If you scroll along the right side of this blog, you will notice that much of my movie viewing for this site falls into the 21st century. Most every year from pre-2000 is represented going back to the 1920s, but there is no doubt that there is a modern tilt to my movie viewing. So far, for whatever reason, 2013 has been a little bit different. THE FRENCH CONNECTION marks my 18th viewing of the young year. From those 18 movies we have: 1910s (1), 1930s (1), 1950s (1), 1960s (2), 1970s (2), 1980s (4), the 2000s (2), and the 2010s (5). 11 of 18 movies, thus far, have been 20th century films. What does that mean? Well, I’ve gotten a chance to hit up some things I’ve always wanted to see, but never have. THE FRENCH CONNECTION certainly falls under that category.
I watched THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) on 2.2.13. It was my first viewing of the film.
Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a cop in Brooklyn with instincts. They may not always be right, but he has instincts. He and his partner Russo (Roy Scheider) work the narcotics beat with free rein to pull in who they would like, and work the angles they would like. Doyle gets it in his head that a young business owner, Sal (Tony Lo Bianco), is into something big. He fights to get some wire taps and start surveillance on this kid and his associates.
The tone of this movie is dark and dreary. This isn’t a love letter to the beauty of the New York City, the way Woody Allen’s MANHATTAN would be a few years later. The streets of Brooklyn are dirty, unkempt, and rough. Nobody proclaims their love for the city, and nobody talks about what it is they are all fighting for. Instead, the city is a necessity born out of a large number of people living in one place.
Popeye Doyle is much more of the sort of flawed protagonist of Film Noir than a straight-laced action star. While this film takes place almost entirely in the day time, it would be comfortable living in the 40s universe where detectives are free to do as they please, and if they have to rough up a few guys to do it well… so be it. Popeye drops racial epitaphs on just about every group he encounters. He has little regard for women, at least in this film which generally has little need for them. Popeye makes mistakes. But his ‘gut’ hits enough times to make him a success as the entire picture plays out.
While the focus of this movie turns out to be a war on drugs (shortly before Nixon created a capitalized War on Drugs), the film itself doesn’t think much of that war. Take a look at who lives and dies in this film. Consider who is punished, and who is forgiven. The foreigner with little effect on the actual drug-deal gets it worst, and he doesn’t get it all that bad. Doyle does take one guy out, but it is someone who is an established murderer. Ultimately, the people who get it worst are the innocent bystanders who are the victims of a sniper’s rifle. The movie saves its most shocking gore for a couple of people in a car accident who have absolutely no bearing on the plot of the film whatsoever. The bigger point, then, is that the war on drugs may make for interesting copy, and for an interesting story, but it doesn’t make a difference.
It’s a depressing take, but one which is mitigated by an otherwise exciting movie. While this does enjoy a 70s slow pace for the most part, the scenes of cops trailing criminals are fascinating to watch. Long before the ease of wireless communication connecting all participants of a tailing, these guys have to watch each other and rotate wordlessly as they are discovered by their target. It is fascinating to watch, and it feels authentic.
The movie is famous for its car chase as Popeye tries to stay in front of an overhead train. The filming is dangerous, intense, and effective. It was lauded as the best chase scene of its time, and it still holds up extremely well over closed-track speed and CGI explosions. The dings and dents Popeye gives his car (well, the one he requisitioned), can be felt as they are collected. Indeed, one was actually unplanned as a gentleman leaving for work had no idea a car chase was being filmed. It was left in because it looked and felt real. Try and figure out which one it was without knowing, and you would be hard-pressed because all of the chase is just that powerful.
Director William Friedkin is much more acclaimed as the director of THE EXORCIST, but for my money this is a better example of his work. THE EXORCIST is powerful, no doubt. But THE FRENCH CONNECTION has an authenticity that goes well beyond the fact that it is based on a true story (the detective Popeye was based upon plays the officer in charge in FRENCH CONNECTION to add another layer of reality). In fact, it is said that much of the script was improvised based on ‘officer speak’ and that often things rolled out as they happened. There is some irony to be found there, since this won the Oscar for Adapted Screenplay (a well as Oscars for BEST PICTURE, BEST ACTOR, BEST DIRECTOR, and BEST EDITING).
This is a role unlike any Hackman has played. Popeye is intense and brutal, but not mean-spirited. He’s a tornado in an already windy world. He would be an outcast, a criminal even, in a small town. In New York City he is merely a bit eccentric. Other guys don’t like him, but they roll their eyes at him. This is a complete 180 from the character Hackman would play a few years later in THE CONVERSATION. I’ve always appreciated him as an actor, but THE FRENCH CONNECTION puts him up in that next level. I just wish I had seen it sooner.
FILM: 9; MOVIE: 8; ACTING: 9; WRITING: 7; BONUS: 1
I do have to give a bonus point for that car chase. It really was spectacular to behold.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5