The French Connection (1971) August 9, 2009Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
Tags: Fernando Rey, Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, William Friedkin
A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2009
All cliches, even the most annoying, used to be brilliant artistic innovations. That is the impression some older yet celebrated films might give when watched from today’s perspective. One of such examples is THE FRENCH CONNECTION, 1971 crime thriller directed by William Friedkin. Hailed by critics and awarded by Oscar, this film is often mentioned as one of the great triumphs of 1970s New Hollywood and one of the most influential films ever made. Yet, younger generations of viewers, being previously exposed to multitude of films being influenced by THE FRENCH CONNECTION, won’t be aware of its impact.
The script by Ernest Tidyman was based on the non-fiction book by Robin Moore about 1960s international heroin smuggling operation and efforts of New York Police Department to end it. The protagonist, based on real-life policeman, is NYPD detective James “Popeye” Doyle (played by Gene Hackman) who wages his own war on drugs by harassing and arresting hundreds of small-time heroin dealers. Doyle, together with his partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (played by Roy Scheider), stumbles on information about large heroin shipment arriving in New York. They start following local Mafia-connected dealers and notice presence of Alain Charnier (played by Fernando Rey), businessman from Marseille who came to personally supervise the deal. Doyle is determined to catch Charnier, while Charnier is determined to finish the deal, even when aware of police investigation. All that leads to increasingly violent confrontation between the two.
Most people tend to associate THE FRENCH CONNECTION with legendary car chase scene. In that scene Friedkin has set the standards for all future action directors to meet, including himself in his later and under-appreciated action thriller TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. This scene is still impressive after four decades, and not because it is spectacular, but because it is realistic. The audience feels thrilled because what happens during that chase looks and sounds like something that could happen in real life. The man who chases and man being chased are hardly supermen; they make mistakes and the outcome of the race is accidental rather than product of someone’s superior skills.
The realism that made that scene effective is the very same thing that made entire film look revolutionary and fresh to early 1970s audiences. In Friedkin’s case, this was one of more iconoclastic manifestations of New Hollywood. He rejected classic Hollywood escapism and offering alternative in gritty portrayals of contemporary America. This new realism could be seen in use of depressing New York locations, as well as in casting of Gene Hackman, actor who lacked movie star looks, in lead role. The protagonist he plays is hardly a classic Hollywood hero – he gets drunk, uses racist slurs, shows utter disregard for public safety and makes mistakes, some even with catastrophic consequences.
This impression is underlined by casting Fernando Rey as his opponent. Highly respected Spanish actor plays Charnier as a complete opposite of Doyle. At times he is even more likable than protagonist. French smuggler might sell lethal drugs, but he is portrayed as refined, well-spoken and well-beheaved European gentleman who would feel home even at most prestigious social events. One of the best scene occurs during surveillance of Charnier – while he dines in expensive restaurant, Doyle is freezing and feeling hungry in the street. This scene probably spawned one of the more enduring cliches of 1970s and 1980s police films – street-smart but unsophisticated American blue-collar policemen vs. rich, powerful, elegant, well-educated and sophisticated European crime lords.
This scene also gives plenty of hints about filmmakers’ worldview, which is uncompromisingly pessimistic for Hollywood standard. In the world of THE FRENCH CONNECTION crime pays, and the fight against crime, which is always fought by imperfect characters like Doyle, seems pointless; drug dealers get arrested only to be released or replaced by another, even more vicious drug dealers. This bleak view could be seen in ending which looks surprising and unconventional even after almost four decades.
The age, which is often one of the worst enemy of good films, didn’t harm THE FRENCH CONNECTION, at least not so much. Early 1970s setting, for example, in some ways work for film’s advantage. When policemen, not equipped with cell phones, are forced to use low-tech methods of surveillance, their otherwise mundane job looks more exciting. On the other hand, music by Don Ellis often sounds underwhelming and diminishes otherwise good impression of the film. Despite that, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is still well-acted, well-written and brilliantly directed film that could be recommended even to those viewers with little interest in history of cinema.