10. The Indian Runner (1991)
Based on the song “Highway Patrolman” by Bruce Springsteen, this was Sean Penn’s deeply effecting and haunting debut as a writer/director. Hopper plays Ceaser, the local bar owner who meets an unfortunate end by the hands of Frankie (a never better Viggo Mortensen), a maladjusted Vietnam veteran who has come home.
Only a small role, Hopper exudes charm and grace in what is a building tempest of emotion and pain centered around two brothers, Frankie and Joe (David Morse). Once seen, “The Indian Runner” isn’t forgotten easily.
9. River’s Edge (1987)
A tough, unsentimental look at moral breakdown amongst teenagers, “River’s Edge” consolidated Hopper’s return to Hollywood. Here, he plays Feck, the local weed dealer and ex-biker. He shares a similar path with one of the teens in the local area, who has just killed his girlfriend, having gone down a somewhat similar path years previously.
The flipside of Frank in “Blue Velvet”, Feck is haunted by his past actions and the effect it has had upon him. Inadvertently, he serves as a somewhat unconventional moral compass for the kids around him that have lost their way.
“River’s Edge” is an absolute gem of a film, directed in an unsentimental, unflinching but heartfelt way by Tim Hunter (why didn’t this guy make more movies?). It also features someone I consider the heir apparent to the style of acting Hopper became famous for, actor Crispin Glover.
8. Out Of The Blue (1980)
Stepping in at the last minute as director for “Out Of The Blue”, this is a lacerating and unforgettable work. Hopper plays a truck driver responsible for the death of a busload of school children. The focus of the film in on his daughter, Cebe (a brilliant performance from child actress Linda Manz). Only caring about Elvis Presely and punk rock, the way the film depicts Cebe dealing with a junkie mother and alcoholic, possibly paedophilic, father, is nothing short of astounding.
Intense, depressing and cathartic, “Out Of The Blue” is not for everyone. However, this is a fine effort from Hopper both in front of and behind the camera.
7. Rumble Fish (1983)
Teaming up once again with his “Apocalypse Now” director Francis Ford Coppola, this is a striking take on the S.E. Hinton novel of the same name. Shot primarily in black and white, with the odd splash of colour here and there, this is, in Coppola’s words, his ‘art film for teenagers’. It has this beautifully impressionistic, trippy, almost otherworldly feel to it.
Hopper plays the alcoholic father of the two main characters, played by Matt Dillon and an almost baby faced Mickey Rourke. A small role, but an effective one, illustrating a possible and somewhat negative future for two ‘lost boys’ trying to find their way in the world.
6. Speed (1994)
Now firmly accepted as part of the Hollywood mainstream, this was one of Hopper’s first stabs at playing a bad guy in a big blockbuster (let’s not mention “Super Mario Brothers”, shall we?!?).
Here, he plays Howard Payne, a disgruntled ex-cop who plants a bomb on a bus in downtown Los Angeles. The bomb goes off if the bus goes below 50 mph. A hangover of the ‘high concept’ school of filmmaking in the Eighties, this was a pulse pounding, exciting mainstream confection, directed by Dutch cinematographer turned director Jan De Bont.
It’s also the film that made Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock big box office stars. This is as good as a ‘popcorn thriller’ can get. A big key was Hopper. Turning down some of the excess from “Blue Velvet”, it proved he can play the Hollywood game, contrary to his life and behaviour beforehand.
5. Apocalypse Now (1979)
In Francis Ford Coppola’s sprawling and iconic piece on the craziness of war and its effect on the individual, Hopper plays a photographer who informs Willard (Martin Sheen) on his target, the certifiable Kurtz (Marlon Brando).
With a manic energy to him, no doubt infused by the massive substance abuse that seemed to affected half the cast and crew, this was an indelible performance that, in a way, was something of a caricature of Hopper’s off-screen persona. Somehow, like the rest of the film, this sense of craziness worked on screen, with Hopper’s performance being a piece of a rather unique cinematic jigsaw puzzle.
4. The Last Movie (1971)
This film must rate a mention on this list for the personal ramifications it had on Hopper both on a personal and professional level.
Given carte blance by Universal after the astounding success of “Easy Rider”, Hopper pursued a long-held pet project. A film within a film to a certain degree, it looks at both the film industry and the idea of American arrogance and imperialism across the world.
Urged on by fellow director and friend Alejandro Jodorowsky, Hopper, who wrote and directed “The Last Movie”, cut the film into a fractured, non-chronological manner. The results befuddled and confused the public at large, who stayed away in droves. The film is all but lost today, although rumours come and go about its DVD/Blu Ray release.
3. True Romance (1995)
In Tony Scott’s tale of young lovers on the run, beautifully written by Quentin Tarantino, Hopper plays Clifford Whurley, the father of the main character. An ex-cop, security guard and recovering alcoholic, it turns out he’s the most normal character in the film!
“True Romance” features a long sequence that is right up there with some of Hopper’s best work. It’s the interrogation scene, where Clifford faces off against the Mafia, led by Sicilian Vincenzo Carcatti (a magnetic Christopher Walken). Seeing two of the greatest actors who have ever walked the planet going head to head, with some amazing dialogue at their disposal, is nothing short of utter joy!
While the rest of the film is excellent and one of Tony Scott’s best, this one particular sequence is an absolute standout. If only the rest of the film was on the same level!
2. Blue Velvet (1986)
In David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece and, for me, the signature film of the Eighties, Hopper plays Frank Booth, an utterly evil, unrepentant, foul mouthed and unapologetic psychopath. This is the type of guy you would cross the street to avoid!
In the course of the film, Hopper is like a pure black force, even infusing the rest of the film, including the scenes in which he’s not even on screen, with a malevolent and unforgettable sense of dread.
Hopper’s electrifying performance in “Blue Velvet” is considered by many to be the man’s finest hour. Every second of this performance is truly unforgettable, with the actor tapping into a level of psychosis you rarely see on screen.
Check out the scene where Frank and his crew beat the absolute living shit out of Jeffery (Kyle Mac Lachlan), all set to the tune of “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison. Cinema doesn’t get more iconic than this!
There are only two other performances in the history of cinema that I would put on the same shelf: Michael Gambon in Peter Greenaway’s “The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover” (1989) and Ben Kingley in Jonathan Glazer’s stunning debut, “Sexy Beast” (2000).
1. Easy Rider (1969)
This was the film that announced Dennis Hopper to the world in big block letters. For the past few years before its release, Hollywood had been churning out big blockbusters, primarily musicals, that continued to die a death at the box office. Pretty much throwing up their hands and saying ‘we don’t know’, this inadvertently paved the way for new filmmakers to make movies. Enter Dennis Hopper.
With a budget of $300,000, he co-wrote and directed “Easy Rider”, a two fingered salute to the mainstream and a totally embrace of the burgeoning counterculture of the time.
“Easy Rider” went on to make a spectacular amount of money at the box office and opened the floodgates for an incredible new variety of artists in Hollywood which, in turn, lead to the glorious New Hollywood period of Seventies American filmmaking.
While somewhat dated by today’s standards, “Easy Rider” remains a true ground breaker and cemented Hopper’s iconic status for eternity.
Author Bio: Neil is a journalist, labourer, forklift and truck driver. In a previous life, he was a projectionist for ten years. He is a lifelong student of cinema.