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.

Film Spotlight: Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.”  So says legendary Francis Ford Coppola.

As years roll by and great films turn into classics, certain classics become epic by proportion. 35 years later, Apocalypse Now is such an example. How many times have I watched it? As a movie buff, it’s all too easy being an armchair critic and picking about this and that. What’s truly amazing is witnessing how a film is made. Haven’t we all wished we could make a film? When you see what filmmakers have to go through to create art, it is humbling and we should cut them some slack.


Since its 1979 release, Apocalypse Now has been revered by many as the Vietnam film from the last 35 years. Francis Ford Coppola invested all his money on the project and brought his wife Eleanor, Sophie, and her two brothers to experience the journey down the river into madness. Based loosely on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the story is a classic tale about man’s search of good vs. evil within. This was the premise behind the film, too. Captain Willard traveled down the heart of the river to face and assassinate Col. Kurtz played by Marlon Brando.

However, the fascinating part of the film was not the film at all. It’s how Coppola made the film. Francis Ford Coppola was a disorganized, egomaniac and his 238-day shooting schedule, spread over 16 months, was a venture pressing the limits of sanity. Typhoons wrecked the set. Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Filmed in the Philippines, military choppers “rented” for the film by the government left during the middle of shooting to combat rebel insurrections. Marlon Brando had not read the script nor the novel and did not know what to do. Dennis Hopper was as crazy as his sycophant photojournalist. Cast members were snorting, drinking, smoking, and swallowing whatever they could get their hands on. 

Coppola, coming down from his high from the Godfather I & II films, was Kurtz. Who chronicled the sixteenth month ordeal? His wife, Eleanor Coppola, who was asked by her husband to videotape and create a documentary. Their California Victorian in Napa Valley and all their money was fronted as collateral.

How was a landmark film such a cluster mess? How was one of the more revered directors at a loss how to end the film? What was his epiphany? I won’t tell you.


I highly recommend the documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991) with a CODA: 30 Years Later, all footage and writing done by Eleanor. The Coppola’s have been married since 1963 and her insight as a witness to the filmmaking process, invaluable. I can’t imagine being married to Coppola. She is an extraordinary woman. What are your favorite scenes from the movie?

This sequence was one of the hardest sections of the film to orchestrate.  Robert Duvall seared his performance into my mind and heart. Lt. Col. Kilgore is one of the most compelling characters in cinema.


Harvey Keitel was initially selected and then dismissed after filming. They brought in Martin Sheen to play Capt. Willard. Coppola’s style toward his actors was to give suggestions on cards of the filming for the day and allow the actors to improvise. On his 36th birthday, Marty was so drunk, they filmed him in the motel room and the flooding of emotional breakdown was real. They needed a scene which showed Capt. Willard suffering and therefore able to kill Kurtz. The scene with him rising up out of the river and the sacrifice of the Ox and Kurtz was beautiful and disturbing.


“This is the End” by The Doors was a masterstroke to play for the climax of the film. The film teased and built such tension that when the end did come, it was the grand ending Francis Ford Coppola had been looking for. Do you like Apocalypse Now as much as I do? What are your favorite scenes? Have you seen the documentary? It’s fantastic.

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