Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The French Connection (1971)

by on September 14, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Sept 14 thru Thurs Sept 22 at 1:00, 3:15, 5:30, 7:45, 10:00 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]


Why does Film Forum pull this out every few years? Cause its awesome we guess (and on this occasion, its an appropriate cap-off to the “NYPD” festival).


Budd Wilkins for Slant:

Four decades after its initial release, William Friedkin’s Oscar-sweeper The French Connection remains an electrifying achievement, drawing its high-voltage forward momentum from the collision of semi-documentary procedural, with its based-on-real-events verisimilitude, and downbeat rogue-cop revisionism. Shooting in actual locations wherever possible, and availing themselves of the featherweight handheld cameras that enabled the development of the Direct Cinema movement, Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman put the grit into “gritty authenticity.” But that’s only half the equation. Ernest Tidyman’s script tweaks buddy-cop stereotypes by compelling the audience to identify with a bigoted and obsessive loose cannon whose actions grow increasingly questionable, and subverts the tidy moral resolution demanded by genre convention, reflecting a darker, more ambivalent worldview, simultaneously hearkening back to the post-WWII high tide of film noir and resonant with Vietnam-era anxieties and tensions.


Friedkin cites Costa-Gavras’s 1969 political conspiracy thriller Z as an influence on his storytelling art and pseudo-documentary aesthetic, and it’s easiest to spot the connection in the pessimistic title cards that precede the end credits: More or less everyone involved in the smuggling operation gets off with a wrist slap, save the fall guy, Devereaux, the only one to do hard time, while mastermind Charnier escapes the country, going scot-free. In turn, The French Connection‘s influence has been multifarious, putting its stamp on everything from John Frankenheimer’s underrated 1975 sequel and producer-turned-director Philip D’Antoni’s unofficial follow-up, The Seven-Ups (also starring Roy Scheider and Tony Lo Bianco), to the Spike Jonze-directed Beastie Boys video “Sabotage,” an affectionate homage-spoof of the barrage of gritty ’70s cop shows that followed in Friedkin’s wake.


A.O. Scott for the Times:


David Fear for Time Out New York:

William Friedkin’s symphony of long, sharp shocks is memorable for any number of sequences: the cat-and-mouse subway game, the ballbusting bar shakedown, a breakneck chase scene that still seems leagues ahead of greatest-ever competitors. Yet the movie’s most impressive accomplishment is that the unrepentantly brutish, racist lout who’d like to urinate on the Miranda rights ends up being the good guy.


Antiheroes were everywhere in ’70s cinema, but Gene Hackman turns Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle into one of New Hollywood’s more interesting walking contradictions. You cringe every time Doyle opens his obscene joker’s yap, and yet the righteous, sharklike determination Hackman shows in pursuing Euro-suave villain Fernando Rey keeps the audience on Doyle’s side. Chalk it up to environment, maybe: Dirty Harry Callahan only had to contend with a psycho Frisco hippie, but Doyle is going up against both international horse-pushers and a nightmare version of New York that Pauline Kael dubbed “Horror City.” You unconsciously cut the guy some slack; the film, however, remains anything but.



Nic Rapold for the NY Sun:

“The French Connection” is about dogged pursuit. Building his case on the run, Popeye tracks his quarry, a suave French heroin smuggler (Fernando Rey) dubbed “Frog One,” and a Brooklyn small-timer, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), who’s angling for his first big deal. Backed up by his level-headed and loyal partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), Popeye conducts stakeouts, peek-a-boo sidewalk chases, and, most famously, a breakneck race in a commandeered car versus Frog One’s henchman in an elevated N train. As if exhausted by all this, Don Ellis’s great score, which pounds over the opening credits, concludes the film with groan-like creaks.


