A thrilling, economical procedural, William Friedkin’s 1971 smash hit “The French Connection” has one thing on its mind: Immediacy. Every single element of this film has the goal of keeping the audience in the moment and on the edge of their proverbial seat. Friedkin’s docu-style realism, Owen Roizman’s washed-out grey photography, Don Ellis’ contemplative yet jaunty jazz score, Gerald Greenberg’s quick-fire efficient-as-all-hell editing — everything is in service of the thrill. It features some of the finest Hollywood filmmaking of its time and a great, committed performance from Gene Hackman as hothead detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, but the question of whether or not it has anything else going on underneath the hood still lingers almost 45 years later.
“The French Connection” trades in archetypes and stock situations. There are Good Guys — Popeye, partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), their supervisor Walt Simonsan (Eddie Egan, the real-life inspiration for Popeye) — and there are Bad Guys — wealthy heroin smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), hitman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), middleman Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). There’s a big shipment of heroin coming in from France to New York and it’s up to Popeye to find it and nail the Bad Guys to the wall. That’s the movie “The French Connection” wants to be and it admirably succeeds on that front. But because Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman forgo any kind of interiority in favor of external cat-and-mouse mechanics, the action never feels like it has any distinct motivation. “The French Connection” isn’t interested in emotion or feeling, or even character for that matter, which inevitably means it has a surface-level quality to it that it can’t quite shake.
Don’t get it twisted: there isn’t anything inherently wrong with this, especially when the surfaces in question are as technically proficient as they come. There are sequences in “The French Connection” that inspire utter awe in their methodology, like when Popeye and Cloudy spot Sal in a crowded, noisy nightclub, or when Popeye tails Alain on the subway and Alain evades him by jumping on and off the train, with Friedkin framing each of them over the other’s shoulder. But it’s interesting to note that the famous and rightfully-acclaimed chase sequence between Popeye and Nicoli still exhilarates because of the feeling it induces. As soon as Popeye steals a stranger’s car and he maniacally follows Nicoli’s train, bouncing off other drivers and evading citizens like a nimble lion, it feels downright reckless and terrifying. Friedkin apparently edited the sequence to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” which makes some kind of strange sense because it does have an ominous, pit-a-pat rhythm to it, just like the song. Cutting back and forth between Nicoli’s struggle on the train to Popeye’s heedless driving, Friedkin and Greenberg send the sequence into tension overload, as if they’re documenting two different yet related disasters happening simultaneously. It’s considered one of the best action scenes in history for a reason.
And yet, there’s a brutality to “The French Connection” that goes curiously unexamined. I’m uncomfortable with describing the film as “fascist” or “sadistic,” and I’m not interested in any sort of didactic, preachy character study about Popeye’s anti-hero antics, but the cold, observational tone that Friedkin adopts leaves a bit of a nasty aftertaste. It’s not that Popeye is racist or cuts ethical corners or murders a cop without even the slightest hint of remorse, or that the film endorses any of that behavior, it’s that Friedkin is content with rendering all of that wallpaper. Everything outside of the action that involves Popeye, like his drinking, or his sexual dalliances, or his admittedly cool but ultimately meaningless “picking your feet in Poughkeepsie” line, are all just window dressing. Compelling window dressing, courtesy of Hackman’s killer performance, but still window dressing. They are there to say, “Even the Good Guys ain’t really so good, huh?” which, granted, is true, and daring especially for a R-rated Best Picture winner, but it doesn’t really mean much else beyond that.
In her review of the film entitled “Urban Gothic,” Pauline Kael slammed “The French Connection” for depicting brutality for brutality’s sake and that it had no purpose beyond keeping the audience’s attention. It’s hard to argue with this point, but in line with the film’s realism-over-everything bent, I’ll make this pitch: Maybe that’s the point. Brutality goes unexamined by society every day. Cops kill innocents and go unpunished. Good Guys are rotten. Bad Guys get away all the time. These are the ugly realities we live in, and there’s no inherent burden for art to examine the morality or lack thereof underneath them. Sometimes the best illustration of the muck we all live in is to just show it without the slightest edge of editorializing. In a sick sense, maybe that makes the implicit editorial more effective.
