When he smiles, Gene Hackman’s eyes sliver like slices of new moon. His aura is warm and inviting, but you can’t quite make out the colour of his iris. “His eyes are brown,” I think, but I’m not sure. Hidden beyond his warm and ordinary persona is an aura of the unknown. One of the great actors of the American cinema, Gene Hackman built a career from an affable ordinariness and the secrets normalcy conceals.
In the early 1970s, he epitomized figures of justice that reflected an air of disillusionment that passed over the American psyche in the post-optimism of the new decade. While he had been working as a Hollywood actor for nearly a decade by this point, the defining role of this new wave for him was his starring performance in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. Hackman excelled in a role that demanded the relatability of a working man and the corrupting power that comes with positions of authority.
Based on a non-fiction book, The French Connection is about two New York City police detectives in pursuit of a French Heroin smuggler. With sojourns in France, most of the film takes place in a very pre-Guiliani NYC, brown, wet and crumbling. Hackman plays Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, an Irish detective who makes small-time drug busts in dark bar basements and back-alleys. With an upturned hat covering a slightly balding head and a broad face, Hackman’s physicality lends itself to the atmosphere of a working-class cop. His overwashed suits and slightly too small pants are often hidden behind a smoke-stained trench. He doesn’t have to announce himself as a cop because everything about him announces it. More than just his appearance though, it’s a swagger of confidence that comes with his largely unchecked power.
In one early scene, he orchestrates a small-time bust in an African-American bar. His motivations, rather than lawful, are about exercising power over vulnerable members of his district. Almost as soon as we are introduced to him, he is presented as something other than the American vision of cops as saviours. He is petty and corrupt, violent and in control of his surroundings. Knowing full well that his black victims will never be able to speak out against him, he stridently abuses them for his own pleasure.
Popeye is clearly not just a bad seed but a reflection of a police department stretched thin. Friedkin presents New York City as a dirty place of squalor and crime. Everything is damp and you can almost smell the stench of rot peeling out of sewers and collapsing buildings. Popeye and the police force he represents, rather than exist out of this environment, are clearly products of it. But, like poorly trained and starving guard dogs, rather than protect their constituents, they lash out against them.
Hackman’s strength as an actor, his authenticity and warmth, is turned against the audience in the film. In spite of repeatedly breaking the social contract and abusing his power, he remains likeable. He is a different kind of anti-hero, one that refutes a romanticized vision of yesterday’s heroes. The cops that used to be on your side, fighting for justice, are often just as bad as the crooks.
On paper, The French Connection is a rather conventional crime thriller as police detectives work to apprehend the leaders of a drug-trafficking organization. As performed and directed, however, the film is a deeper indictment of levels of corruption and abuse that bolster the powerful and punish the weak. Hackman’s everyman appeal adds a wrench to the film’s portrayal in a way that only builds tension. He is our flawed complex anti-hero who is also, pretty objectively, a bad person. Do we want him to succeed or do we want him to get his comeuppance?
The French Connection might portray a grimy New York City that has long been cleaned up but rings true for ongoing concerns over systematic abuses of power. It is a scathing indictment of systematic abuses that perpetuate racial and class inequality. It similarly reveals that oppression is not manned by conniving Snidely Whiplash villains, but ordinary people with personal ambitions and flaws. Rather than some grand orchestrated act of evil, corruption and inequality are part of a larger system of bureaucracy and systematic violence.
Gene Hackman was far more than just an aw-shucks everyman who most people could relate to. He was unafraid of playing ordinary men who were culpable in violence and abuse. As he held up a mirror to society, he portrayed an often unflattering portrait of a civilization that seemed to be in a tailspin. Even in the pursuit of goodness or justice, there always seems to be an uncomfortable twist. Who are the real victims of the war on drugs? Who has to die so the police can “get their man?” What is justice when society’s most vulnerable continue to suffer?