Mr. Friedkin, who directed two adventuresome crime documentaries in the 1960s (“The Thin Blue Line” and “People vs. Paul Crump”), grounds the sweat and dirt of Popeye’s investigation in New York concrete. The opening chase sends Popeye, in a Santa Claus suit, galumphing down a Harlem sidewalk and cornering a hood in an abandoned lot. He stalks Frog One outside genteel Madison Avenue shop-fronts, but goes home to an institutional Brooklyn project. A clandestine car tail to Randall’s Island is stymied by a gloriously mundane traffic jam, raucous with horns. The versatile Mr. Hackman had already notched two Oscar nominations, for “Bonnie and Clyde” and “I Never Sang for My Father,” but “The French Connection” was nevertheless a milestone, high-profile and top-notch. He’s the movie’s alert center, the scrappy, gleeful, profane embodiment of the city. Knocking heads, busting shoe leather, Popeye is impishly charming in his rumpled tie and pork pie hat, though an inveterate skirt-chaser (go-go boots, actually) and a casual slur-hurler. “The French Connection” remains the pinnacle for wholesome heroin-bust entertainment.



Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times:

Director William Friedkin constructed “The French Connection” so surely that it left audiences stunned. And I don’t mean that as a reviewer’s cliché: It is literally true. In a sense, the whole movie is a chase. It opens with a shot of a French detective keeping the Continental under surveillance, and from then on the smugglers and the law officers are endlessly circling and sniffing each other. It’s just that the chase speeds up sometimes, as in the celebrated car-train sequence. In “Bullitt,” two cars and two drivers were matched against each other at fairly equal odds. In Friedkin’s chase, the cop has to weave through city traffic at 70 m.p.h. to keep up with a train that has a clear track: The odds are off-balance. And when the train’s motorman dies and the train is without a driver, the chase gets even spookier: A man is matched against a machine that cannot understand risk or fear. This makes the chase psychologically more scary, in addition to everything it has going for it visually.


The key to the chase is that it occurs in an ordinary time and place. No rules are suspended; Popeye’s car is racing down streets where ordinary traffic and pedestrians can be found, and his desperation is such that we believe, at times, he is capable of running down bystanders just to win the contest. I had an opportunity at the Hawaii Film Festival in 1992 to analyze the sequence a shot at a time, using a stop-action laserdisc approach, at a seminar honoring the work of the cinematographer, Owen Roizman. He recalled the way the whole chase was painstakingly story-boarded and then broken down into shots that were possible and safe, even though actual locations were being employed. Lenses were chosen to play with distance, so that the car sometimes seemed closer to hazards than it was. But essentially, the chase looked real because its many different parts were real: A car threads through city streets, chasing an elevated train.



Gene Hackman on the Popeye role to Pete Hamill in Film Comment (Sept/Oct 1974):

I guess the audiences respond to the proletarian man they see in me: the working guy who’s doing vicariously what they would like to do. I think that’s why essentially THE FRENCH CONNECTION worked. I don’t have any illusions about my being the only actor who could have played that. A lot of guys could have. And it really is a director’s medium, as we all know. But I was the guy who played it, and I kind of reaped the harvest along with Billy [Friedkin] and some other people. But if there’s an attraction, that’s what it is. “I know Gene Hackman.” They’re able to say that, in some funny kind of way, you know, “Yeah, I know who that guy is.” And that works both positively and negatively, I think, because what it does is give you a kind of familiarity, without the mystique-which is what people are really attracted to, I think.


One of the things with FRENCH CONNECTION that was frightening to me was to open the film beating up a black guy, using the words “spick”, “wop,” and “nigger”, you know, and…well, you start off a film in the first five minutes, laying that out for an audience, and then you say to the audience: “You’re gonna stay with this guy for two hours and you finally gotta like him, you gotta respect him, you gotta feel something for him.” That was frightening to me, and yet it was challenging.



