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.

Winter Project: The Final Five of Steve McQueen

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Thanks to everyone for joining me while I explored the filmography of actor Steve McQueen. The 60s and 70s movie icon had a slew of great films to his credit. Since both parents had died at age fifty, with a sardonic sense of humor, he was sure he wouldn’t pass the half-century mark. His prediction came true. He died at 50 from Mesothelioma on November 7, 1980. Breathing the asbestos filaments located in several workplaces and in his racing helmets and suits, the industrial disease raced throughout his body in the final months of his life. He never thought he’d live long. That helped explain his drive and insatiable hunger for life. He negotiated and made millions per film including a percentage of the gross proceeds. He had full control of the directors, actors, and say of his films. Most know he was stubborn and egotistical, but his generosity and kindness extended in equal measure to his two children who loved him unconditionally and to friends with whom he had established long relationships.

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The Cincinnati Kid (1965) After Papillon, this would be runner up as my favorite Steve McQueen film.  Edward G. Robinson is Laney “The Man” who teaches “The Kid”(McQueen) a few lessons about life. In the game of 5 Card Stud, what are the odds two men are dealt a Straight Flush vs. a Full House? Read about THE LAST HAND here. Add Ann Margaret as the sexy temptress and Tuesday Weld as the good girl and stir in Karl Malden as Shooter, the puppet and chump into the mix. The music, the tension, and Steve convincing as “The Kid”, made it a thoroughly enjoyable film.  4.5/5

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The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen are sizzling hot (It’s rated PG) in this billionaire bank caper. The split screen 60s technique, the dune buggy ride on the beach, the fashions, and that famous chess game scene full of sexual innuendos–it’s the stuff that made an Austin Powers parody possible.  It was the first time McQueen broke away from his poor anti-hero to represent the high-class anti-hero. Alone on his own plateau, this film helped cement McQueen as an icon of alpha male coolness. 4/5

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The Getaway (1972). This Sam Peckinpah film flows with interesting cinematography like close-ups, the loud machines grinding in the prison interior, the chase scenes, and the interior shot of a car with BBQ ribs, food fight. While Ali McGraw‘s performance left me cold, Sally Struthers and Slim Pickens were the best characters of the movie. 4/5

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The Towering Inferno (1974). It was the highest-grossing disaster movies of the seventies. They came to see the cast: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, Faye Dunaway, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Vaughn, O.J. Simpson, Rober Wagner, Jennifer Jones, and Susan Blakely. The star power, the escape plans, the collapse of the skyscraper was engaging enough, but it can’t compete with The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the winner of the best disaster film of the decade. It took Steve fourteen years to beat out his blonde eyed rival, Paul Newman, for top-bill, but McQueen solved the problem of leading man by having his name listed first while Paul’s would be set slightly higher.  3/5

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Papillon (1973). Franklin J. Schaffner was known as an innovative television director/producer in the early years of T.V. by employing film techniques within the new medium of television. He was known in the film industry for popular films like Planet of the Apes (1968), and for Patton (1970). Schaffner’s best contribution and my top prison film is the one and only classic, Papillon (1973). Listen to the Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Goldsmith. Lovely.  

Almost all great films begin with great novels. Papillon (1969) was written as an autobiographical account by Henri Charrière. In 1931, he was sentenced in Paris for a crime he did not commit and exiled to a penal colony in French Guiana. Over the course of many years, Papillon, named for the butterfly tattooed on his chest, attempted to escape. Eventually, he was sent to the inescapable Devil’s Island surrounded by hungry piranhas, sharks, and crocodiles.  Henri Charrière’s story is an audacious human account demonstrating what conviction and willpower can do. His book became an instant success.

Steve McQueen gives his best performance of his career as Henri. His relationship with the inmate, Dega, played by Dustin Hoffman, is dynamic and heartfelt. It’s the cinematography that wows me. The use of black and white or the lack of sound show the solitary confinement of Papillon’s situation perfectly. When Papillon hallucinates, his dreams are horrific and the camera angles portray a true nightmare.

I find it amazing this film was not nominated for anything at the Oscars in 1974 except for Best Score which did not win. What were the contenders that year? The StingSerpico, and The Exorcist.  Yes, all great films, but, I still think Papillon is just as good. Certainly, Hoffman and McQueen deserved recognition for their roles. What an underrated film.5.5

“Blame is for God and small children.” – Dega

Winter Project: More Steve McQueen

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The annual winter project is underway. I’ve assigned to myself, actor Steve McQueen, because I knew little about him or his filmography. Catch the first post HERE. Biographer, Marshall Terrill, who wrote Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon provided the interesting backstories to the actor combined with the psychological explanations of what made this complex man tick.

