French Connection, The (1971)
Release Date: October 9th, 1971 MPAA Rating: R
Director: William Friedkin Actors: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Frederic De Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Ann Rebbot, Arlene Farber
side from boasting perhaps the finest chase scene ever filmed (which, quite innovatively, does not involve two vehicles on the same plane), William Friedkin’s “The French Connection” is an outstanding cop thriller that mixes the grittiness of Brooklyn’s lowlife underworld (drug dealers and law enforcement alike) with shocking violence (riddled with fake blood), humorously saturnine dialogue, and a documentary-like approach to cinematography (employing obvious handheld techniques, labeled “induced documentary” filmmaking by the director). It’s one of the most entertaining endeavors at portraying a fictionalized true story through the fattening up of a nonfiction basis with considerable creative liberties (adapted by Ernest Tidyman from the book by Robin Moore) and is easily more successful because of those alterations and exaggerations. Nabbing the Best Picture Oscar for 1971 is foremost evidence of the winning formula.
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are hard-as-nails New York cops working tirelessly to uncover a drug smuggling ring with a mysterious French link. Tailing shady Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) leads to several disreputable accomplices and a narcotics exchange intricately set up by criminal mastermind Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who is bringing in high quality heroin from Marseilles. When Alain discovers Doyle’s investigation is getting too close, he has right-hand man Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi) attempt to kill him. Sending in the assassinative sniper cues the fast-paced, expertly shot, and stunningly realistic chase (a commandeered car in pursuit of an elevated rapid transit train) for which “The French Connection” is most famous, and sets in motion an obsessive, personal vendetta and pursual of the illegal compound and the cagey Frenchman – no matter the cost.
Popeye’s porkpie hat is almost as symbolic as Indiana Jones’ fedora. The look, tone, and editing techniques (Gerald B. Greenberg picked up an Academy Award for his work) would forever influence true crime and gangster flicks; subsequent improvements in special effects and cameras still can’t top the genuineness here of the settings, the dogged compulsiveness of the detective, and the uncompromising contrast of urban squalor versus unaffected, loftier affluency (and at other times, the similarities between protagonists and antagonists). In a perfect moment of irony, Charnier feasts on an exquisite meal at a fancy restaurant while Doyle eats pizza from a bag in the freezing cold.
The dialogue also packs gall and acerbity. Doyle interrogates suspects and contacts indistinguishably through bewildering, confusing phrases (as well as police brutality and bullets); naturalistic, improvisational exchanges, filled with cynicism or racism, regularly occur between the gruff policeman and his loyal partner; and even silent duels between hunter and prey take place as they switch capacities and throw one another off the scent. Hackman especially offers up a tour de force performance as a conflicted antihero in the vein of Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt, but with even greater realism and bite, and would be recognized for his efforts with one of the film’s five Oscars.
In many ways, the film is a series of pursuits – some inside careening projectiles, some on foot, and others of the observational, visual kind, like a stakeout or a sting. But stalking his target is a fixation for Doyle that cannot be satiated by a simple apprehension; the finale, in fact, involves something of a botched confrontation that ultimately results in tragedy and frustration. For the audience, too, the intrigue of the investigation, the mystery, and the thrill of the hunt are vastly more satisfying than the abrupt conclusion. And yet, from the opening scene of the film – the murder of someone getting too close to Charnier’s business – to the gunning down of a thug (an iconic still image used for the theatrical poster), to the final seconds of disorder and denial, “The French Connection” is an undeniable masterpiece of raw, provocative crime drama realism.
– Mike Massie