Tuesday, August 25, 2015

BLIND SPOT #6: The French Connection

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know this wasn't on my original list. But it was playing at Film Forum and I'm playing catch-up with this project as it is, so I decided to take it in and write it up.

It's my blog. I'll do what I want!

This one had me hooked right from the blaring score and quick zoom-in title card. It announces itself as an exciting thriller right from the start, and damn if it doesn't deliver on that promise. The beginning, though, plays a little uneasy now: Within the first five minutes, Gene Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle runs down and assaults a black man after a surprise raid on a bar in a black neighborhood. The "n word" is used. A lot. And with all that's been happening recently, it made me more that a little uncomfortable; it felt like something that couldn't be explained away with the old "oh, but it was a different time," excuse. Doyle's casual racism is only denounced by his partner (Roy Scheider! Why didn't I know he was in this movie?!?) long past the point where it loses its effectiveness with their perp. In a film that wasn't very good, it would be difficult to get over it. But thankfully, The French Connection is a VERY good film, and elsewhere... what riches!

Friedkin is a master of suspense, very nearly on par with Hitchcock. It's what gives Bug such a creepy-crawly feeling of inevitable tragedy, and what saves The Exorcist from some questionable acting. The two centerpiece scenes here are terrific edge-of-your-seat, sweaty-palmed mini-masterpieces. I'm talking, of course, about the two scenes involving the subway. One underground on a platform, where Doyle plays cat-and-mouse with the crime ring's mastermind (the great Fernando Rey), and the other, the film's famous car chase, in which Doyle isn't chasing a man in another car, but rather a man in a subway on elevated tracks. The platform scene ends with the above shot - Rey's perfect smirk and wave at Doyle, letting him know that he was onto the policeman the entire time (even better: it apparently happened just this way in real life). It's a thrilling moment at the same time as it's utterly depressing - how are they ever going to catch this guy?

But Doyle catches a break later when a sniper meant to assassinate him misses and goes on the run. Doyle misses him on the subway, but commandeers a car on the street (every single person in the screening laughed at this) and chases the train to its next stop. It's easily one of the best car chases ever filmed, looking like it's taking place on real city streets that haven't been blocked off (and in fact, some weren't - Hackman actually did almost hit one car and was sent spiraling into a pole). It's so good actually, that when Doyle finally catches up with the guy, as he's coming down the stairs, thinking he got away scot-free, I actually was still on the edge of my seat, convinced that he wasn't going to get his man. Of course he does, in memorable fashion.

The film also gets at the mundanity of being a police officer in subtle ways I've never seen before: Check Doyle's gloves when they're on stakeout, all tattered and hole-y... actually, check all of the scenes when they're on stakeout, doing nothing but watching and waiting, outside in a city where it's seemingly always winter. Even the scene where they strip a car looking for drugs feel more procedural than exciting. But in that mundanity, Friedkin somehow finds deep wells of suspense. He's helped, of course, by a ferocious performance from Hackman, who tears through just about every scene he's in even if he's standing silent. He's a jumpy bundle of pent-up angry energy, an absolute live-wire, and compulsively watchable despite his questionable morals. Pairing him with Scheider, always a thoughtful, grounding presence, was a brilliant choice.

The French Connection more than lives up to its reputation as a killer police thriller. It is full to bursting with fantastic location shots of New York City, and the grittiness those provide makes the film feel even more authentic. Since the police officers who investigated the original case were involved in all aspects of production (the real-life Doyle plays movie-Doyle's Chief), it had that authenticity going for it already, but the location shooting really adds so much to this. You almost feel like a fly on the wall of the entire city watching this investigation unfold, something that is even now all too rare in films. Unlike In The Heat of the Night, which was released only four years earlier and really shows its age, The French Connection still feels as fresh as the day it was released.
The French Connection
Year: 1971
Directed by: William Friedkin
Screenplay by: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco
Oscar: 5 WINS - Best Picture, Director, Actor (Hackman), Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. Nominations for Supporting Actor (Scheider lost to Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show), Cinematography (Owen Roizman lost to Fiddler on the Roof), and Sound (also lost to Fiddler on the Roof).
Rating: *****


  1. Nice write up! I think I actually have this on my prelim list for Blind Spots next year. It's one I definitely should've seen by now. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

    1. UGH it's SO GOOD. Definitely do it for Blind Spot next year. You won't regret it.

  2. Glad you caught up with this. It is a seminal film of the 70's and what film making was like at that time. Hackman is so very good, no one quite matches his work because he's inimitable but Scheider and Rey come close. Funny it's what was considered fast paced at the time but now seems measured in tone.

    Since you really enjoyed this and if you haven't seen it I'd recommend the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It was made around the same time and has a similar vibe to this, Walter Matthau is all kinds of terrific in the lead.

    1. I LOVE The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. I even thought the remake with John Travolta and Denzel Washington was good.

      It's weird, because the film is very measured overall, but individual sequences are very fast-paced.

  3. I totally felt the same way about this film the first time I saw it. Alas, it has been years, and I really need to revisit it to discuss it with any real authority. But I 100% remember how "fresh" this movie felt. I remember loving the quick zoom-ins (the classic 70s surveillance feel). Perfect movie. And a badass BP winner. Great write-up!

    1. Right on about the "classic 70s surveillance feel". I sometimes wish that would make a comeback.

      It's such an atypical Best Picture winner, but it's also one of the most deserving Best Picture winners ever. It is absolutely PERFECT at what it does.