Gene Hackman: 10 essential films

We remember 10 of the finest films starring Gene Hackman, one of the great actors to emerge from the New Hollywood of the 1960s and 70s.

Mike Sutton
Updated:

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

In 2004, Gene Hackman appeared in an unmemorable supporting role in Welcome to Mooseport. It was a typically intelligent performance in an unworthy film and fans thought it was just another step on the way to another, better movie. But nothing came and, a few years later, Hackman announced his retirement from acting. Subsequent offers from directors such as Alexander Payne have not tempted him and it now seems very unlikely that he will make another film. But his 33-year career, beginning with Mad Dog Coll (1960), has yielded treasures enough…

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Director Arthur Penn

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Hackman had been playing minor roles in films for several years when he got the call to play Buck Barrow in Arthur Penn’s era-defining period drama. It was a dream part, offering strong support to Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles. Buck is an irrepressible show-off, a braggart with a penchant for bad jokes whose big-talk leads nowhere. But he’s also naive, unable to quite believe that the end of the road is imminent, and he’s the one who assiduously cultivates the legend. Buck should be unbearable but Hackman makes him impossible to wholly dislike and the actor received his first Oscar nomination for the role.

The French Connection (1971)

Director William Friedkin

The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

After Bonnie and Clyde, Hackman trod water for a while, doing good work but not getting the leads he deserved. This changed with the cop thriller The French Connection, in which this most good-humoured of actors plays, with total authenticity, a complete bastard. What we know of real-life detective Eddie Egan, the character upon whom Popeye Doyle was based, suggests this is quite accurate, but it’s also clear that Hackman was uncomfortable in the role and had to be pushed by director William Friedkin into making Doyle so obnoxious. He’s thoroughly compelling, dominating the screen in violent set-pieces, but the character is rather one-note here and you sense that Hackman was delighted with the opportunity to deepen the portrayal in the excellent 1975 sequel.

Scarecrow (1973)

Director Jerry Schatzberg

Scarecrow (1973)

Scarecrow (1973)

One of Hackman’s least-known films is one of his best. It’s a picaresque road movie in which Hackman and Al Pacino play two drifters who find a connection while travelling to Pittsburgh where they dream of opening a car wash. Hackman’s character Max again isn’t easy to like – the road has made him spiky and difficult – but the two men grow through their acquaintance, and the result is a quirky, compelling story of friendship which ends in tragedy. Hackman gets a chance to play a wide range here, from taciturn to gentle and, in one terrifying moment, violent. He even does a comic striptease.

The Conversation (1974)

Director Francis Ford Coppola

The Conversation (1974)

The Conversation (1974)

The role of Harry Caul, the anally retentive, painfully shy bugging expert, is a surprising one for Hackman to have taken on but it reveals his brilliance as an actor. His relationship with director Francis Ford Coppola was a stormy one but the result is one of Hackman’s finest hours. He subdues his natural ebullience, serving the character with painful and heartbreaking honesty. Harry, like so many heroes in neo-noir, isn’t half as clever as he thinks he is and he effortlessly grasps the wrong end of the stick, precipitating the very tragedy he tries so hard to prevent. The ending, as Harry sits in the apartment which he has stripped in an effort to evade an elusive bug, is astonishingly bleak.

Night Moves (1975)

Director Arthur Penn

Night Moves (1975)

Night Moves (1975)

Less well known than The Conversation, but just as impressive, Night Moves is one of the great thrillers of the 1970s. It’s a detective story in which Hackman plays Harry Moseby, a football player turned private eye who gets caught in the middle of dubious activities in the Florida Keys. He’s on his very best form, the tough humour hiding a deep sensitivity about his decaying marriage and his own personal failures, and he relishes the literate, witty dialogue provided by Alan Sharp and the chance to play opposite the splendid Jennifer Warren, an actor with whom he has great chemistry.

Eureka (1983)

Director Nicolas Roeg

Eureka (1982)

Eureka (1982)

One of Nicolas Roeg’s biggest flops, this played about a week in London and didn’t appear in the USA until three years later. But it’s also one of his most complex and interesting films; a family saga combined with a courtroom drama and a study of one man’s dream turned into a sun-drenched nightmare. Hackman, on screen alone for a long stretch of the first hour, plays a prospector, loosely based on the real-life Harry Oakes, whose obsession with gold leads to his downfall. Roeg has a ball with cascading imagery, occult symbols and sudden violence and Hackman serves him well with a complex performance which requires him to age 20 years.

Under Fire (1983)

Director Roger Spottiswoode

Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire (1983)

The fall of the corrupt president of Nicaragua in 1979 and the subsequent conflict between the left-wing government and the US-backed opposition forms the backdrop to this Ron Shelton-scripted political drama. The superb cast is led by Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy but the pivotal figure is Gene Hackman’s newsman, friend to one and lover to the other. Hackman boosts the film’s energy level each time he appears, and his ultimate fate – based on the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart – comes as a genuine shock. It’s a film which clearly appealed to Hackman’s own liberal political views, which have been consistent but rarely expressed.

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Director Alan Parker

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Mississippi Burning (1988)

Alan Parker’s study of racism in the Deep South in 1964 is not, to put it mildly, a subtle film. Nor is it historically accurate as an account of events in Mississippi when two civil rights workers were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. But as a showcase for Gene Hackman, it’s hard to beat. This was his first major role for several years and he dominates all before him, whether beating up Brad Dourif in a barber’s shop, making jokes with Willem Dafoe’s uptight fellow agent, or gently flirting with Frances McDormand’s terrified Klan widow. He brings warmth and humour to a film which would otherwise lack both.

Unforgiven (1992)

Director Clint Eastwood

Unforgiven (1992)

Unforgiven (1992)

Many thought he should have been named best actor for Mississippi Burning but Hackman finally won his second Oscar for portraying Little Bill, the brutally pragmatic sheriff in Clint Eastwood’s elegiac farewell to the western. Little Bill is a deeply unpleasant man but Hackman’s layered and subtle performance makes him a dreamer as well as a sadist, a killer who is building a house to fulfil a vision of sitting on his porch as the sun goes down. The actor’s ability to combine geniality with menace is well used, particularly in the scene where he violently punishes Richard Harris’s English Bob for having the temerity to carry a gun in his town. 

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Director Wes Anderson

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Wes Anderson’s lively, nostalgic comedy about a dysfunctional family was not Gene Hackman’s last film but it’s certainly his last great one – is there anyone keen to watch Runaway Jury (2003) or Welcome to Mooseport? He is as hypnotic as ever as a deeply unpleasant, entirely unsympathetic but weirdly likeable father who fakes bowel cancer to try to get back into the bosom of the family and casually insults and upsets everyone in his path. The film is partly the story of his redemption as, backed by a killer soundtrack, he tries to mend his ways and reseal his bonds with his troubled offspring. By the end, we’ve seen everything that ever made us love Hackman as an actor. It’s a marvellous late-career bow.

The next 10…

  • I Never Sang for My Father (Gilbert Cates, 1970)
  • Cisco Pike (Bill L. Norton, 1972)
  • Bite the Bullet (Richard Brooks, 1975)
  • All Night Long (Jean-Claude Tramont, 1981)
  • Uncommon Valor (1983, Ted Kotcheff)
  • The Firm (Sydney Pollack, 1993)
  • Geronimo: An American Legend (Walter Hill, 1993)
  • The Quick and the Dead (Sam Raimi, 1994)
  • Crimson Tide (Tony Scott, 1995)
  • Heist (David Mamet, 2001)

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