The Best Picture winner that perhaps more than any film infused a grit and jadedness into the crime film/detective thriller genre, The French Connection continues to impress almost 40 years after it was made. What was genuinely shocking to 1971 audiences now plays impressively realistic today. Authentic and deglamorized, it has more in common with the 1969 documentary Salesman than, say, the Frank Sinatra detective picture Lady in Cement.
Fox's Blu-ray is loaded with terrific extras but the transfer is a horse of a different color, literally. While the film has never looked so clean and sharp its release is also highly problematic: Director William Friedkin has completely altered the look by simultaneously over-saturating and defocusing the color and adding a black & white element, resulting in what at times becomes a smear of pastels. What's on this disc is not an accurate representation of what audiences saw when it was new, nor for that matter could this really even be considered the same film that won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In all essentials this is the same kind of colorization directors like Friedkin (and maybe Friedkin himself) used to rake Ted Turner over the coals for, the destruction of classic films via a process the vast majority of filmmakers and historians vehemently oppose. Friedkin seems to think the effect is "very subtle," which it is some but not all of the time, and he'd argue that it's his film and that he has the right to tinker with it however he wants - but it's a more complicated issue than that.
Set in New York, The French Connection is based on a non-fiction book (not a novel) by Robin Moore. At a popular nightclub police detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman), accompanied by his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), gets a hunch about a minor ex-con-turned-coffeeshop owner named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) who's seen lavishly entertaining mobsters in the narcotics trade.
Investigating further, word on the street is that a major heroin shipment in due in any day, and Popeye suspects Boca may be engineering the deal. He and Cloudy wiretap Boca's phone lines and stakeout his diner, and a cynical federal agent with a hatred for Doyle, Mulderig (a good, mean performance by stuntman Bill Hickman, who also helped stage the movie's famous car chase) is assigned to the case.
Meanwhile, French shipping executive Alain Charnier (Spaniard Fernando Rey) has 120 lbs. of heroin hidden in a Lincoln Continental - shouldn't it be a Peugeot or something? - that's in the name of famous French actor Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale). The vehicle, Devereaux, Charnier and his enforcer, Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), travel to New York in preparation for the sale to Boca's gangsters.
What's most impressive looking at The French Connection now is the way it so deglamorizes absolutely everything. The city is a filthy wasteland of automobile graveyards, rotting abandoned buildings, and cold concrete sidewalks. This is the real, pre-gentrified New York, not the romanticized one of films like On the Town, and not one imagined by Hollywood set decorators or CGI animators. The work of a police detective is unappealing; tailing suspects they freeze their asses off drinking bad coffee and eating worse pizza while their suspects luxuriously dine on pricey French cuisine.
It's also refreshing to see a film of such moral ambiguity and an investigation where clever plans on both sides are constantly in danger of totally unraveling. Like Masayuki Mori's executive in Akira Kurosawa's The Bad Sleep Well, Charnier is a bad man who has people murdered but he's also a good and doting husband. Conversely, Popeye Doyle is a dedicated cop but he seems motivated by the adrenaline rush and has a big chip on his shoulder, like Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground. He's also a racist (as many of the NYC cops seem to be) easily capable of crossing the line and abusing his power.
Much of the film involves Doyle tailing the slippery Charnier, and Friedkin's direction here is outstanding. Without ever explaining it, Friedkin expresses visually to the audience the strategies of the police in tailing the three key suspects, and we can also see how they cleverly try to elude the men following them.
After about 15 years of caper films, in which extremely complex and ingenious crimes are expertly executed only to have some unforeseen detail ruin everything in the end, and slick detective films starring Cool Cats like Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, much of The French Connection is about people repeatedly screwing up. The heroin deal hangs by a thread and is put together on the New York end by a relative amateur. Doyle is regarded by many on the force as a major screw-up, and the film's denouement is deeply cynical, implying Doyle's bust in the larger scheme of things accomplished next to nothing. Though New York City has changed a lot, the film's nihilism has become fashionable again, just as many of its early '70s fashions have become popular once more. (Popeye Doyle must have been about the last movie detective to wear a hat.)
Video & Audio...and the Controversy
The Controversy: Friedkin's decision to create a new version of The French Connection, however sincerely he might insist that it moves the film closer to his "original vision," ultimately is counterproductive. I'd be interested to know what Friedkin had to say back when Ted Turner and others began colorizing classic films like The Maltese Falcon and It's a Wonderful Life (at the time, the latter film wasn't much older than French Connection is now). I'd imagine his argument would be that John Huston and Frank Capra, the directors of those films, opposed it and therefore their wishes should be respected.
But who's the auteur, who gets to alter producer-dominated films like The Empire Strikes Back - the director, Irvin Kershner, or the executive producer, George Lucas? Who gets the final say on the aspect ratios of Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor - their directors, Francis Ford Coppola and Bernardo Bertolucci, or their cinematographer, Vittorio Storaro?
One of the complaints about Friedkin's alterations to The French Connection is that cinematographer Owen Roizman reportedly wasn't even consulted about the Blu-ray version and was "appalled" with the results, according to a USA Today article. Should cinematographers have "veto power" over after-the-fact visual changes their directors wish to implement? How much does their opinion count? 15%? What about the producer? The screenwriters?
