Gene Hackman: The French Connection & The Conversation

This year’s winter project featuring a classic male actor I am sketchy about is Gene Hackman. Based upon recommendations, I’m starting off with a strong pair that many have remarked were Gene’s best-known or favorite performance.

Competing against The Last Picture Show at the 1972 Oscars, The French Connection won the major awards of the night: Best Picture Philip D’Antoni, Best Actor in a Leading Role Gene Hackman, Best Director William Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay Ernest Tidyman, and Best Film Editing Gerald B. GreenbergRoy Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Role, but he lost to Ben Johnson (LPS).

I have read that this was a film that set a precedent in police dramas or at least led the charge in portraying cops of dubious morality as the anti-hero. In the 1970s, television shows continued the trend to supply squeaky-clean officers catching the bad guy, but films such as Dirty Harry(1971), Serpico (1973), and The Seven-Ups(1973) show tainted cops ruthlessly taking charge of their urban backdrop. In the case of The French Connection, New York City never looked rawer or more treacherous. In this way, the buddy pair, Popeye (Hackman) and Cloudy (Scheider) fit right in chasing down gangsters, druggies, and deadbeats of the city. 4/5

What stood out:

1. The filming of the ugly alleys, subways, and desecrated buildings of NYC and the beautiful seaside port of Marseille, France was a fine contrast.

2. Roy Scheider’s bubbly performance was his second-best. (All That Jazz, #1)

3. Popeye’s obsession with catching the French kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) drew me in and held my attention.

4. The disgusting building where the climax was shot. The echoes, the shadows, and the reflections–you could smell the mold, feel the contaminated, cold air seep into your skin while Popeye sloshed around the debris. What a visceral experience.

5. Based on a true story, it was an intriguing, albeit, dreary story.

The Conversation is a 1974 American mystery thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and included a fantastic supporting team by John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. 

Gene Hackman has the reputation for playing characters that were hard-shelled jerks over his career. His voice is icy to listen to, his jaws set, and his characters won’t budge. Gene Hackman does this well, but I prefer his characters when they have a vulnerable side. Gene Hackman was perfect in this role as the surveillance expert, Harry Caul. He can’t help the fact he must live a lonely life, isolated and inadequate around others, unable to commit to friendships or relationships with females. His eyes suggest he was a product of the system, and his dislike for himself bubbles to the surface, and that’s a tricky acting job. 4.5/5.

What stood out: 

  1. Francis Ford Coppola‘s direction. The opening shot of the San Francisco city Union Square with happy citizens soaking up the midday sun, the mime leading your eyes, and the fuzzy conversation between Ann (Cindy Williams) and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest).
  2. The ending shot of Harry Caul’s stripped apartment that suggested Caul’s paranoid demise instigated by his own obsessions.
  3. The jazzy piano score composed and performed by David Shire.
  4. The stellar supporting cast by everyone. It was great to see Harrison Ford as the young, smug executive. Teri Garr as the probing, sweet lover of Harry and the sad dance in the parking garage by the ambitious floozie Meridith by Elizabeth MacRae. Robert Duvall’s role was small but powerful as the jealous husband, “The Director”. Hotel toilets take on a new, repugnant level in cinema.
  5. The surprise twist at the end. Francis Ford Coppola’s script was smart and his narrative compact and interesting.  I was surprised how much I liked this film.

34 thoughts on “Gene Hackman: The French Connection & The Conversation

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  1. There are so many more, and if you’ve seen “Young Frankenstein” you know that Hackman’s cameo is hilarious. Also know that his performance in “Bonnie & Clyde” is incredible as well….and if you want to go a bit dark and bleak, “Scarecrow” from 1973 with Al Pacino is a master-class in acting. I tell my wife that Hackman is playing my father in the film – not a good thing, but very accurate. Then, to lighten up, watch his terrific performance as Lex Luthor in “Superman” and as the heroic Priest in the greatest disaster film of all time “The Poseidon Adventure!”

  2. I’m not all surprised how much you liked ‘The Conversation.’ It’s a wonderful film, with a near-perfect cast, and to my mind, Hackman’s best ever acting on screen. It’s an intelligent film, that rewards an involved and committed viewer.
    And that’s you. Intelligent, involved, and committed. 🙂
    My second favourite role of his is as Brother Buck, in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. John’s right, it’s incredible. He takes a secondary part as the brother of a real-life gangster, and steals the film. (Along with Estelle Parsons, who plays his wife Blanche in the film)
    Best wishes, Pete. x

  3. I never saw ‘The Conversation”, but ‘The French Connection’, if I’m remembering correctly, had the amazing car-chase scene that even TV shows of today are trying to match. (?)

    1. Oh yes, it’s what it’s famous for. The second level subway, the stairs, the cars throughout the city–I prefer “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen in 1968, but this is great if you like chase scenes.
      I liked The Conversation a lot more than FC.

  4. Hackman’s performance as Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) was the first film where everyone took notice of him. What an incredibly long career! He confirmed his retirement from acting in 2008 but he had an incredible run of great films. The Royal Tenenbaums was a later favorite.

  5. Hi Cindy. Great post. I prefer The Conversation because of the character study and that Caul was in a very difficult position, internally and in terms of the predicament. Hackman is a great actor.

      1. ok. i see the previous comment now under ‘anonymous’. Am not sure why because i logged in with my user name and password.

  6. Two favorites! Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is interesting because he forces you to root for him despite being corrupt/racist. I’m really surprised that the Oscars, which have a decidedly humanist bend to them, embraced such “ugly” movie. Anyhow, I will just add that Walter Murch’s sound design in The Conversation is absolutely brilliant. People have asked me, “what is sound design?” I always answer, “watch The Conversation!” 🙂

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