Hackmania – The Chain Reaction Film Club

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)

Mississippi-Burning-14

Some fine smell-the-burning-cross acting

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.

FILM-SUBURBICON-REVIEW

Suburbicon: the bit that wasn’t in the trailers

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.

Phew.

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)

The Conversation 1

Listening in to the great white telephone

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.

Scribe

The French Gene Hackman

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.

The Conversation 2

Bwah bwah bwah bwabwabwabwabwaaaaaah

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.

The Conversation 3

I could just squish those cheeks!

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!

The Firm 1

Name’s Tolar. Avery Tolar.

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.

The Firm 2

Holly Hunter I will watch in anything. Gary Busey… not so much.

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.

The firm 3

He’s powerless against her, powerless I say.

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.

@BornToPootle

The Hackman Connection – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The only Hackman I used to know

Gene Hackman is one of those actors who I have almost entirely overlooked. I saw Superman as a kid, of course, and Unforgiven. I think I saw Get Shorty. But that’s about it. I didn’t really go to the cinema that much growing up, and much of his filmography is more adult-skewed anyway. There’s a lot of slightly gritty-sounding stuff in his filmography, realistic settings rather than the sci fi bombast I preferred (and often still do) so didn’t make the effort to catch them on TV. By my late teens/early 20s I was more into horror – all the former video nasties were finally given official releases in the late 90s so it was a glorious time. Then I met my other half who is obsessive about 30s, 40s and 50s cinema… So Hackman just kind of passed me by.

Since starting the Chain Reaction Film Club I’ve made a conscious effort to pick his films where possible. There are so many notable ones often used as reference points by film makers and reviewers that it’s been part out of interest and part out of obligation. So we’ve already tackled Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight, plus Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far as part of the Goldman Variations covered in the last post.

Rather helpfully his IMDb credits list 100 films, so I’m up to having seen 10% of his work (not sure if I ever saw Superman IV…). With another 90 films to choose from we started with…

Film 65: Under Suspicion (2000)

Hackman is… Under Suspicion

All I knew going in was that it was Hackman and Morgan Freeman, and some kind of cop/suspect cat and mouse. And then came one of the worst openings that I remember seeing. It’s a series of very cheap looking shots of Puerto Rico, swooping over houses and coastline like a 70s travel documentary. I was not inspired with confidence…

And then… it almost worked. Hackman is a bigshot lawyer who goes to see his friend and local police detective (Freeman) to clear up a few loose ends about a body he found while out for a run. But there are more questions than answers and suspicion starts to fall on him… They’re a solid pair of actors to anchor this kind of story around, even though in a couple of places you can tell they’re only moving from their seats because the director has blocked it that way. It twists and it turns and it almost but doesn’t quite hold together. Oh well. I liked what it was trying to do.

Film 66: The French Connection (1971)

He doesn’t even eat any damn spinach…

Here we go, a biggie. Somehow I’d never seen this. In my head it was indivisible from Bullitt (probably also coming to a CRFC blog soon), notable for a car chase but otherwise a mystery. Like Hackman, Steve McQueen has largely eluded me. 

The setup? Drugs are streaming through to America from France. A pair of New York detectives get a lead on the French connection who will be in town for one big deal…

One of the things that struck me most about The French Connection was how used to being able to look things up online I’ve become. In a few places Hackman and his partner (played by Roy Scheider) leave a straw hat in the back of their car. It’s pointedly done, but in a 70s pointedly way rather than a modern here-we’re-doing-this-and-I’ll-explain-it-twice kind of way. A quick google after the film, and I’ve discovered it was a signal to cops that undercover cops were on duty in the car. How did people used to deal with not knowing? God knows.

Hackman is irredeemably irascible, which is fun, and there is that humdinger of a car chase. It’s made even juicier from – you guessed it – looking it up. And finding out that:

A) They only had permission for part of the route

B) Director William Friedkin held the camera in the back of the car as he was the only non married member of the crew

C) One of the crashes is real – a driver had got round barriers and was sideswiped by Popeye Doyle for his trouble.

It’s taut and a bit nasty, just like Doyle himself. And it won 4 Oscars including best picture. That seems a bit over the top to me, particularly as Clockwork Orange was one of the other nominations. Perhaps it’s one of those occasions where so many films have followed the tone and riffs of The French Connection since that it’s hard to see it in context.

Film 67: French Connection II (1975)

Give the man an Oscar. Or a shirt.

Yup, we went straight into the sequel. And my but it’s annoying that they removed the definite article from the title. 

The car/train chase is what the first film is most notable for, so how did they decide to follow that? Generally the formula is to crank everything up to eleventy stupid (to quote Dr. Kermode) – you want a chase? Howzabout one with cars and a train and a bus and a tank?! In space!! Props to French Connection II for not attempting that at least. Instead it follows Hackman’s Popeye Doyle (one of only two returning characters) as he heads to France, is kidnapped and forcibly addicted to heroin, goes cold turkey and endures withdrawal, torches a building full of junkies who, frankly, probably wouldn’t all have made it out, and generally makes a mess of the investigation. It’s a bold move and these days would be seen as a performance chasing an Oscar. Maybe it was then too. 

The first is definitely the better film, but for a Hackman season this was worth it for the performance.