Nothing came easily to Steve McQueen as a child. Both parents abandoned him. Adults administered physical and verbal abuse frequently in the fog of alcoholism. He had learning disabilities that kept him targeted and punished at school. Jostled from one faithless home after another, these circumstances created one tough juvenile delinquent, a rebel without a cause with deep trust issues. Two factors kept him on the fringe of acceptability. Uncle Claude’s farm where Steve learned how to ride horses and complete the exhausting chores of maintaining a farm, and the Boys Republic, a boarding school where he learned to lead with ethical consequences in a penitentiary type setting. Steve McQueen characters were on the backs of horses, busting out of prison, and seemingly detached but intense leaders; he was always a step away from the ensemble cast, and that was how he cultivated his screen power. 

1956 photo by Roy Schatt
1956 photo by Roy Schatt

Steve McQueen’s fearless, inquisitive nature made him a jack-of-all-trades. He ran away and joined the circus. He enlisted in the Marines at seventeen. He hitch-hiked to Greenwich Village in the early fifties, staying for a time with his mother’s friend who worked in the world of the theater. Acting offered exposure to beautiful women, and Steve McQueen exercised his insatiable sexual appetite. After acting lessons, a play, and the help of his accomplished first wife Neile Adams, he got his break as the star of a hit television Western series called Wanted Dead or Alive. Director John Sturges should take credit for advocating McQueen in essential roles that transitioned him from television and secured his superstar status (The Magnificent Seven & The Great Escape). 

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

An American Western directed by John Sturges and starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter, and Elie Wallach. The film was a remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese classic Seven Samurai. They are seven gunfighters hired to protect a small village in Mexico from a group of bandits and their leader (Wallach). Elmer Bernstein composed the famous score.

Most lovers of Westerns know the story about McQueen and Brynner jostling for screen time. Although McQueen had only seven dialogue exchanges in the film, his presence was felt throughout. Sturges granted McQueen generous close-ups and downstage placement. Steve did his best to make you watch his character, Vin. He flipped up his bandanna like an erection when señoritas sat near. Contemplating their next move, McQueen twirls his hat or sits higher on his horse to grab attention away from stoic Yul Brynner, the star of the picture. Steve’s physical prowess with a gun and a horse stole the limelight from the others. Having said that, it was Charles Bronson’s role as a tender father-figure to the children of the village and James Coburn’s silent knife-throwing cowboy who stayed in my mind long after the film was over. 5/5

The Great Escape (1963)

Following up on the success of The Magnificent Seven, director John Sturges brings back Elmer Bernstein for another iconic score and Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Add James Garner, Richard Attenborough, and Donald Pleasance to form an exciting male ensemble. Based on the true story of a Nazi POW camp built for uncooperative Allied soldiers, the tunnel escape and the relationships between the key characters make the film engaging 54 years later. Charles Bronson gave his character claustrophobia, James Garner and Donald Pleasance stole a plane to fly away, and Richard Attenborough’s RAF “Big X” masterminded the escape. Steve Mcqueen’s natural ability with the motorcycle and that classic jump over the barbed fence — it was fourteen feet high, and while McQueen loved racing cars and motorcycles and generally performed his own stunts, this jump was done by his loyal stunt double, Bud Ekins. Everyone has a buddy in the film, but McQueen stands aside. He enters the prison last, he is locked up with his baseball in solitary confinement, and he escapes alone.  4.5/5

Accepted into the Actor’s Studio, he infused his personality into his acting style, that is, saying little but commanding a central presence. Which stars today emulate that kind of Steve McQueen cool? Daniel Craig? Ryan Gosling?

Bullitt (1968) 

This highly popular Steve McQueen film featured all the components that made Steve the “King of Cool” in the 1960s: the sexy car (green, 1968 Ford Mustang GT), the sexy girl (Jacqueline Bisset) and the great chase scene shot in San Francisco. Why is it great? The camera is put in the car and the audience becomes a passenger. Bouncing up and down the streets of San Francisco, the Ford Mustang vs. the Dodge Charger eventually hit the highway and race at speeds over 100 mph. Nine minutes of film time is a thrilling ride. In addition to the adrenaline rush, the plot is interesting. As an emotionally detached police detective, Steve McQueen plays the lone hero effortlessly. With him again is co-star and friend, Robert Vaughn from The Magnificent Seven as the suspicious official. It’s a good thriller/mystery and a solid blind spot choice for anyone. 4/5.

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