In any massive creative endeavor such as making a feature film there is almost always the great temptation to go back and "fix" nagging little defects, to rework details there wasn't the time, the money, or the technology to do over. But going back - especially going back 37 years - isn't really reshaping something closer to an "original vision" (and is it even possible that the "original vision" hasn't itself been shaped and altered by the passage of so much time?) - it's simply changing cinema history. Worse, the motivations from Fox's perspective are purely commercial; they wouldn't invest in a reworking of the film if they didn't think there was money to be made by doing so, a way to keep going back to the well with perennially popular titles.
It's like the Writers Guild of America's appallingly stupid decision to reinstate the names of blacklisted writers on the opening credits of '50s and early-'60s movies, such as replacing Pierre Boulle's credit on The Bridge on the River Kwai with the actual writers, Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Though a sincere effort to right old wrongs, it too is changing history, sweeping the blacklist era under the rug, the same sort of history-changing we used to criticize the Soviet Union and Communist China for all the time. What Friedkin accomplished in 1971 was extremely impressive; fiddling with it now somehow diminishes that while at best only minimally enhances the viewing experience.
I also wonder if after four decades Friedkin is able to look at the film with anything like impartiality, from the perspective of an audience that has only seen the film once or twice before, or maybe is experiencing it for the first time. From this perspective (and I myself haven't seen it since around 1995, when the laserdisc came out) aesthetically his changes are at times highly distracting in ways he is perhaps not aware of, and so over-stylized that it only draws attention to itself and away from the original work.
The defocused, pastel color - which at times really does resemble early colorized movies from the 1980s, right down to colors that "bleed" off their subejcts - looks artificial...in a film whose major asset is its dirty realism. Here, when Popeye Doyle goes undercover in a Santa Claus suit, the red of the suit glows like Hackman's about to go supernova. In effect Friedkin is taking a film made in 1971 and making it look like a 2009 movie set in 1971. The trickery makes the film seem more contemporary in some respects, but contemporary in the sense of a music video or TV commercial recreating that time and place. It achieves a kind of hyper-realism when good old-fashioned realism was enough.
The Picture, The Sound: The unfortunate thing is that, except for all this tinkering, The French Connection has never looked so good. The image is amazingly sharp at times, even more impressive than the similarly surprising high-def Bullitt, an influence on this. It's particularly fascinating to see parts of Brooklyn before it became insufferably hip and Broadway before it became a tourist trap. (On theatre marquees: Get Carter at the Victoria, and The Priest's Wife at the Trans-Lux.) Everything is so vivid you can practically smell the city.
The 1080p movie is presented on the first of two discs; both are 50GB discs and while the feature is billed at 1.85:1, it appeared 1.78:1, at least on my plasma.
There are numerous audio and subtitle options. Originally released mono, a 1.0 track is included and that's what this reviewer preferred after sampling the other tracks because I felt the sound effects and to some extent the music was amped-up a bit high at the expense of the dialogue. Nevertheless, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 3.0 Dolby Surround mixes are impressive in their own way. The film was released in Spain and perhaps other parts of Europe in 70mm (see below), and original discrete audio may have existed even then. Also included are 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in French and Spanish, and optional subtitles in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Cantonese. Although the packaging doesn't say so, I was surprised to see one disc default to Japanese on my Japanese Blu-ray recorder, and the extra features have subtitles in that language. The disc is closed-caption and region-encoded "A." A D-Box Motion Control Systems feature is included.
This two-disc presentation crams a lot of supplements, including some very good previously released material (from a September 2001 DVD) in standard-def, but also a lot of excellent new material in high-definition.
From the old DVD there are two audio commentary tracks, the first featuring Friedkin and the second with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Deleted Scenes were on the old DVD; here, Friedkin provides a new introduction and the footage has been altered like the rest of the film. Two very good documentaries return for this Blu-ray release: the BBC-produced The Poughkeepsie Shuffle (16:9 but standard-def) and Untold Stories of The French Connection - 30th Anniversary Special (4:3).
New to this edition, and all in high-def, are seven featurettes, all very enjoyable and informative: Anatomy of a Chase; Hackman on Doyle (a delight); Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection, a touching and fascinating look at the true story with the cop who was the basis for Scheider's character; Scene of the Crime, which focuses on the Brooklyn Bridge scene; Color Timing "The French Connection, about Friedkin's alterations, which if nothing else is impressive in just how clearly everything is explained, and unaltered clips with standard color timing give some idea what the high-def transfer could have been; Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis, and Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection, with noir historians James Ursini and Alain Silver. Friedkin also appears in a brief Introduction on Disc 1.
Also on Disc 1 is an isolated score and a trivia track. The latter is the best such thing I've ever seen. It's crammed with lots of good information and exhibits a lot of research and effort on the part of whoever put it together - and yet I'd still rather read the same material in book or magazine form and not multitask with the film.
If not for Friedkin's problematic alternations to the original film, in every other way this would easily be a DVD Talk Collector Series Title. Do the color alternations ruin the movie? I guess that depends upon the individual. When the film started, with the Fox logo going haywire with color, I wondered whether I'd even be able to get through the whole picture, and during the first couple of reels I was frequently cringing at the image's artificiality. Either I got used to the effect, or it was toned down generally for the last three-quarters of the movie, except for infrequent scenes or individual shots. In the end I don't think the color effects work and that they take away from the experience, but not enough to be more than an occasionally annoying distraction, and so taking everything into account, the whole enchilada, I give this a "Highly Recommended" rating despite some significant complaints.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.