Sean Connery is celebrating his 81st birthday today so 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 gravelly 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 heroic 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. He convinces Maria to stay and seduce his uncle so they can both benefit from his fortune. Although Charles is an utterly despicable human being, Maria eventually 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 and takes some surprising twists and turns.
What I find so fascinating 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 also worried about being typecast as the suave and handsome spy so he jumped at the chance to play the ruthless money hungry Anthony.
Connery was able to use 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 the Scottish actor has rarely looked as good as he does in this film and his masculine confidence is disarming. You want to like him so his villainous turn is particularly jarring. His performance is somewhat reminiscent of Charles Boyer in GASLIGHT (1944) and Rex Harrison in MIDNIGHT LACE (1960). Both actors were masters at disguising their true intentions. But once their treacherous nature is revealed they waste no time in turning into ruthless cads expertly hiding their evil identities under expensive suits, phony smiles, and bucket loads of charm.
According to various witnesses on set, there was some 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 publicly that he would “never work with that woman again.”
Despite difficulties on set, Connery’s hostility towards Lollobrigida may have benefited his performance because he directs some particularly venomous lines at her with lots of vim and vigor. In one scene where Connery was asked to slap his costar, he reportedly delivered the hit with more force than was necessary causing a minor uproar on set.
Needless to say, 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 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 filmography.
The Films of Sean Connery by Lee Pfeiffer & Philip Lisa
Imperial Gina: The Strictly Unauthorized Biography of Gina Lollobrigida by Luis Canales
The Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relphby Alan Burton & Tim O’Sullivan
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2011 and published on TCM.com