Sunday, 12 May 2013

Alternate Best Actor 1975: Gene Hackman in French Connection II

Gene Hackman did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe and a Bafta, for portraying Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in French Connection II.

French Connection II as a follow up to the first one does has to be taken as a bit of a disappointment, it's just not on the same level, Fernando Rey's reprise of the villainous Charnier is rather wasted, and Roy Scheider is missed. Having said that though it does have good scenes and it is an excellent showcase for Hackman as an actor as it continues the story with Popeye going to France to try to find "Frog One" who alluded him in the first film.

I know I planned to review Hackman in Night Moves which he was also Bafta nominated for, but after watching that film I decided it would be best if I went back to and finally finish French Connection II as well which for whatever reason I stopped watching about thirty minutes in many years ago. Finally finishing I clearly saw what was Hackman's best output from 1975 was. Now that is nothing against Night Moves which itself is a strong character study with a not nearly as strong film noir plot. Hackman, as usual, commits himself admirably there as well as an ex footballer who tries his hand at being a private detective even if his enthusiasm for the job outweighs his competence. 

In both of his performances actually Hackman plays characters who are much more out of their element than they would like to believe. He does this quite well in Night Moves, but in the French Connection II Hackman takes it to another level. What aids in this surely is the memory of his performance in the first film where he was the streetwise New York City detective who knew the city like his own home, the man who could handle a room of criminals like a lion tamer, and had that unshakable drive to get his man. Although if you did not remember this for whatever reason Hackman does it with Doyle's manner as he first arrives to France trying to take that same approach even though Marseille is not New York.

Hackman though does well to show that this is not exactly the same Popeye that we saw last and clearly shows in his face that what happened at the end of the last film has not be completely forgotten by him. Yes Hackman plays the forceful quality of Popeye still there but in his eyes there is some pain to be seen both clearly from the accidental killing in the previous film as well as the fact that he failed to capture the main drug smuggler Charnier. Hackman handles perfectly by coming on so strong at first, showing Popeye trying to be that same street smart cop he was in the city, even though he soon finds out that things do not go for him the same way they did in New York.

Hackman is terrific in portraying what's lost in translation as Popeye does his forceful interrogation and tries his best to get something from the suspect but fails since the suspect can't even understand what he is saying. The same even goes for when Popeye is trying to be a man about town, Hackman again turns on a certain charm like he had in the original, but is perfect in playing up the disappointment as Popeye just is unable to really fit into the place that he knows very little about. Hackman's plays this disappointment perfectly because he has Popeye still putting on a proud face as he keeps making the wrong moves but still suggests at the same time the way it is slowly making him much more vulnerable.

Popeye lumbering around soon finds him in a bad spot where he is captured by Charnier who forcefully uses heroine on him to try to derive information. Hackman is great as he portrays Popeye being forced into the addiction starting with the utmost anger and resistance but slowly fading as they continue to give it to him. Hackman physical performance is outstanding as he plays the phases as he shows that Popeye still will not give up anything he knows but as well cannot avoid the physical and psychological problems that build up do to this treatment. Hackman emphasizes just how much this degrades Popeye leaving him truly a wreck when the police find him.

This leads to when Popeye is forced by the police to go cold turkey to get rid of the addiction. All I can say is these set of scenes is absolutely amazing and some of the greatest work in all of Hackman's career, and that is really saying something. Hackman physically portrays the sheer brutality of the situation and the slow horrible process he undergoes. Hackman is unflinching in playing just how low it takes Popeye and how hard it is for him. There is one particularly outstanding moment as Popeye talks about some random things to try to keep his mind off the pain. Hackman has him speak at first with such a beautiful nostalgia and just a certain pleasantness as Popeye tries his best to ignore the torture.

Hackman's performance is awe inspiring as he speaks so gently and we really see the better times comes out in his expression and delivery as he tries to think of anything other than the present. Hackman though is absolutely heartbreaking though as he shows that the pain just is too much and he feels it once again. Hackman is incredible in his intensity as the pain just overwhelms Popeye and every thought before is slowly compromised until he leaves him to his most vulnerable state making Popeye nothing but a sad shell of his former self. It is just a tremendous scene made so powerful by Gene Hackman as he entirely earns this transformation of Popeye making as heart wrenching as it should be.

Hackman is perfect in his full portrayal of Popeye's recovery because he does not skip a single step leaving all of it to be seen including the way that even after the worse is done he still shows that Popeye still has to take his time to find his old strength. Due to this when Hackman finally builds him back up again it is earned fully, and it has the impact it should. It of course is not the exact same man from the beginning, any pompousness in his Popeye is gone and Hackman shows him to be a man who has learned from his experience and now knows what he needs to do. When he finally goes about taking down the criminals Hackman brings that old drive back, but now with a purpose and an exact mission in his eyes.

This is what all role reprisals should be like. Hackman doesn't just meet his first performance he surpasses it. Where many reprisals seem like their treading water sometimes just seeming like their doing the same old thing, or losing what made the character special to begin with Hackman finds all new ground for his character while still doing justice to his original characterization. This is a great performance from start to finish as he takes Popeye through his very personal journey. Nothing feels like the same old routine while still feeling like this is the same man from the first film. Hackman continues with Popeye brilliantly giving such a powerful turn in his portrayal of both Popeye's psyche as well as his physical condition.


koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Confession time: I never liked the first French Connection and I completely fail to see the big deal with Hackman in it.

Well there goes five years of pent up angst.

RatedRStar said...

I liked the first film a fare bit lol, its a bit dated though I think although the ending is great, I love how Charnier never got caught lol., I personally loved Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday (probably the first film about a gay character that was actually real and not a stereotype)

Mark said...

So you liked the first Fench Connection more than the second, but think Hackman was better in the second one. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Hackman had nothing to work with on paper with the first film, but he completely elevated the character and made it one of the most iconic characters of the 70s.

Anonymous said...

Louis, what rating would have given his Night Moves performance?

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Y'see, Hackman probably wouldn't have even made my lead actor lineup for 1971, not with Malcolm McDowell, Timothy Bottoms (in his only great performance), and Gene Wilder staring me in the face.

Louis Morgan said...

Anonymous: I would give him a 4.5 for Night Moves.

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