I bought French Connection II (1975) on Blu Ray, so that gives me a chance to review The French Connection (1971). That’s how my brain works. What’s most exciting for me is that I always confuse the two directors of these films, William Friedkin (director of the original) and John Frankenheimer (director of the sequel). Both directors have one Hall of Fame classic to their names, Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and then a lot of movies that just came and went without much applause. That is, except for their forays into the gritty French Connection films.
It’s 1971 and there’s nothing moving on the streets of New York. A policeman in Marseille follows shipping boss Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) and then, on his way home, is gunned down by Charnier’s henchman (Marcel Bozzuffi). Back in New York, narcotics detectives Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Bud “Clowney” Russo (Roy Scheider) are shaking down two-bit hoods to get to the dealers. One night, taking Clowney out for a drink (for getting him cut by one such hood), Popeye notices somebody in a club throwing money around with mafia people. He’s got a hunch and so he and Clowney start to follow him. Turns out the guy is Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), a convenience store owner. Popeye knows something’s going on because Boca meets with big-time gangster Weinstock (Harold Gary), but his chief isn’t quite convinced. “Your hunches have backfired before, Doyle. Or have you forgotten?” But Doyle gets his wire taps and gets into the biggest investigation he’s ever had.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen The French Connection. It’s been so long that I was hazy about the ending. I thank my lack of memory because this viewing blew me away from about mid-point to finish. This isn’t just an action-crime movie, it’s a masterpiece, mixing action, crime, and procedure in a way that never panders. Maybe in 1971 it was pandering to action nuts, but for the 21st century, this is understated. Even then, the storytelling is restrained. You get that quote about hunches, but nobody ever fleshes out the story, it’s just taken on its face and left to Hackman to give it weight. It also has the easy cynicism of a Billy Wilder movie but given the permission to be violent about it. It isn’t just brash, it’s gritty.
Gritty is the word. My DVD copy is a little old, so there’s still plenty of grainy film quality to it. At first, I lusted for a Blu Ray copy that would have clearer sound and picture, but by the end I prefer the imperfect nature of the film (Oscar-nominated cinematography by Owen Roizman). The movie is so much a part of its time that the rough colors keep it in the past, contemporary with the style of cars and clothes. If it were sharp, that dumb hat might look even dumber. This graininess combined with the hand-held, somewhat shaky camera work gives the movie a lot of life. Music from Don Ellis is distinctive. It isn’t always flawless, but in the thrilling moments, it’s excellent. It’s a bit of jazz and weird ambient strings that would have fit neatly into Taxi Driver (1976). It’s all blended together terrifically by Friedkin, who won the Best Director Oscar and The French Connection was awarded Best Picture. If I ever put together a Top 20 films, The French Connection would be in contention.
Other nominations went to the leading pair of Hackman (who won) and Scheider (who didn’t). These are very well deserved. SeaQuest 2032 (1993-95) seriously damaged Scheider’s reputation for the people of my generation merely by association—I don’t even remember if the show was any good—overwhelming his two Oscar nominations which, with his work in Jaws (1975), warrants universal recognition of his talent. Hackman is given that kind of universal recognition and rightly so. He carries the weight of the subtext of The French Connection on his shoulders. Scheider admirably supports, but it’s Hackman who plays the unflinchingly driven, almost obsessive, Popeye Doyle to perfection. Doyle, after forty years, is a walking cliché who eats donuts, drinks too much, womanizes, and is racially insensitive. But he is completely human. And don’t let me forget Fernando Rey who is a fantastic villain. In a film that gives so little explanation of what’s going on, these three guys express it all.
The screenwriter, Ernest Tidyman (adapting the book by Robin Moore), also got himself an Oscar for The French Connection. I can’t speak for the book, but Tidyman brings something of a proto-Mamet script to this movie. There’s this running thing where Popeye keeps asking people if they pick their feet and I haven’t got a clue what it means, but it’s just hilarious. Just like Mamet, it’s sharp and incisive, packed with subtext and knowledge. The plot is also well constructed for the most part and gives plenty of material for friends to discuss. The one, tiny issue that I have with this movie is the very end that gives a rundown of what happens to the characters against a freeze frame of their faces. It’s a device that’s become a little hackneyed and would have been nicer over moving images or no text at all. After giving the audience that much credit, it delivers the ending a little baldly.
You may have heard about the chase sequence in The French Connection and how it’s famously terrific. If you haven’t, well, now you have. There are actually two chases. The first, which is more of a simple tailing of the bad guys through the city, is a great procedural moment. They walk, they wait, they walk some more. It builds up the legitimacy of the movie. Knowing a little more New York now, it’s funny to see how geographically crazy that scene can be. They’re at the southeast corner of Central Park one second, and then in Grand Central subway terminal the next. Oh well. The second scene is a car/subway chase which is the really famous one (as is the chase scene from Bullitt (1968) if you’re building up your chase scene vocabulary). This sequence must go on for fifteen or twenty minutes and is incredibly thrilling.
One movie I’m reminded of when I watched The French Connection was the John Frankenheimer movie Ronin (1998). They’re both highly professional, show-don’t-tell, both have huge chase sequences and have a great buddy dynamic central to the story. Let’s see what the Frankenheimer did with the sequel, French Connection II.
Also, you might have noticed that the picture I used for this review was not the English-language movie poster, but the Japanese one. It just captures the mood of the film so much better.