The Conversation (1974)

the conversation

There is no sound between human beings that I cannot record.  Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is hired by the aide Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to a client known only as The Director to tail a young couple, Mark (Frederic Forrest) and Ann (Cindy Williams). Tracking the pair through San Francisco’s Union Square, Caul and his associate Stan (John Cazale) manage to record a cryptic conversation between them but there is interference on the tape.  He falls out with Stan over his offensive use of religious words because he is Catholic. Tormented by memories of a previous case when he was hired by a government agency that ended in three murders, Caul becomes obsessed with the resulting tapes, believing the couple are in danger, constantly piecing it together, playing it on a loop until the recordings are stolen following a one-night stand with a woman he meets at a party and he is forced to hand over the photographs to the mysterious Director (Robert Duvall) …. Since when are you here to be entertained? Literally tapping into contemporary fears about privacy and surveillance this tense paranoid conspiracy thriller is in the vanguard of early 70s films feeding on political sleaze. He’d kill us if he got the chance.  Hackman is superb as the enigmatic loner, suddenly plunged into an ethical crisis and never further away from someone than when he’s standing right next to them.  He has a failed private life with an on-off romance (with Teri Garr) but his decency is incisively writ in his love of playing jazz saxophone (the instrument closest to the human voice).  His ethics finally overwhelm his professional safeguarding, his vanity triggering the fatal misunderstanding that twists the narrative’s direction because he is trapped in the words he has eavesdropped upon.  How fascinating that Francis Ford Coppola chose to write, produce and direct this after being mired in the moral murk of The Godfather. When he had to start production on the sequel to that box office smash Walter Murch took over post-production on this and the result is a bona fide Seventies classic released just a few months before the resignation of Richard Nixon, forever linking this with Watergate but also perhaps alluding to the fate of film directors at the mercy of their entourage, their audience and a narrative they cannot control. The mystery is compounded by an intriguing piano score by David Shire.  We’ll be listening to you

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The French Connection (1971)

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You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie? When wealthy Marseilles heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) has an undercover cop murdered by hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) he reveals his plans to smuggle $32 million worth of pure heroin into the United States by hiding it in the car of his friend, French TV personality Henri Devereaux, who is traveling to New York by ship. In NYC narcotics detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are on undercover stakeout in Brooklyn. After seeing a drug transaction take place in a bar, Cloudy goes in to make an arrest. After a short pursuit, the detectives interrogate the man, who reveals his drug connection and the biggest drug bust in American history looms … All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!  What an extraordinary film this is:  a display of a singular, muscular, arresting, narrative vision with masterful control and seemingly effortless storytelling. It’s a version of a true early 1960s crime but bears none of the burdens of historicism. The shifting camerawork, changing locales, tone-perfect performances and the obsessive pursuit of an imperturbable French crime kingpin chime perfectly with director William Friedkin’s realistic style. The chase involving the 1971 Pontiac Le Mans and the elevated train is one of the most famous action scenes in film history, undercranked by the ingenious cinematographer Owen Roizman to make everything look faster. Apparently, Friedkin was goaded into doing it by Howard Hawks, who said, Make a good chase. Make one better than anyone’s done.  Hackman is peerless as the alcoholic bigot with a bee in his bonnet but Rey and Scheider are fantastic too and Tony Lo Bianco as Sal, the NYC connection, gets a great, physical showcase. The jagged jazz score by the preternaturally gifted Don Ellis is one of the great film soundtracks and Jimmy Webb wrote an original song performed by The Three Degrees at the Copacabana. A breathtaking film, complex, violent and well-managed, a specific articulation of the urban landscape told in an economical 99 minutes, it won a slew of Oscars – for editor Gerald B. Greenberg, Hackman’s performance, Best Film, Best Director and writer Ernest Tidyman who adapted the book by Robin Moore. Stunning. That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I’m gonna get him

 

Downhill Racer (1969)

