Best Movies by Farr: How about Hackman?

July 8, 2011 | John Farr

John Farr indulges in three films from one of his favorite actors, Gene Hackman, star of this week’s Reel 13 Classic, Mississippi Burning.

The Conversation (1974)

Detached and distrustful of others, surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a deeply private, virtually friendless man whose life is consumed by his special brand of freelance intelligence work. Hired by corporate director Martin Stett (Harrison Ford) to monitor the conversation of a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest), Caul is troubled by the fragments of talk he illicitly captures on tape and begins obsessively piecing them together, suspecting a murder is in the works.

Made before he began work on “The Godfather, Part II,” Francis Ford Coppola’s prescient, haunting drama is a brilliant character study set in a pungent atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy. Hackman is the dark heart of the film, playing a profoundly solitary man tortured by guilt, complicity, and his own inability to trust anyone, including girlfriend Amy, played by Teri Garr. Coppola’s most artful film, “The Conversation” is dark, brooding, mysterious, and ultimately, completely unnerving.

Under Fire (1983)

During an excursion to Chad, combat photographer Russell Price (Nick Nolte) meets Claire (Joanna Cassidy), a dogged American radio journalist who’s on her way to war-torn Nicaragua, where Sandinista rebels are fighting to overthrow the corrupt, US-backed Somoza regime. Attracted to Claire, whose ambitious boyfriend Alex (Gene Hackman) is returning to the States and a possible TV-anchor job, Russell decides to tag along. Together, they enter the crossfire of a conflict that will change them both in unexpected ways.

An engrossing, still timely drama about the role of the news media in covering violent political conflicts, “Fire” asks us to consider the ethics of objectivity, dramatizing the political transformation of a man who, in an act of journalistic deception, chooses to choose sides. Nolte is excellent as Price, the rugged veteran who experiences a change of heart behind rebel lines, while Cassidy, Hackman, and Ed Harris, playing a steely soldier-for-hire, add further fuel to this “Fire” with gutsy supporting roles. A tense object lesson in the dangers of eyewitness reporting.

Get Shorty (1995)

Chili Palmer (John Travolta) is a gifted film producer trapped in the body of a loan shark. When he goes to Hollywood to collect on a debt from movie schlock-meister Harry Zimm (Gene Hackman), he ends up pitching him a story instead. Soon he’s also wooing Harry’s frequent star, B-movie queen Karen (Rene Russo), who’s known as the best screamer in the business. Chili’s start in show business seems auspicious, but then gets slowed somewhat by the arrival of some shady figures from his day job. Still, for us viewers, this only makes his odyssey more colorful.

Barry Sonnenfeld gets the credit for helming the best screen adaptation of any Elmore Leonard work to-date. Scott Frank’s Golden Globe nominated script vividly brings to life the author’s hysterically low-life characters, while recreating the unique cadences of Leonard’s imcomparable dialogue. The result is a flashy, fast and funny outing which lampoons Detroit goombahs and La-La land fringe-dwellers with equal abandon. The players are all in top form: Hackman has never been funnier, and Dennis Farina almost steals the picture as a disgruntled mobster who has an axe to grind with Chili. Look fast for a pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini as a hapless bodyguard.

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