Sunday, August 5, 2012

1971 - The French Connection

It's not often the timing works out that one of the nominees from a year I'm currently reviewing happens to be scheduled for a retrospective screening in New York City during that time. Such was the case with the next subject of review, which had a one-day only engagement at BAM Rose Cinemas, which, if memory serves, is a Matt vs. the Academy first. Of course, had I been speedier with my look at the rest of the nominees, I would have been entirely finished with the current year of review and missed the opportunity all together. In any case, it certainly was a thrill to see this picture up on the big screen. In fact, I worry that it may give this film an unfair advantage in my final verdict, since the experience of watching a movie in a darkened cinema is far more all-engrossing than watching on a smaller screen at home, susceptible to all sorts of distractions.

Advantage or not, here are my musings on this nominee from the 1971 Best Picture race...

The French Connection
William Friedkin
Ernest Tidyman
(based on the book by Robin Moore)
Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
5 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor (Hackman)

Narcotics cop "Popeye" Doyle (Hackman) and his partner Russo (Scheider) become suspicious of small business owner Sal Boca (Lo Bianco) after they witness him entertaining mob men known for drug trafficking. Acting on a hunch, they trail Boca, following lead after lead, eventually uncovering a drug smuggling ring, headed by French crime boss Alain Charnier (Rey). Committed and determined, Doyle leads the charge to bust Charnier and his henchmen, at often dangerously high risk.

Gritty and realistic, The French Connection delivers an almost documentary-style story, complete with shaky, hand-held camera work and voyeuristic, fly-on-the-wall long shots. Everything is raw and unpolished from the performances to the design. Even the film print I saw was dirty. I realise, of course, that the Blu-ray is probably crystal clear, but the graininess of the film print actually seemed strangely appropriate for this picture, possibly even enhancing the viewing experience.

The details of the drug ring central to the plot may be complex but, at its heart, The French Connection employs a solidly simple cops-and-robbers story, or more accurately, cops-and-drug-traffickers. Most of the scenes consist of some variation of a cop following a criminal, whether it's tailing an alleged conspirator or an out-and-out chase scene, and consequently, the tension is extremely high throughout. Of particular note is the suspensefully amusing on-the-train, off-the-train sequence when Doyle unsuccessfully follows Charnier into the subway. And, of course, later comes the legendary chase scene which begins with Doyle flagging down a passing motorist and hijacking his car, a Hollywood cliche that is thankfully forgotten quickly as the chase gets under way. Then comes some of the most exhilarating few minutes ever committed to celluloid as we follow along in the backseat of the car as it careens underneath an elevated track attempting to keep up with the speeding train above. Listening to director William Friedkin and others talk about the making of this sequence, it's easy to understand why it feels so spectacularly authentic.

If there's one gripe I have about The French Connection, it would have to be the conclusion. I have talked about unsatisfying endings a fair amount in the past, but this picture's ending really takes the cake. It could even be said that it doesn't really have an ending. We spend almost the entire film watching Doyle and his colleagues chase the bad guys only to have a caption inform us that the main antagonist escaped and was never found. Not only that but in the final nail-biting scene, Doyle accidentally fatally shoots one of his own team, and the closing credits begin less than a minute later with barely an acknowledgement of the severity of such a turn of events, let alone a resolution. Luckily, the rest of the film is so profoundly engrossing. Plus, there's the fact that the story is loosely based on real events, so I suppose I should be more lenient.

As I mentioned, the performances are emotionally pure and candid with a distinct improvisational feel, adding to the documentary style of the picture. It is Gene Hackman's (pictured) film, however, and he is nothing short of sublime, well deserving of his Best Actor Oscar for this role. For the trivia buffs, Eddie Egan, the real cop on whom the character of Doyle is based, appears as the detectives' supervisor, Walt Simonson. Egan's real-life partner, Sonny Grosso, himself the basis for the Russo character, also appears in a minor role.

1 comment:

  1. When I saw The French Connection during its fall release in 1971 I had just completed my second year as a Miami Police Officer. The movie was a huge hit with all my young colleagues as was Dirty Harry, released a few months later. Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan’s methods sat just fine with us back then. They were taking care of the bad guys. To the liberal media, they were fascists who stomped on civil rights. I still do not agree with some of the critics, but can see the lack of social skills and humanity easier today. Being from New York, I could really identify with the story and setting of The French Connection. As a matter of fact, I lived about 50 feet from the el train where Popeye shot the French sniper, just two more stops down the line.

    I guess after hundreds of episodes of NYPD Blue, Law and Order and a few other TV series, people viewing The French Connection today may not appreciate how innovative it was. William Friedkin keeps the movie moving forward, while spending the time on some lengthy surveillance scenes – all done very authentically. I really liked the two pronged approach to the story. I felt for a freezing Popeye eating a cold slice of pizza while Frog 1 and Frog 2 dined on escargot and chateaubriand across 1st Avenue from him.

    Gene Hackman was terrific. I’m glad stuck to his California accent and didn’t try to force a New York one. Listening to the real Eddie Egan, it would have been hard. I’m not sure Hackman ever changed his voice much in any of his roles. Hackman was about the eighth choice behind Peter Boyle, James Caan, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Breslin. It made him a star.

    I have about a fifteen year collection of Mad Magazines from the mid-sixties to about 1980. I keep them mostly for their great movie satires. For 1971 they spoofed A Clockwork Orange (A Crockwork Lemon), Fiddler on the Roof (Fiddler Made a Goof) and The French Connection, which they cleverly retitled What’s the Connection? They consistently bring up scenes that don’t seem to make much sense such as the one where Popeye and Buddy stop by an extremely gory accident scene just to get chewed out by their boss. (“Oh, wow! Who was killed? Cockeye? Birdie? Someone vital to the plot? Naw! It’s just that there’s been no violence for nearly 90 seconds so we stuck in this plain old bloody, gory, disgusting car wreck! Yeah, but what’s the connection?") They also find Frog 1’s escape from an island and about a hundred cops pretty hard to fathom. One scene that I had some issues with was the sniper shooting at Popeye just as he is next to a woman with a baby carriage. Couldn’t he have waited another five seconds? I guess it was more motivation for Popeye to shoot him in the back later on. Friedkin has said that the movie was made in the editing room. Perhaps an over-simplification, but it was easily the best edited movie of the year.

    It was nice to see another police themed movie win Best Picture after In the Heat of the Night broke the ice a few years earlier.