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It was gritty and hard-hitting and it took top honors on Oscar night. William Friedkin's The French Connection is a cagey combination of documentary style, anti-Hollywood content, and commercial thrills. It's also got some terrific acting, and helped inaugurate a kind of cop movie that still hasn't been topped, 30 years later.The story is set in the middle of winter in New York City. Rude and crude narcs Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo (Roy Scheider) live and breathe their work. While nightclubbing during off hours Popeye becomes interested in a high-rolling diner proprietor whose attitude irks him. Slowly, they pry their way into a drug traffic deal organized by a shifty Frenchman named Charnier (Fernando Rey). Bulldogging past uncooperative elements in their own department, they pursue the smugglers and their supremely confident leader in the frozen streets of New York.
A lot has been written about how crime movies evolved from '40s hardboiled noir (The Big Sleep) into the bland but realistic "police procedurals" of the '50s (The Lineup). But a third change took place in the late '60s, when crime thrillers had become flashy and glossy, perhaps trying to equal the escapism of the Bond films. Several exceptions pointed to a desire to find a new direction: Bullitt with its TV-commercial stylishness; Point Blank's Antonioni-with-a-Gun ethic; the Tony Rome films that tried to turn Frank Sinatra into Derek Flint as an aging swinger. The pivotal picture in this argument is Don Siegel's Madigan, which had the surface feel of a television movie (especially the music) but breathed urban angst and delivered a socko violent ending.
Starting in documentaries, filmmaker William Friedkin stumbled a bit in some previous features but made his mark by pulling out all the stops for The French Connection. The cops are seen in action as if filmed by hidden cameras: they swear, bicker like schoolboys and wear their negative racial attitudes on their sleeves. Based on real cops who were advisors and actors in the film, Friedkin's Doyle and Russo live like bums and are obsessed with their work. They stake out suspected criminals, like hunters who disappear for weeks into snowy woods to track down their prey. One of the key images has Hackman and Scheider shuddering with cold in a frozen doorway, scarfing down clammy pizza, while across the street the criminals eat a choice meal in a four-star restaurant.
The French Connection's jaded attitude toward the hopelessness of law enforcement was news to moviegoers that hadn't paid attention to decades of cop movies saying the same thing, but less directly. The docu feeling is very convincing. Doyle and Russo's efforts are 98% personal initiative, while most of the cops around them just do their jobs, or in some cases, hinder one other. They're up against slick criminals who know all the tricks, and only by working practically 24 hours a day do they have a prayer of catching them.
The script sketches events lightly and forces the audience to fill in the gaps, essentially treating us like adults. The usual foreshadowing, repetition of exposition and recaps are missing. By being forced to pay close attention to the intrinsically interesting material, The French Connection pulls you into its rough world. Only intermittently does Friedkin resort to bravura moments, such as Doyle's triumphantly self-satisfied roadblock on a highway bridge, that give the audience a chance to feel solidly in the picture.
Hackman's Popeye Doyle character is a great original. A borderline vigilante thug, he's been brutalized by more than his police work and appears to consort with known criminals after hours. Friedkin & co. almost, but not quite, make the film into a criticism of the Doyle character. In one very impressive scene, Doyle picks up an attractive bicyclist by misusing his authority, harassing her just as a gang thug might. The message seems to be that, to pursue crooks through cities that resemble garbage heaps, you need garbage men.
The NYC on view here is the one that stuck pretty much until the late 1990s - filthy, ugly, unpainted, grafitti'd, broken down and dangerous. This picture and the (lousy) comedy The Out-of-Towners collectively maimed the Big Apple's reputation for decades. Savant's only been there once in 1998. I loved NYC; clueless tourists like myself are treated with respect and courtesy.
Phillip D'Antoni must have laid out an edict that Friedkin's film could be anything as long as it had a knockout commercial action scene of the kind that had turned Bullitt into an event picture three seasons previous. The race between a commandeered Pontiac LeMans and an elevated train is just as harrowing as the San Francisco Grand Prix in the Steve McQueen movie, perhaps even more so with the emotionally out-of-control Doyle at the wheel. Friedkin and others claim that the scene was stolen, that Hackman and other drivers really did scream through ordinary traffic, endangering lives and causing real collisions. I'd heard this before and assumed it was good-for-box office publicity hype, but the participants back up each other's stories. On the other hand, take a look at the white car that Doyle "accidentally" collides with in the middle of the chase. It looks very much like an auto he unsuccessfully tries to flag down a couple of minutes earlier ... and therefore could very well be driven by a stunt driver.
