Sunday, April 14, 2013

The French Connection - 1971

"The French Connection" - 1971
Dir. by William Friedkin - 1 hr. 44 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Movies from different eras are paced very, very differently.  "The French Connection" is a perfect example of this: the actual content of the film is largely watching Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner tailing people for about an hour, then there's a fantastic car chase scene, then they get back to tailing people, and then there's a shoot-out at the end.  The pretense is that there is a mammoth shipment of incredibly pure heroin being shipped into New York City from Marseilles (the streets are as dry as can be, so this will be very welcome), and Doyle catches on to this enormous, tenuous deal (although not the details).

"The French Connection" is an interesting movie for more than just it's famous car chase scene (but I will get to that shortly).  It's not shot in a documentary style at all (or at least not in the sense that it's come to mean), but we get to learn about the characters almost solely through their actions, which are shown in a no-nonsense style.  That means there aren't any scenes of people chatting about other people, we pretty much only see characters conducting their business.  No narration, no flashbacks, just French people conspiring to bring a batch of heroin into the States, and Popeye and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) trying to stop it. We learn along the way that Doyle is not entirely liked, or likable  that Russo isn't his first partner, but that Doyle is dogged in his pursuit once he catches a whiff of something in the air.  And almost as importantly, he's rash and explosive, which has consequences.

Gene Hackman had a number of very good films and roles to his credit, but Doyle is my favorite.  Unless you're old enough to have been following him since this time period, it might come as a surprise that he could believably play a roughneck cop with a real physical presence.  The approach to how the story unfolds mirrors Doyle's character; he doesn't pause to reflect, he just acts on hunches.  And most importantly, he makes things happen.  This plays out over and over again, from him pressing his police chief for wiretaps, to his unseen seduction of a pretty bicyclist, to the entire car chase scene, to his actions in the shoot-out at the end.

But also, that's one hell of a car chase.  If you haven't seen "The French Connection," it might be worth the entire hour forty-five just to see it in it's natural habitat.  After one of the Frenchmen tries to snipe Doyle outside of his apartment building, Doyle tries to chase him down on foot, which leads to a elevated train station in Brooklyn.  The Frenchman ends up on a train, so Doyle commandeers a Pontiac LeMans, and chases down the train from below.  The entire sequence is a visceral thrill, including footage shot from a bumper-mounted camera.  In an era prior to first-person shooters and racing video games, this car chase scene was as close as most people could get to actually being in a high-speed chase through city streets, swerving through traffic and trying to avoid pedestrians.  I'm not saying that "The French Connection" contains the greatest car chase ever committed to film (I'm sticking by "Bullitt"), but I am saying that it's not far off.  It's top three, for sure, and even if you don't care for cop movies, that scene is enough to justify the entire film.

Thankfully, this is a much better movie than just the one car chase.  Although it's played out on a longer string than you'd see today, "The French Connection" successfully builds tension up, releases it, and then starts building again.  Director William Friedkin takes a very patient approach with the story knowing that he's got the goods to deliver.  The characters in the film are neither sympathetic or unsympathetic; there's very little attempt to force the audience one way or another in that regard.  Doyle is the protagonist (although you'd probably feel differently if you frequented one of the bars that he and Russo shake down routinely), but he doesn't behave in a moralistic manner.  He also doesn't try to charm his way out of anyone's judgment towards him; he drinks, he pulls tail, he uses language that his grandkids would cringe at.  But he's pretty good at what he does, even when blurring lines, and he's got it in his head that he's not going to be defeated by any damned Frogs (how he routinely refers to the French contingent in the film).  The bad guys are similarly not into spinning anyone's perception of them; Alain (Fernando Rey) is almost stereo-typically French, but he's not spitting off bonmots and mincing.  He's there to make a deal which will yield a great return, and in order to be in the position to pull such a thing off, he's pretty slippery.  This deadpan approach means that you're going to spend a lot of time watching the fuse burn: conflict between the two sides is inevitable.  And when it finally comes, it's spectacular.

4 / 5 - TV

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