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In seven years I’ve never had a hot dog like you.  Smug, arrogant and overly self-assured downhill skier, David Chappellet (Robert Redford), joins the American ski team after their star has an accident and quickly makes waves with his contemptuous behavior and his actions on the slopes, falling into conflict with the team’s coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman). He won’t ski at Wengen because he’s seeded too low. Then when he comes fourth he thinks he’s won. But he has a good face and attracts the attention of a ski manufacturer Machet (Karl Michael Vogler). A rivalry also develops between David and Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan), the man who is now considered the team’s best skier, firstly romantically as Chappelet immediately hits on Machet’s assistant Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv) when he sees Creech with her.  The relationship lasts a season when Chappelet wins at Kitzbühel and alienates the rest of the team. Then the men find common ground when they are both in the running for the Olympic team and Chappelet realises Carole is even more driven and capricious than he is He’s not for the team, and he never will be. Written by the great James Salter (from the uncredited novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall), this is a classic character study told in terms of competitive skiing. The limitations of Chappelet’s smalltown origins paradoxically make him want to conquer the world – which in skiing terms means Europe. While Redford would make another kind of mountain movie in a few years (Jeremiah Johnson) this is about another paradox which team coach Hackman addresses in a press conference – why America has such fantastic mountains but lacks champion skiers (money). Chappelet wins the attentions of the glamorous Carole but he loves her money as much as the sex – when he snorts with laughter at the sight of her yellow Porsche you understand. His sketchy relationship with his farmer dad demonstrates the issue and why his tunnel vision exists. Claire is tolerant of his talent but antagonistic to Chappelet’s single-minded drive: All you ever had was your skis and it’s not enough. Chappelet may not be a nice guy, but Claire needs him and the team needs him. When a happy accident occurs, replaying a race held in jest, you know Chappelet’s glad. The almost-twist ending is just perfect. It’s amazing to realise that this was Michael Ritchie’s debut as director. He is often described as a master ironist and while the material is undoubtedly on the page, the staging is meticulously judged:  there is acute observation and colour (look at the difference a white turtleneck makes to Chappelet and how he dons blue jeans to talk to his uninterested father);  the production design in flawless in terms of contrast; there are also reverse shots that make you laugh out loud. (Look at how Claire laughs in a restaurant when Chappelet is cornered by a dumb journalist). This world is established leanly, using few reaction shots.The part is Redford’s. He had picked up on the property when Roman Polanski was working on it at Paramount prior to getting involved with Rosemary’s Baby and Salter developed the story outline from Polanski’s idea of a High Noon on the slopes, ignoring Hall’s novel. Redford and Salter travelled with the US ski team to the 1968 Winter Olympics at Grenoble and Hall picked up on an aloof quality in Billy Kidd but was also influenced by Spider Sabich and Buddy Werner who had died a few years earlier in an avalanche while fooling with a film crew. Sparv was married to Paramount Studio head Robert Evans for a few years and she has precisely the glacial attraction required for such a nonchalant self-absorbed woman. Superior, in fact. Chappelet’s need of money and fame needs that kind of woman in tow. When she doesn’t need him he is brought down to earth – literally. Claire is the warm team manager whose methods the cool Chappelet despises. There is a plot but it’s the anonymity of the slopes, the hotel rooms, the lifestyle, the effort, the brutality, that highlight the characterisations. The technical side of the film is superlative – rarely has the experience of skiing been so accurately shot and Ritchie hired cameraman Brian Probyn and sound man Kevin Sutton after seeing their work on Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. The images of Chappelet and Carole skirting the high line of the glistening white slopes under a bright blue sky are awesome. Some years ago an acquaintance regaled me with a little story about Redford at one of the Sundance Institute workshops. He kept a low profile, he said. Didn’t want to draw attention to himself. And then one morning he was out on the slopes. You could spot him without any effort:  he was the one in a hot pink suit. Somehow you just know he is channeling his inner Chappelet. Not just for ski bunnies and Jean-Claude Killy fans. Outstanding.