If The French Connection's innovations no longer seem so world altering, it's probably because its style is still in vogue, especially on television cop shows. Friedkin can definitely claim stylistic paternity for most of the cop features that graced the first half of the '70s: Badge 373, The Seven-Ups, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Serpico, The Taking of Pelham 1, 2, 3. Co-star Roy Scheider seemed the iconic center of the movement. The end of the "gritty cop" genre coincides perfectly with the rise of Steven Spielberg in 1975. Jaws is about the efforts of a very NYC cop (Scheider of course) who takes on a whole new kind of threat on the high seas. Seeing the hero of The French Connection lob a cylinder full of .358 magnum slugs into the giant shark with no visible effects, struck Savant as the epitaph for the The French Connection-style cop show. No more docu grit and low-life crime; from then on future was to be high-concept escapism.
Fox's new Blu-ray of The French Connection is already raising a controversy on the web, for William Friedkin's personally supervised transfer. The original movie had a purposely ugly look; release prints were slimy, grainy and colorless. (I can see the Fox people in 1971 approving any mess that came from Deluxe as ready for the screen: "Looks terrible! Good Work! Ship it!") The previous DVD release worked digital magic to bring out all the color and detail in Owen Roizman's cinematography, reducing the grain and boosting the colors to the point where some of the mid-winter scenes looked downright cheerful.
In a new HD featurette, , Friedkin demonstrates his revisionist rationale. He wanted to mute the colors and retain a lot more grain, yet not lose the sharpness of Roizman's images. To that end he had his colorist create an element that oversaturated and de-focused the color. This smeary color image was very lightly superimposed over a B&W rendering of the film, resulting in a sharp, grainy movie with pastel colors. Because the colors are de-focused, they don't stay strictly "within the lines" of objects. Gene Hackman is as sharp as a tack, but his red Santa Claus suit bleeds softly all around him. Blacks clog up at night with almost a hi-con look. New York appears cold and inhospitable. It's an interesting effect that indeed achieves Friedkin's stated goal of creating a degraded color image. And he makes no bones about stating that it'll stay that way because that's the way he likes it!
The audio is stronger than ever before in the lossless Blu-ray format; Don Ellis's screeching, nervous jazz score sounds great, and is isolated on an extra audio track. Also included is a trivia track with facts on the making of the movie and the true French Connection case as reported in Robin Moore's book. Photos are included on the track but they've been made too small to see much of anything.
The extras, many in HD, fill two discs. The feature disc contains two commentaries, one with Friedkin and one with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. The second disc is home to a long list of HD featurettes. Anatomy of a Chase takes Friedkin and producer D'Antoni back to Brooklyn to retrace the famous car chase, step by step, riding part of the way in the correct model Pontiac car. Hackman on Doyle is a new interview with Gene Hackman on his memories of the Oscar-winning role. Friedkin visits the office of (now) movie producer Sonny Grosso in Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection. Grosso discusses his later partner Eddie Egan and the case that made them famous. In Scene of the Crime Friedkin meets actor/advisor Randy Jurgensen below the Brooklyn Bridge, to talk about the dicey experience of shooting on the streets and blocking traffic on a New York expressway.
Cop Jazz examines the music of Don Ellis, and Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection relates The French Connection to the older tradition of "bad cop" movies, referencing HD clips from several of Fox's noted films noir.
Color Timing is director Friedkin's demonstration of how he obtained his new look for The French Connection. He uses several HD clips from John Huston's Moby Dick, a 1956 movie that experimented with a similar color treatment using Technicolor printing capabilities.
A selection of Deleted Scenes available on earlier discs has been retransferred, and the older docus The Poughkeepsie Shuffle and The Untold Stories of The French Connection are present as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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