We’ve just scratched the surface of his filmography, and there’s more to come from The Hackman Connection. So far though? I like how unlikeable he is. Does he play any likeable characters? Ever? How great to have a leading man career based around unlikeableness. It just seems so… unlikely.

Next up will be 1988s Mississippi Burning starring… Gene Hackman!

Goldman Variations – The Chain Reaction Film Club

Last time it was Sarandon Season on the Chain Reaction Film Club. We finished that with The Great Waldo Pepper, which was indeed great. Written by master film scribe William Goldman, it seemed as good a time as any to tackle some of his films that we’d not already seen. Those we have seen include The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting. So he has some form for this writing lark. The only slight snag is that we can’t use him to link between films, as it has to be an actor who appears on screen and has a meaningful line of dialogue. So from Waldo Pepper we were able to get to:

Film 62: The Hot Rock (1972)

Link: Robert Redford

I’ve been in the mood for a crime caper for quite some time, so this was very exciting. A Goldman script (based on a book by Donald Westlake), Redford in the lead role, directed by Peter Yates (whose The Dresser I enjoyed very much) – all signs point to glory.

Redford is an ex con with a talent for planning heists. He’s brought back for one more job… a team is assembled… things go wrong… some stuff happens…

Rather than focussing on one big heist, this ends up being a series of escalating heists as things don’t quite go to plan. There’s a bit of silliness, but no one has told Robert Redford that as he plays it straight throughout. And the heists don’t really escalate that much. I think Goldman may have been having an off day when he adapted this one…

But wait, who’s this?

It does however feature one of Christopher Guest’s first film performances – one line as a cop in a police station. So worth it for that alone.

Film 63: A Bridge Too Far (1977)

Link: Robert Redford

Next to a crime caper, a classic war film has been pretty high on my list. And this one, about Operation Market Garden, is definitely a classic. Let’s just have a whiff of the cast:

Dirk Bogarde, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman, Robert Redford, Anthony Hopkins, Laurence Olivier, Edward Fox, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal, James Caan, Alun Armstrong…

Redford (yet again appearing in a Goldman-penned film) doesn’t appear until quite far through. By then we’re deep in the mud and blood, but Redford is approached for a mission and turns and smiles and is just Too Much.

No smile, but you get the idea

I don’t know that much about Operation Market Garden (must watch Band of Brothers…) but the film title alone gave me the impression it wasn’t an overall success. And while I got a bit confused here and there about which bridge was which and who was waiting for back up from who, it’s a solid ensemble beast. It’s not quite in the browbeating war is hell category, but it certainly isn’t tubthumping either.

Goldman was adapting a book again here, and strikes a fine balance between the stiff upper lip facade and the grim reality. Most of the military advisers to the film had the same names as the characters, so I’m going to assume authenticity was the watchword.

Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Sean Connery in anything other than Bond. He’s a fantastic, muscular presence.

That’s the Chicago way…

Film 64: Absolute Power (1997)

Link: Gene Hackman

This has the honour of appearing on more shortlists than any other film so far (ok, I haven’t really been keeping track but this and Bob Roberts turn up a LOT). And for once it’s a Goldman film without Redford in tow! It is another book adaptation though, this time of a David Baldacci thriller.

Clint Eastwood is a burglar who hides when the house he’s burgling turns out to be occupied after all. He watches a steamy affair from behind a two way mirror, then things get violent, the man calls for help and… the Secret Service run in and shoot the woman. That’s right, President Gene Hackman is in trouble and has a lot of covering up to do. 

Happy Birthday Mr. President…

We watched this the same week Weinstein allegations surfaced, so it was oddly on point (let’s not even get started on White House abuses of power). 

The first half chugs along very nicely, then it all gets a bit murky. It’s one where everything could have been resolved much earlier wih a bit less faffing around. Still, seeing a pre-24 Dennis Haysbert as the President’s bodyguard was fun. Soon enough he’d be in the big chair himself.

‘I hope my presidency is much less dramatic…’

Right at the beginning, when the prez is making out with the woman, not only are the Secret Service on hand but his chief of staff is too. And so I spent the rest of the film imagining President Bartlett and Leo being caught up in that kind of situation which, I’ll be honest, sounds like more fun. 

Gene Hackman has been in quite a few films we’ve tackled so far – not only Absolute Power and A Bridge Too Far (with a Polish accent no less) but there’s also been Bonnie and Clyde, Scarecrow, Wyatt Earp, and Twilight. There’s a simple reason for this: I just haven’t seen that many Hackman films. He’s an actor who has almost entirely passed me by, with the notable exception of Unforgiven and his Lex Luthor. I’m not really sure why this is – I’ll ponder it a bit for next time because… we’ve reached the end of The Goldman Variations and it’s time for Hackmania!

What have I learned from dipping toes deeper into Goldman’s inkwell? Maybe a little of what you fancy is better than a lot. His notable films really are extraordinary (I forgot he also wrote All The President’s Men, what a guy!) but not every script can be legendary. There are still more I’d like to tackle – I’ve never seen Marathon Man for example (we almost linked to that after A Bridge… via Olivier) – but I don’t feel like a mug for not being au fait wih every single film he’s been involved in.

Hackman though… Let’s see what I’ve been missing out on.