J. Hoberman for the Voice:

A newfangled genre flick, fraught with urban decay and racial tension, William Friedkin’s bang-bang procedural created a paradigm for the tell-it-like-it-is cop drama. Friedkin once had documentary aspirations; that The French Connection was shot almost entirely on the mean streets of Marseilles and New York, grounds the fantastic exploits of Hackman’s Popeye Doyle and his more low-key partner (Roy Scheider) in a gritty naturalism, if not a crumbling mess. Hackman is a prince of Fun City, crowned with an absurd porkpie hat and inhabiting his part so totally, it’s amazing that Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Breslin were among the half-dozen personalities first considered for the role. Being a cop is Popeye’s vocation; he establishes his street cred early on by single-handedly browbeating and brazenly N-wording the soul-brother patrons of a Bed-Stuy bar. These post–Great Society policemen have to go it alone, collaring perps by any means necessary. As the original ads put it: “Doyle is bad news— but a good cop.”


When it opened, The French Connection seemed like glorified Don Siegel—the justly celebrated elevated-subway chase through Bensonhurst is an adrenaline- pumped example of the action montage Siegel pioneered in The Line-Up (1958), while Popeye suggests the heroically disaffected cops who populate Siegel’s Madigan (1968) and Dirty Harry, which opened six weeks after The French Connection in December 1971. While Dirty Harry provided audiences an anti-establishment legal vigilante, The French Connection introduced the notion of the heroic working-class narc. Blue-collar to the bone, Popeye lives in public housing and feeds his face with a rancid-looking slice in the course of a freezing afternoon spent staking out the Upper East Side boîte where the French smuggler who is about to unload 100 pounds of uncut heroin (debonair Fernando Rey) leisurely consumes a multi-course feast. Popeye also earned counterculture points by mistakenly shooting a federal agent and exhibiting a conspicuous lack of remorse.



Eric Kohn for the NY Press:

The penultimate chase scene, during which Gene Hackman speeds down Brooklyn’s Stillwell Avenue in dedicated pursuit of a sniper riding the B train, conveys pure, streamlined exhilaration. The sequence benefits from the minimalism of its execution. Nothing is staged, particularly not the unplanned crash or its impact. You never see the strings controlling this monstrous expression of speed. There are no miniatures or two dimensional rear projections to break the illusion. Watching the scene now, when big screen spectacles usually do the bidding of a keyboard and mouse, offers a reminder that nobody bothers to get their hands this dirty for sake of entertainment since green screens provide a canvas to shape reality. These days, it’s safe to make things look dangerous.


Because the stunning centerpiece looks like an extravagant feat of guerrilla filmmaking, The French Connection feels new again. Its depiction of an unsavory justice system grappling with classicism and pervasive corruption was overshadowed by the action, but as a skillful portrait of urban strife, it made a compelling case for rough-edged lawmen. The movie’s depiction of New York’s distinct ferocity is complete, surpassing the sugary fantasies that preceded it. Beyond that, much of the frustration endured by Hackman’s character when Frog One evades capture makes The French Connection more modern than before—and, yep, it’s a post-9/11 thing. The movie’s original tagline heralded “an out and out thriller,” but now it’s the sort of thriller that rarely gets in: a smart one.



Freidkin details the genesis of the film in an interview with Alex Simon:

I knew the guy who produced the film, Phil D’Antoni. We used to play racquetball together. We had the same sensibilities and he’d seen my documentaries and wanted to make a film with me. One day he called me up and said “I’ve got this story, The French Connection about two cops in New York. It’s right up your alley; documentary style…There’s a book by Robin Moore, who wrote The Green Berets about the case.” So he sent me the book and I started to read the book and I couldn’t. I’ve never read the book. So I went to New York and met with the two cops that it’s about, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso…and I was fascinated by them. First of all by the alliteration of their names, Egan and Grosso. And then when the names were filled in by these two guys, I could see wonderful contrasts. A big, bluff Irishman and a short, sort of paranoid Italian guy. They seemed to represent a wonderful sort of Mutt and Jeff. And I went out with them for several weeks while they were out busting dealers…and all the dialogue and scenes in the movie were things they actually said and did, like busting up that bar, and so on. So Phil and I then set out to get a script done. We had four or five writers. No one could crack it. We took some of these scripts around to the various studios for over two years. All the studios turned it down, most of them twice. Finally, Phil gave me the galleys of book that was about to come out. It was called Shaft, written by a guy who was a crime reporter for The New York Times named Ernest Tidyman. We thought it had very smart, New York street dialogue. We met with Tidyman, paid him $5,000 to write the script, which he did, and later won the Academy Award for it. The script was by no means good enough. His position with that script was like my coming off my documentaries to make Minsky’s, it was over his head. Again, we took this around, no interest whatsoever. Finally, it had been almost three years. Dick Zanuck, who was head of Fox, called us in and said “Look, there’s something in this screwy idea you guys have…I have a million and a half dollars hidden away in a drawer and if you guys can make it for that, go ahead. I’m getting fired in a few months anyway, and I probably won’t be around to see it, but I’m fascinated by it.” We had a budget at the time of $2.8 million, and we wanted to get Paul Newman, or somebody like that, for the lead, and half a million of that was for Newman. Zanuck said “Newman’s not going to want to do this. Who else do you want?” I said my real idea of this guy is Jackie Gleason: a big, heavyset black Irishman waddling down the street trying to catch some junkie for a nickel bag. I talked with Gleason about it, and I just loved the guy. Zanuck says “We just made a film with Gleason called Gigot that tanked. We don’t want Gleason. We don’t need stars in this picture. Get anybody! Make the film for a million and half and be a man!” I knew a journalist from my New York days named Jimmy Breslin, a big, fat, heavyset, drunken Irishman. Used to write bad things about the cops. They hated him. I asked Zanuck about him, he said “Fine. Hire him.” So I got this guy named Bob Wiener, who wrote for the Village Voice and knew every actor in New York to be my casting director. He got us guys like Tony Lo Bianco from The Honeymoon Killers and Roy Scheider, who’d never done anything, except for this film that hadn’t come out yet called Klute…at the time Roy was working off-Broadway in a Jean Genet play where he way playing a cigar-smoking nun (laughs). Roy came in, we talked for a half hour, I said “You’re the guy. You’ve got the part.” Meanwhile, I’d go out with Breslin and Scheider and some other characters I knew, not actors, and we’d improvise scenes on the street based on the scenario I had. One day we were out rehearsing on some pier in Harlem and we had a scene of Scheider and Breslin beating the shit out of this black guy, and all of the sudden three guys in white sheets in white hats come running at us with white broomsticks. They were thinking “Here’s a couple white boys beating the shit out of a brother.” And the black guy got up and said “No brother, it’s okay! It’s only a movie!” Then one day Egan and Grosso drop by unannounced, and they see Breslin, who the cops hated! And Egan thought Robert Redford should play him. Redford or Rod Taylor. He thought Rod Taylor looked just like him…he had a casting list on the board at his precinct where all the cops could write in their casting choices for his part…his choices being Redford and Taylor. Newman was “okay” with him, too. Now he sees us running around with this big, fat, drunken left wing slob who hates the cops! He says, “What’s going on?! This is bullshit! Let me fuckin’ do it if you’re gonna go with this asshole! Audition me!” And I did, and he was terrible. And I said “Eddie, your vision of yourself and mine is at odds.” So I kept working with Breslin. One day he’d be brilliant. Another day, he’d show up not knowing what he was doing. The third day he’d be completely drunk. The fourth day he might not show up…and I realized this was going nowhere. Then one day he says to me “I hear you guys are gonna put a chase in this movie. I gotta tell ya, when my mother died, I promised her I’d never drive a car again.” And that nailed it for me! So I called Zanuck, told him my great idea wasn’t gonna work. Then (agent) Sue Mengers, who represented Gene Hackman, suggested Gene, and we met with him, who’d never really starred in a picture…and we frankly had no other choice, that was it. The way that film was cast, it was like the Movie God took care of it.


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