 

 

Eureka (1983)

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Aka River of Darkness. Once I had it all. Now I have everything. After 15 years of searching on his own, Arctic prospector Jack McCann (Gene Hackman), becomes one of the world’s wealthiest men when he literally falls into a mountain of gold in 1925. Twenty years later in 1945, he lives in luxury on Luna Bay, a Caribbean island that he owns. His riches bring no peace of mind as he feels utterly besieged:  he must deal with Helen (Jane Lapotaire), his bored, alcoholic wife; Tracy (Theresa Russell), his headstrong daughter who has married Claude Van Horn (Rutger Hauer) a dissolute, philandering, narcissistic social-climber; and Miami mobsters Aurelio D’Amato (Mickey Rourke) and Mayakofsky (Joe Pesci), who want the island to build a casino off the Florida coast but Jack is resistant to gambling and their frontman Charles Perkins (Ed Lauter) cannot persuade him to do a deal with them. I never made a nickel off another man’s sweat. When Jack is brutally murdered, his son-in-law, Claude, is arrested for the crime and put on trial … One of Nicolas Roeg’s most underrated achievements, this pseudo-biography is a fascinating portrayal of perversion and power, obsession and dread. The texture of the film, contained in lush colour coding, symbols of the occult and the ever-present stench of sex, oozes corruption and greed, decay and desire. Adapted by Paul Mayersberg from Marshall Houts’ book Who Killed Sir Harry Oakes? an account of that real-life murder in the 1940s, in which the author suggests that Meyer Lansky had Oakes killed [Pesci’s role is based on the gangster albeit this carries the conventional disclaimer], this exhibits all the familiar Roegian tropes. It also has echoes of Orson Welles as character, a director who hit the cinematic motherlode first time off the blocks and spent the remainder of his life in a kind of desperation (or so people would like to think). Hence McCann feels larger than life and is dramatised as such with Wagner soundtracking his great – almost psychedelic – discovery and Yukon poet Robert Service’s words Spell of the Yukon amplifying its myth. It isn’t the gold that he wants so much as finding the gold The allusions to Citizen Kane are clear and the portentous character of prostitute/fortune teller Frieda (Helena Kallianiotes) would appear to have at least superficial similarities with Oja Kodar, Welles’ last companion. One moment of rapture followed by decades of despair. The first line of dialogue we hear is Murder! and there is a structure which suggests destiny is being fulfilled. This is a story about disparate characters connected by blood and a morbid wish for ecstasy which suggests life but actually propels towards death. Russell’s testimony in court is gripping and Hauer as the playboy driven by the Kabbalah and other elements of the supernatural is just as good. Hackman is Hackman – he totally inhabits Jack, this man whose greatness is envied by all but whose happiest time was in the wastes of Alaska so long ago, basking in heat and light now but longing for snow.  It is this man’s ability to function as a totally singular individual that creates the chasm between himself and others, gangsters or not.  Internally he knows it is Frieda who led him to the gold that made him the richest man in the world but he decries notions of luck or superstition. His murder is an accurate depiction of what happened to Oakes and it’s terribly gruesome – sadistic and heartless. The first part of the film could be from silent movies – and the bizarre aphoristic dialogue is laughable except that it sets up the sense of supernature which dominates the narrative. Shot by Alex Thomson, edited by that magician of jagged mosaic Tony Lawson, and scored by Stanley Myers (including wonderful double bass solos composed and performed by Francois Rabbath), if this sometimes feels that it has not fully committed to the melodramatic mode (there are a lot of genres at work), the threads of gold and blood make it a satisfying and disturbing watch, with some extraordinary performances bolstering the overall effect. This is all about signs and meaning.  A mystery. The end of the beginning

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

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My God I’ve never seen anything like it – a gigantic wall of water heading directly for the ship! The SS Poseidon is on its last voyage from New York to Athens before retirement. Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) is a troublesome priest being sent to Africa as punishment. Detective Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens) are dealing with her seasickness and a man who recognises her. Susan Shelby (Pamela Sue Martin) and her little brother Robin (Eric Shea) are squabbling on the trip that will see them meet with their parents. Manny Rosen (Jack Albertson) and his wife Belle (Shelley Winters) are going to Israel to meet their new grandson. Nonnie (Carol Lynley) is rehearsing songs with her brother in the ballroom for the New Year’s Eve dance. Bachelor James Martin (Red Buttons) confesses his shyness at the captain’s table at dinner. And then a tidal wave (what we now call a tsunami) capsizes the ship and their whole world is upside down and flooding quickly … Paul Gallico’s 1969 novel gets a great adaptation by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes who distill people’s essential characters into pithy exchanges and lines of action – let’s face it in a situation like this there’s no time for sweet nothings. Producer Irwin Allen assembled a star-ridden cast for this disaster movie to end them all. A raft of Oscar winners – Borgnine, Winters, Buttons, Albertson – make it into the final half dozen who swim, climb and beat their way to the engine room on the upturned vessel and the pressure (water, religious and otherwise) is intense as they are led by Scott who is invested with crazed levels of commitment by Hackman. But before they can be saved there are terrible personal sacrifices… And you thought you’ve had bad New Year’s Eves! This is thrilling from start to finish! Directed by Ronald Neame with a lot of interiors done on the Queen Mary docked at Long Beach and a resonant score by John Williams. You see Mr Scott in the water I’m a very skinny lady!

