Last time we were deep into Gene Hackman’s filmography and I promised Tim and I would continue (catch up if you’re new here – my friend Tim and I are working through films we’ve not seen or are overdue a rewatch linking to each film by a shared actor. At the mo we’re only linking to Hackman films, just because). And so we shall. Welcome to Hackmania 2017!
Film 68: Mississippi Burning (1988)
Hackman and a youngish Willem Dafoe are FBI agents investigating the disappearance of three civil rights activists in Alabama. Dafoe is the ranking officer but Hackman, a Southerner who’s gone out and seen a bit of the world, is a loose cannon who don’t play by no rules.
This was an interesting one and I really wish I’d seen it when I was younger. It’s based very closely on real life, but with fictional names sprinkled over the top. And there’s plenty to recommend. However when I read about it after watching I was intrigued, and not that surprised, by the controversy that surrounded its release. I watched this in the same year I’ve watched Selma and Detroit. These films have a major focus on the black figures who were involved. By contrast Mississippi Burning is more of a white folks affair. So in a film dealing with trying to ensure black people were able to have a voice (by making sure they could vote unmolested) it also kind of doesn’t give black people a voice.
The other film we’ve watched as part of CRFC that deals with the civil rights struggle was Crazy In Alabama. It was before I started blogging the entries but is worth a quick mention here. Two intertwining stories: a young white boy befriends a black boy and they spend their summer hanging out until the local sherriff takes exception to the mixing of races and breaks up a party. In the process the black boy is killed by the sherriff and the white boy witnesses it but is too scared to come forward at first. Second story: the white boy’s aunt has decapitated her abusive husband and takes his head with her on a road trip to become a star in LA. It’s a horrendous mash up of coming of age, civil rights, women’s rights, zany comedy and issue-based drama. And once again sidelines the people most important to the story. I was reminded of it last week as well, because Surburbicon does the exact same thing. A Coenesque black comedy uses 50s racial hatred as… set dressing? Something like that. It introduces a serious and all too real threat to a black family to mirror tension in the main knockabout storyline, and barely gives them any lines in the process. I found it to be one of the most baffling and reprehensible things I’ve seen this year.
All of that is to say that in the context of a Hollywood that regularly sidelines the marginalised in their own story, I can see why Mississippi Burning attracted ire. It’s certainly not as bad as Crazy In Alabama or Suburbicon, but a film lauding the FBI as saviours when they were simultaneously trying to destroy Martin Luther King in real life is a bit much. At a time when we can also watch the likes of Selma, however, I think there is a place for it.
Oh, one more thing on Mississippi Burning. The sherriff of the town where this really happened sued the producers (despite names etc being changed). The case was dropped when the studio’s lawyers pointed out that if he wanted to go to court they would have to show the evidence they had that showed the sherriff was in part culpable for the deaths of the activists. Sit. The fuck. Down.
Film 69: The Conversation (1974)
I’d been looking forward to this for ages. It’s appeared on the shortlist a few times, gets regularly referenced by critics and film makers alike and generally sounds like a great premise. From IMDb:
‘A paranoid, secretive surveillance expert has a crisis of conscience when he suspects that a couple, on whom he is spying, will be murdered.’
Earlier this year I saw the French film Scribe in the cinema. It deals with a character who is given tapes of bugged phone conversations to transcribe and slowly realises he’s in the middle of a shady conspiracy. It was an ok watch, but didn’t quite live up to the premise. I remember thinking at the time that I couldn’t wait to see The Conversation to see how it should be done and… well… The Conversation was ok, but it didn’t quite live up to the premise.
Were parties really shit in the 70s? My overiding memory of The Deer Hunter isn’t the famous Russian roulette sequence, it’s the interminable party. Likewise The Conversation is going to stick in my mind not for the tense eavesdropping or encroaching paranoia but for the inexplicable party Gene Hackman’s character hosts at his dingy workplace. Maybe Francis Ford Copolla and Michael Cimino were both invited to the same duff party and these films are them cathartically working through the experience. I’d just get drunk in the kitchen and throw up in the garden meself.
Gene Hackman plays the sax a few times, and doesn’t even have the decency to play Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. I mean, what’s the point? Ok, so that wouldn’t be released for another 4 years but so what. A very young chubby cheeked Harrison Ford makes an appearance though, which is nice.
Film 70: The Firm (1993)
I wrote about The Client during Sarandon Season, and this is one of the other trio of John Grisham thrillers I missed growing up. We’ll tackle The Pelican Brief soon enough I’m sure.
Tom Cruise is a hotshot graduate lawyer with job offers aplenty. He goes to work for a small firm in Memphis who seem to have some shady dealings… with THE MOB!
Gene Hackman is the improbably named Avery Tolar, a senior partner at The Firm with a devil-may-care attitude. It’s nice to see him playing a character who is having a bit of fun – most of his characters seem dourly irascible, but Avery has a bit of the mischevous spark he showed in Bonnie and Clyde or Scarecrow. Or, uh, Superman.
There was almost an incredible bait-and-switch but sadly my hopes were dashed: when Cruise enlists the help of a private Eye called Eddie, we cut to their office and a glammed up Holly Hunter (who can do no wrong). Cruise asks if he can go in and see Eddie and I was really hoping Hunter herself would be the private eye. A nice little bit of subverting expectations and giving a woman a role other than secretary/wife/prostitute (seriously, those were the only female roles in the film). But no, she’s the secretary to Gary Busey’s private eye. Hey ho. And then to make matters worse she has to give Busey head.
It’s a perfectly functional film with plenty of head scratching wait-but-why-do-they-not-just… moments that Tim hates. My biggest gripe though was to do with Cruise cheating on his wife (Jeanne Tripplehorn). It happens on a business trip with Avery Tolar. Wait, hang on, it’s not Cruise and Hackman getting it on. No, Hackman is getting fresh with a call girl and sends some over to Cruise. Cruise is married though and not a dick, so says no and wanders off. Cue witnessing an altercation between a man and woman, coming to the woman’s aid and, you guessed it, boffing her right there on the beach. What a dick. Photos appear later on, used as blackmail material against Cruise. And then comes the reveal: she was a plant. She used her wiles to ensnare Cruise in a bit of slap and tickle purely so photos could be taken and leverage could be gained. Poor old Tom Cruise is innocent and his marriage saved. Because of course he couldn’t possibly have said no to such a tempting succubus. Wiles were used. Wiles! Urgh.
That makes six Hackman films on the trot and while there are plenty more tempting ones to try (I’m looking at you March Or Die, B*A*T 21 & Enemy Of The State), The Client is also a pretty good jumping off point to get back to more chain reactiony Chain Reaction Film Club. There’s Tripplehorn, Cruise, Hunter and Busey to pick from plus Paul Sorvino (he played a mob boss would you believe), Ed Harris, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook to name but a few. It’s Tim’s choice next though, so who knows where we’ll end up.