’s apparent that Connery would have made a superb Bond villain if he was given half the chance but he was forced into heroic good guy roles throughout most of his career. Complaints aside, Connery has had the kind of success that most actors only dream about and I think WOMAN OF STRAW is one of the most interesting films in his impressive and varied filmography.
Here ‘s looking at you Sir Sean! I hope you get to enjoy many more birthdays to come.
WOMAN OF STRAW isn’t available on DVD yet but it has been released on video and it’s currently available to view on Netflix instant watch.
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