The French Connection
Many films become hits, others go beyond to the status of cult classics but only a few are so influential that it changes the way its genre is considered. For the crime thriller one film that made such a contribution was ‘The French Connection’. It hit the theaters in 1971 and cop flicks have never been the same. This film showed police work in a way that was rarely seen back then; hours of tedium punctuated by a few moments of break neck action. The movie has some scenes that would become fodder for many imitators but none would ever come close to replicating the finesse and expert craftsmanship demonstrated here. One of the greatest aspects of this film is how seamlessly suspense, thrills and drama are blended together. ‘The French Connection’ elevated the crime thriller to level of realism that helped to usher in a new age for the genre. Many previous cop flicks were good, some even managed to be excellent but this film depended on the intelligent writing as much as the amazing action sequences. It is a platform for an Academy Award winning performance from its star Gene Hackman and is considered among his finest work which is saying a lot considering the long and illustrious career he has had. The movie also took home the coveted golden statue for its director, writer, producer and editor as well. There is a simple reason why this film is on at least four different top one hundred lists; it is just that great a movie. Not only it is well crafted it is incredible fun to watch. It is difficult to believe that this film is now some 38 years old. I first saw this in the theaters during my freshman year of college and it blew us away. Now, Almost four decades later as I watched the new Blu-ray release it was just as great as that initial viewing. Some movies deserve to be maintained on the best possible home theater format available. I have had a copy of this film on video tape and got it again when the widescreen VHS hit the market and naturally once again in DVD. Fox has been re-releasing some popular classic movies and high definition and have added this film to the set. They also released the sequel at the same time and even though it was not up to the original it is worth getting for a fantastic double feature movie night with your friends and family. When you are tired of the mindless, blood laden flicks that pass for a crime thriller lately go back to the source and pop this in your player. This is a blueprint for how a film like this should be done.
The source of the screenplay was based on the best selling novel by Robin Moore. ‘The French Connection’ was the largest narcotics trafficking organization in the world and was responsible for much of the heroin in the United States by making it more prevalent and available than ever. Handling the actual scripting chores was Ernest Tidyman who took home an Oscar for his work. Tidyman was no stranger to providing acclaimed screenplay as shown by his work on ‘High Plains Drifter’ and ‘Shaft’. In fact he dedicated much of his career to the character of John Shaft writing the original movie, episodes of the short lived television series and the novel used as the basis for the 2000 remake. The remarkable, groundbreaking aspect of this story is how Tidyman shows the juxtaposition of the banal with excitement that is part of the life of a narcotics detective. Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) spend endless hours on stakeouts waiting for the criminal to make his move. The story then bursts into action as the detectives corner the crook. This was one of the first times police work was shown in quite so realistic a light. In one memorable scene Popeye waits in the cold night stamping his well worn brown shoes to keep warm as the criminals in enjoy a lush meal in a fine restaurant. He also juggled several plot lines perfectly adding to the suspense of the piece. There were scenes with the high level drug dealers as they plot to move unthinkable quantities of heroin across national borders. Then there was the efforts of a criminal wannabe here in New York City scrambling to put together a half million dollars to start the enterprise in motion. Last there was a look into the personal life of Doyle as a man who scarf iced any semblance of a personal life for a case based mostly on a hunch. The focus and dedication that was Popeye Doyle only reflected the same qualities in Tidyman.
William Friedkin was a man who is best known as a director for reinventing film genres. He made one of the first mainstream gay oriented films with ‘The Boys in the Band’ and brought the horror film to unprecedented heights with his direction of ‘The Exorcist’. Much of his early and later work would be with made for television movies which go to show that many greatly talented directors have come from this often derided type of film. In this movie Freidkin helped to create the documentary style of presenting a crime story. The picture is frequently grainy is a stark color palette that reinforced the sense of realism for the audience. He also employed the use of hand held cameras foregoing the more typical mounted camera. This allowed him to get up closes and personal with the characters; especially important during the action sequences. Friedkin will also forever be remembered for one of the greatest car chase scenes in the history of cinema. When Popeye commandeers a car to chase an elevated subway train through the streets of Brooklyn you are treated to one of the most exciting times even shown on film. The tension mounts as the car careens through traffic and pedestrians as the train races on above it. As a life long inhabitant of New York City this is one of my favorite films due to the fact that the city is treated as one of the characters. I have been down the streets shown, eaten at the subway drink stand that is used and brought hot dogs from carts on the same streets as the characters here and this is certainly a feeling shared by millions of fans of this movie.
The main nemesis of Popeye Doyle is Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) who is the mastermind behind the trafficking scheme. He is everything that Doyle is not; rich, happily married and able to fit into the most urbane social situation. He ahs a plan to move the drugs by getting a well known star of French television to get a car loaded with hidden drugs through customs. The heroin is so incredibly pure that the half a million will become over $70 million once it is cut and distributed on the streets. Doyle and Russo are forced to work with a federal agent Mulderig (Bill Hickman) who shares a mutual hatred of Doyle that stems back to a failed bust years before. When the agent wants to give up Doyle just becomes more determined than ever to get to the bottom of the ring.
I have seen this film in every format possible over the years and none were anywhere as good as this Blu-ray edition. The video is grainy by design but the color palette used in wonderfully rich and textured. The contrast between the sea side locations in France with the crowded streets of New York has never been so stark and notable. The audio is presented in DTS HD and does its job but is not the best representative of this format. This most likely is due to the use of the original audio elements for this sound track. The channel separate is excellent, especially during times where there is movement from one side of the screen to the other. The rear speakers provide simple ambience instead of having a life of their own and the sub woofer is mostly unused. This did give more of a feel to watching this in a theater of the seventies so I greatly enjoyed it. The Blu-ray presentation is a tow disc set rich with extras to add to you enjoyment. Even if you own an older copy of this film it is time to move up with this latest edition.