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
(based on the book by Robin Moore)
Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman
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.
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.