Runaway Jury (2003)

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Trials are too important to be left to juries! Nothing like the element of surprise to heat up a legal drama and this has it in spades. After a workplace shooting in New Orleans that kills married broker Jacob (Dylan McDermott), lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman) takes up the case against the gun manufacturer for the man’s widow Celeste (Joanna Going) but has to deal with a ‘jury consultant’, Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman). When Nicholas Easter (John Cusack), a man without an apparent past, gets on the jury he seems to be able to exert influence on the outcome – with the assistance of his girlfriend Marlee (Rachel Weisz) who’s operating at the end of a telephone. Both sides are approached to make them an offer to sway the decision – a situation rendered immensely complicated when they are sequestered in a motel on the East Texas border … John Grisham’s thriller was in development for half a dozen years and its original topic – big tobacco – was altered after The Insider (coincidentally featuring Bruce McGill, the judge here) but taps into the very emotive theme of gun rights, the Second Amendment and – in the big reveal – a school shooting. The setting of N’Oleans heaps atmosphere into this very effectively plotted thriller and you’ll recognise a lot of landmarks. The playing – that cast! – is exceptional with Hackman making his return to Grisham territory 9 years after The Firm in which he also essayed a very shady character. Really well managed even if the coda errs on the side of sentiment. Adapted by Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman. Directed by Gary Fleder.

The Firm (1993)

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Mitch McDeere (Tom Cruise) is the hotshot Harvard grad hired by Bendini, Lambert & Locke, an established law firm run by Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) but he soon discovers that beneath the outward trappings of success there’s a very dark side and a price to be paid for that nice car and condo (well, they’re lawyers, whatcha expect but corruption?). When Mitch travels to the Caymans to hide client funds, he’s seduced by a woman on the beach – and the resulting photos compromise his marriage (to Jeanne Tripplehorn) and he’s now under the cosh to do as he’s told because as he finds out previous associates were murdered when they uncovered the firm’s mafia tax fraud. He’s approached by the FBI to wear a wire … There are tremendous performances here in this super-efficiently told thriller, especially by Holly Hunter who has a whale of a time as Gary Busey’s secretary/ lover – he’s the private eye who shared a prison cell with Mitch’s brother, whose existence made Mitch vulnerable to exploitation. The John Grisham thriller was originally adapted by David Rayfiel who had been working with director Sydney Pollack since the mid-Sixties however a major rewrite and restructuring (and removal of some) of the book’s elements by Robert Towne made it a far pacier piece of work.  (There was a draft by David Rabe but Towne supposedly never saw it.) It’s a fantastically suspenseful entertainment, with a great performance by Cruise and he is matched by the peerless Hackman. You can read more about all of this in my book ChinaTowne in the chapter detailing Towne’s collaborations with superstar Cruise:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/ChinaTowne-Elaine-Lennon-ebook/dp/B01KCL3YXQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1489868389&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon

Enemy of the State (1998)

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Director Tony Scott revolutionised cinema – he literally changed the way we perceive images onscreen, for better or worse. This was his masterpiece, in my humble opinion. Working from a screenplay by David Marconi, it tackles the surveillance society head-on in what might be perceived (and confirmed in its casting of Gene Hackman as Brill) as a continuation of issues Coppola was raising in The Conversation (1974):  privacy, government-led conspiracy, data. Will Smith is the labour lawyer whose usual difficulties arise from mob infiltration but now has to deal with the might of the all-seeing National Security Agency. It’s non-stop action, threats, violence, fear and of course surveillance in a thrill-a-minute, thoughtful blockbuster. This is how we live now. Tony Scott RIP.