Tuesday, August 17, 2021

24 Hours of Movies: Gene Hackman

 by Patrick Bromley

Spend a whole day with arguably the greatest film actor of all time.

When I was a kid, Gene Hackman seemed like someone my parents liked. Even when he was in movies I watched on repeat -- like, say, Richard Donner's original Superman -- there was something about him that seemed removed from the comic bookiness of the rest of the movie. He was just such a grownup. 
But what the fuck did I know at that age? My favorite actor was Kermit the Frog.

These days, Gene Hackman is one of my absolute favorite actors and maybe the best to ever do it. He's now 91 years old and has been retired since the early 2000s (you always go out on Mooseport); he recently posted a two-year old picture to show that he's living in New Mexico and doing really well. Programming just one day of his movies (as suggested here by my beautiful wife Erika) was an almost impossible task because he has too many great movies and great performances to limit to just 12 or 13 titles. Maybe we'll have to do a second marathon one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy this day and night of movies from the GOAT.

10 am - Young Frankenstein (1974, dir. Mel Brooks)
How great is Gene Hackman? So great that while he rarely did comedy, the few times he did were almost all brilliant (I say "almost" because of stuff like Loose Cannons). Hackman's turn as the Blind Man in Mel Brooks' classic Universal horror spoof is one of the high points of a movie filled with high points. His delivery of lines like "I was going to make espresso" and "Cigars!" is just silly enough while still playing the role mostly straight, proving that his instincts were always good. I know it probably doesn't make much sense to start our marathon of Gene Hackman movies with a film in which he only appears for one scene, but I like to start with something classic, which this approximates, and light, which this is.

Noon - Hoosiers (1986, dir. David Anspaugh)
Confession: I've never seen Hoosiers. Like Rudy, it's one of those movies that people can't believe I've never seen when they find out. There's no real reason I've missed it the last 35 years except that I'm not big on sports movies, though the one-two punch of Hackman as the head coach and an Oscar-nominated turn by Dennis Hopper should be enough for me to finally see it. Programming it here would be a great excuse.

2 pm - The Conversation (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola)
Our first masterpiece of the marathon (I think; like I said, I haven't seen Hoosiers), but not our last. Francis Ford Coppola's paranoid character study in which Hackman plays Harry Caul, a surveillance expert who uncovers a possible murder, is one of two great movies the director released in 1974. He also put out The Godfather Part II; both were nominated for Best Picture. This is one of my favorite Hackman performances, largely because it's so interior and small. The movie is brilliant, too.

4 pm - Heartbreakers (2001, dir. David Mirkin)
Another legendary comic turn from Hackman, albeit in a slightly less legendary film. The underrated Heartbreakers stars Jennifer Love Hewitt and Sigourney Weaver as a pair of mother/daughter con artists, with Hackman doing amazing supporting work as their smoking-obsessed mark. Everything he says and does in this movie is funny. The film itself is surprisingly good (if too long at over two hours); Weaver is characteristically great, the romance between Hewitt and Jason Lee is sweet; Sarah Silverman and Zach Galifianakis deliver supporting roles; but it's Hackman who steals every second of screen time he's given.

6 pm - Class Action (1991, dir. Michael Apted)
I'm such a sucker for this movie and I can't really explain why. I'm programming it mostly as a change of pace, but I also like the mixture of courtroom thriller and family drama in which Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio play an estranged father and daughter on opposite sides of the same case. It's an obvious but effective hook for a movie, with clearly great acting; solid, no-nonsense direction from Michael Apted, and good photography by the late Conrad Hall. I love that Hackman is also playing the total opposite of most of his other lawyer characters here, too; he's super liberal instead of his usual corporate scumbag. 

8 pm - The French Connection (1971, dir. William Friedkin)
Hackman won his first Oscar playing Popeye Doyle,  a no-nonsense cop in William Friedkin's classic, groundbreaking thriller. It's a necessary inclusion in a marathon of his work for its toughness, its intensity, its refusal to compromise or sand off the ugly edges. The movie's uncomfortable power has only grown in 2021, anchored by Friedkin's electric direction and Hackman's fearless performance. It deserves the primetime slot.

10 pm - Prime Cut (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)
A somewhat lesser-known Gene Hackman crime film that totally rules. Michael Ritchie directs this nasty, pitch-black little thriller in which Hackman plays a real bastard -- something he does better than almost anyone -- going up against Lee Marvin's mob enforcer agains the backdrop of the Kansas City meatpacking and farming industries. Just the opening sequence alone is an all-timer; so is a mid-movie game of hide and seek in an open field. Plus, it runs under ninety minutes (thank you!), meaning we'll be able to squeeze in the next movie before midnight, which is important.

11:30 pm - The Poseidon Adventure (1972, dir. Ronald Neame)
I have never seen The Poseidon Adventure, but I know it's set on New Year's Eve and if you start it at a certain time you can cue up the movie so that midnight hits in real life at the same time as the movie. I don't know if starting it at 11:30 will work, but it's the best I can do. I don't really like disaster movies and I already know Hackman's fate in this one (RIP), but our marathon is an excuse for me to check it off my list once and for all.

1:30 am - All Night Long (1981, dir. Jean-Claude Tramont)
Reel talk: I don't love this movie (to be fair, I haven't seen it in over a decade), but how can I resist programming it here with a title like that? A somewhat miscast Hackman plays in a messy romantic comedy opposite a way more miscast Barbara Streisand; he's a married pharmacist demoted to overnights, she's a daffy songwriter with whom he begins an affair. I'm probably due for a revisit (there's a Kino Lorber Blu-ray!) because I don't remember this romantic comedy drama being especially funny or romantic. 

