Gene Hackman turned 80 last week. He's still the voice on the Home Depot commercials, but he hasn't made a film in six years; the last was the unfortunate Welcome to Mooseport (2004). I stayed up too late on Saturday night because Bonnie and Clyde followed The French Connection on Turner Classic Movies, and anyway I believe that Kevin Wignall suggested this list months ago.
If your views differ, leave them in the comments section.
1. Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, The French Connection (1971). Hackman's first truly iconic role. Popeye Doyle is a screw-up, a bad cop who isn't even particularly competent, except that he's willing to follow his obsessions to the bitter end. Imagine anyone else in this role, and the movie doesn't work at all, because Doyle is fundamentally unlikable — except that Hackman shows us a real man, not a cartoon. And he did about half of his own driving in that car chase.
2. Harry Caul, The Conversation (1974). Again, Hackman plays a character I'd cross a room to avoid. Harry Caul is paranoid, bitter, amoral and vain — and the discovery that he does have a conscience after all changes none of this. It's hard to imagine what a movie like The Conversation would look like if made today, and which modern actors would be willing to play Harry as he's written.
3. The Blind Man, Young Frankenstein (1974). Oh, come on. This has to be on the list. It also makes my list of all-time Top Five Movie Cameos. "Where are you going? I was gonna make espresso."
4. Harry Moseby, Night Moves (1975). I'm surprised by how few of my friends have seen this movie, a masterpiece of 1970s neo-noir. Harry Moseby is a Lew Archer-style private detective who goes looking for a runaway teenager (Melanie Griffith, in her first credited role). The search leads Harry into a tangle of sex, smuggling, greed and betrayal, and no one is redeemed. I just looked, and you can watch this as streaming video on Netflix. Do it when you're in a reasonably good mood.
5. Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven (1992). Little Bill Daggett is the gleefully amoral sheriff of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and he keeps the peace because peace is best for business. Having set himself up as an absolute ruler, he dooms himself to an inevitable overthrow; he's not a good man, but his actions and his end have an unlikely nobility.