Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? The hard-boiledest police drama ever.
What did I get? The French Connection is an incredibly effective movie, a feat of sheer direction. It’s the quintessential gritty 1970s NYC movie, of course — I can’t think of a superior or more canonical one, anyway. It presents a remarkably convincing picture of undercover cops working drug cases at the moment when the very concept of the drug problem was entering the public’s consciousness. However, the skillful, pleasurable manipulations of The French Connection serve to smooth over a number of narrative and thematic flaws, and the movie is good enough — that is, asks to be taken “seriously” enough — that we can’t simply brush them aside.
Klute transcended its status as a “mere” serial killer movie by straightforwardly delving into the lives of its principals; somehow, The French Connection manages to imply cultural profundity to an even higher degree, if anything, by refusing, paradoxically, to be “about” anything at all. The scope is larger, the vicarious pleasure greater. The blithe refusal to commit to meaning is consistent with the subject of the movie, which is professionals immersed in their work. We have the idea that it’s getting at something fundamental; its true achievement is to envelop us in a documentary style so convincing that we intermittently take it to be “real.”
Friedkin is Boffo’s very first repeat director, and at first blush, The Boys in the Band and The French Connection couldn’t have less in common. But of course they do share one great element — New York City — which is a key to Friedkin’s contributions here. He never seems impressed with the city — you never catch him playing tourist — and he’s just as comfortable in swank midtown as in seedy Bed-Stuy.
The best compliment I can pay The French Connection is that the famous car chase is a genuinely heart-palpitating sequence that doesn’t disrupt the movie’s tone whatsoever. The rest of the movie is tense in a slower way, and when the chase happens, it seems to flow naturally out of events, doesn’t seem like a “set piece” at all.
The problem with the movie, and it’s a serious one, is that both Popeye Doyle and the suave French drug figures are idealized too much. Brutishly charming though he may be, Popeye’s relentless drive to secure justice masks a deeper stupidity and recklessness — for which certain people die unnecessarily. And we are unmistakably asked to admire him for this. For their part, the French guys are likewise shown as clever, shrewd etc. but in fact make a series of idiotic blunders all their own. The movie never quite comes to grips with this, never seems to take in the evidence it has itself presented. In short, the “realism” of the movie conflicts profoundly with its true mission, to entertain. Strange to say for such a hard-driving, gritty movie, but it’s pretty glib about its own characters.
These quibbles about how we’re supposed to regard Popeye and the others don’t ruin the movie as much as remind us that entertainments are, in the end, entertainments and not documentaries. The audience can hardly be asked to embrace the notion that Doyle’s gut-driven philosophy of police work is all wrong, so the movie, in the name of realism, shows us how wrong it is — and then asks us to applaud.
What here smacks of 1971? The feeling that if we just get this one criminal, the drug problem in NYC will be solved.
IMDB score: 7.9
My score: 9
Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Starring: Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, Marcel Bozzuffi, Frédéric de Pasquale, Bill Hickman, Ann Rebbot, Robert Weil
IMDB synopsis: William Friedkin’s gritty police drama portrays two tough New York City cops trying to intercept a huge heroin shipment coming from France. An interesting contrast is established between ‘Popeye’ Doyle, a short-tempered alcoholic bigot who is nevertheless a hard-working and dedicated police officer, and his nemesis Alain Charnier, a suave and urbane gentleman who is nevertheless a criminal and one of the largest drug suppliers of pure heroin to North America. During the surveillance and eventual bust, Friedkin provides one of the most gripping and memorable car chase sequences ever filmed.