3 am - The Quick and the Dead (1995, dir. Sam Raimi)
Gene Hackman never made any horror movies, but we can at least spend our overnight with some Sam Raimi weirdness! A great spaghetti western homage starring a murderer's row of character actors in a gunfighting contest, with Sharon Stone at the center as a mysterious stranger with a score to settle against John Herod (Hackman), the man who owns the town of Redemption. Hackman plays yet another irredeemable bastard here, having the time of his life squaring off against the likes of Lance Henriksen, Keith David, Russell Crowe, and a young Leonardo DiCaprio, most of whom he just eats alive. I love that Gene Hackman made a bunch of westerns. Just another reason why he rules.

5 am - Night Moves (1975, dir. Arthur Penn)
Listen. It's hard to pick a favorite Gene Hackman performance, but if I was forced to -- I mean, gun to my head -- this might be the one I choose. One of the all-time great neo-noirs has Hackman playing Harry Moseby, a former football player-turned-private detective investigating the disappearance of a teenage girl. Like so many films released in the 1970s, this is a dark, cynical, practically hopeless affair, but it's so well acted and directed that the bitter pill goes down more easily. We're going to need a palette cleanser after this.

7 am - Get Shorty (1995, dir. Barry Sonnenfeld)
And here it is! One more comic turn before we wrap things up, this time in Barry Sonnenfeld's masterful Hollywood satire Get Shorty. Hackman is always so assured on screen that it's fun to watch him play a fuckup like Harry Zimm (completing the "Harry Trilogy" after The Conversation and Night Moves), a producer/director of low-budget schlock who gets in way over his head when he tries dealing with gangsters to make an A-list picture. Literally every actor who shows up in the movie is someone great and perfectly cast, none more so that John Travolta in one of my absolute favorite of his performances, making Hackman truly part of a first-rate ensemble. This is the perfect movie to wake us up after a long night.

9 am - Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood)
I can't believe we're out of time already! No Royal Tenenbaum, no Avery Tolar, no Captain Frank Ramsey. We can't let a Gene Hackman marathon end without another Oscar-winning turn from the GOAT, though, this time as Little Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood's towering Unforgiven. In most other westerns, Hackman's character would be the hero and Clint Eastwood the villain, but Unforgiven inverts this structure to make Little Bill the antagonist -- a mean bastard whose motives may be honorable but whose methods are all wrong. I love how larger than life Hackman is here, especially contrasted with Eastwood's sad, quiet, revenge-driven loner. A great performance from a great American actor in a great American movie.

Never leave us, Gene Hackman.


  1. Random Completely (un)True Gene Hackman Movie Trivia:

    1) Has his own version of the Wilhelm Scream which appears in every movie he's ever done, including those listed here. He randomly yells the phrase "NORTH MRS TESSMAKER!!!!" and its never addressed or acknowledged in the movie.

    2) Co-wrote the never produced sequel to Wargames named Wargames 2: Wargamegeddon. Planned on doing a brief cameo as himself channeling dennis hopper. In his scene he bursts into command center and says to Mathew Brodderick "So...i hear you kids might need help with a Hack man?!?"

    3) Kicked butt in Enemy of the State (ok, this ones true!)

    4) Would rock in a zillion movies he didnt appear in...like can you imagine him in Jaws 2? Or a Godfather flick? Or Blade Runner!? He's awesome (ok, this ones true as well, looks like the wheels fell off my bit and now im into stating the obvious...Gene is one of the best!)

  2. Gene Hackman really was an underated comic actor. Even in 'The Birdcage', a slightly troublesome film, he's hilarious and never breaks character.

  3. Also fucking hell, 'The Quick And The Dead', I got to revisit that

    1. I watched it for the first time last Junesploitation, and it was one of the highlights for the month.

  4. I could easily go for this marathon. I watched the two French Connection films for Junesploitation. (No, I have not been to Poughkeepsie.) Just his performance as Popeye Doyle would give him a place in film history. As the list shows, there is so much more than that to his career. Night Moves is currently sitting on my DVR, and I have a DVD of Unforgiven that I have meant to get to for a long time.

    I do not think you have anything to fear with The Poseidon Adventure, Patrick. The cast elevates the material, and there are some good set-pieces.

    1. I need to see it for sure. I'll check and see if my library has it!

  5. The man made so many great films. He just elevates everything he is in. His unctuous, oily Avery Tolar is the best thing in The Firm (possibly the only good thing).
    I remember, as a child, crying when he dies in The Poseidon Adventure (oops, spoilers). I never experienced a character’s death in a movie hit me like that. It’s such a great performance.
    If you want to program a second marathon, I would suggest some of my favorite Hackman films: Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Scarecrow (1973), Mississippi Burning (1998), and the overlooked 1985’s turns-out-my-dad-is-a-secret-agent-movie, Target.

  6. I love this marathon so much--and totally agree with John Curvan on the Scarecrow recommendation. So good!

    There are a lot of Hackmans I haven't seen on this list, so I'm gonna have to dive in.

  7. His best performance in Scarecrow wuz robbed

  8. Just watched Night Moves. Really enjoyed. Thanks for the rec! 70s neo noirs pack a punch.