More thoughts from the web:
Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com
The movie was shot during a cold and gray New York winter, and it has a doomed, gritty look. The landscape is a waste land, and the characters are hardly alive. They move out of habit and compulsion, long after ordinary human feelings have lost the power to move them. Doyle himself is a bad cop, by ordinary standards; he harasses and brutalizes people, he is a racist, he endangers innocent people during the chase scene (which is a high-speed ego trip). But he survives. He wins, too, but that hardly matters. “The French Connection” is as amoral as its hero, as violent, as obsessed and as frightening. Read more.
Keith Phipps, The A.V. Club
Don Ellis’ jarring score accompanies a credits sequence that takes less than a minute to take care of business before dropping viewers in the middle of the action in the French port of Marseilles, where an undercover French cop eats a slice of pizza as he watches some gangsters. He won’t last much longer. But when we see Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle doing the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s almost as if he didn’t die at all. That, the film suggests, is the way it is with cops and crooks, now and forever. It’s an eternal struggle with no clear winners. About 25 minutes into the movie, there’s a memorable scene in which Doyle and partner “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) roust a seedy bar in which everyone appears to be carrying one sort of drug or another. It’s a noisy ritual of bluster and humiliation, but neither the busters nor the bustees pretend that what’s happening will change anything. Though Doyle and Russo sweep the bar clean of drugs, it’s one bar in a city filled with them, and it will be just as full of drugs tomorrow. Read more.
Fernando F. Croce, CinePassion
William Friedkin takes his mark from Don Siegel and Costa-Gavras, belligerent action portraits in quick, hard, racy strokes. Grain is the texture of choice, the brickier and danker the better, the snapshot of the city runs from Brooklyn Bridge traffic jams to Madison Avenue in the metallic grip of winter. (A Washington D.C. rendezvous with the Capitol Dome in the distance gives a brief taste of Lewis’ “The Undercover Man.”) The central joke is the extended flirtation between Hackman’s blue-collar flatfoot and Rey’s debonair lawbreaker, complete with awkward dinner date (the camera zooms from the visitor’s lordly restaurant banquet to the copper shivering outside with foul pizza and coffee) and underground two-step at the Grand Central Station subway, capped with a smile and a wave. By contrast, the celebrated Pontiac LeMans/elevated train pas de deux is sheer, raging consummation, bumper-level POVs alternating with windshield reflections until Kubrickian “Star Gate” abstractions all but emerge. Read more.
Mike D’Angelo, The Man Who Viewed Too Much
A first-rate procedural that also aspires to serve as a compelling character study and never really quite gets there. Apart from the random “pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” bit, Popeye Doyle is kept far too busy doing actual police work to establish a personality more distinct than generic hothead, which makes the film’s last few seconds feel like a Hail Mary bid for psychological depth — Friedkin and Hackman just haven’t earned an ending that startlingly unresolved. (It’s still kinda thrilling, though, especially when you consider that this was a box-office smash and Best Picture winner. Them were the days.) All of the standout sequences function virtually without regard to the dramatis personae: You could put Frank Bullitt behind the wheel of that LeMans during the high-speed chase (still the most insanely harrowing ever filmed, for my money, and I’ve seen “The Burglars”), or have Harry Callahan perform the beautifully orchestrated subway-car minuet with Fernando Rey (cat and mouse at its finest), and it wouldn’t make an iota of difference. It’s a pungent portrait of a bust with delusions of grandeur. Read more.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Slant Magazine
Even on first viewing — as a movie-crazed teenager in 1986, courtesy of VHS — its slot in the pantheon of great ’70s movies struck me as unearned. I dug its unglamorous violence, grubby locations, energetic camerawork and superb lead performances (by Gene Hackman as volatile NYPD detective Popeye Doyle, Roy Scheider as his level-headed partner, Frederic de Pasquale as the chief smuggler and Tony Lo Bianco as his Brooklyn contact). But the film… struck me as very calculating, not in a Hitchcock/Spielberg way (i.e., perfectionist, hermetic, mechanical) but in the manner of a street hood who stages a distraction so his partner can snatch a purse. The average Adam Sandler comedy has more integrity than Friedkin’s Oscar winner, which lovingly protracted scenes of police brutality for left-wingers, pre-Miranda-ruling nostalgia and tangible law enforcement results for right-wingers, and an ending that makes hash of both positions — not to complicate viewers’ reactions, but to provide rhetorical cover to the filmmakers no matter who gripes. How could such a pandering film be described as uncompromising? Read more.