The French Connection (1971)
Dir. William Friedkin
Oscars: Best Picture (Philip D’Antoni); Best Director (William Friedkin); Best Actor (Gene Hackman);Best Adapted Screenplay (Ernest Tidyman); Best Editing (Gerald B. Greenberg)
Other Nominees: A Clockwork Orange; Fiddler on the Roof; The Last Picture Show; Nicholas and Alexandra
The French Connection was an early sign of a filmmaking community at a crossroads: one turning away from the epics of the 50s and 60s (when Oscar saluted grand films like Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, and Patton) and into a more contemplative exploration of the medium (70s Oscar triumphs were films like The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the first two Godfather films). The French Connection is a small-scale, simple film of narrow ambitions. Focusing on a NYPD narcotics cop, Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner, Buddy (Roy Scheider), trying to bust a heroin trail rooted in France, this film, lean in structure and heavy in atmosphere, reaches more for the gutter than to the sky, and is probably better off for it.
While The French Connection might have been an exciting film at its time (its semi-climactic car chase is its most highly regarded scene, and is still a high standard in the genre), the glut of crime thrillers that we’ve seen in the 45+ years since its release easily outstrip it in ambition, craft, and deftness. The film lacks a coherent style, other than grit, and though it runs just over an hour and a half, it drags through many of its chapters. Perhaps this is because the film jumps from its lengthy exposition to its unending climax, with little space along the way for body, or perhaps it is because of its intensely clunky editing. Indeed, the film is lousily edited, and its pace and inconsistent tone (aurally and visually) suffer for it. Some scenes are oddly brief, and others are painstakingly long. Scenes forgo establishing shots in favor of quick cuts for bombastic payoffs, which is impressive at first but mind-numbing after the first three or four times the trick is used.
Though the film is jerky in its editing and its sound mixing, we can tell that Friedkin is playing with non-realistic assembly techniques that would go on to be perfected by such masters as Coppola, Fosse, and Scorcese in their films that would arrive later in the decade (I’m thinking The Godfather I & II, Cabaret, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver, for example – God, the 70s were so good to film!). The French Connection did not, in my eyes, succeed in these experiments, but that certainly does not make them not disadvantageous!
The film’s structure, too, is noticeably clunky. We can’t quite grasp Popeye’s trustworthiness (he is dedicated, but crooked – or is he? Perhaps he is just unlikeable in his racism and sexism but fights the good fight?) or the nature of his relationship with Buddy, perhaps because the two are given nothing to do outside of their one goal: destruction of this heroin ring. Many scenes of police violence against people of color ring too disturbing today, and the film doesn’t take a stand for or against these officers: are they abusing their power or doing what needs to be done to keep the streets safe? I don’t know what the filmmakers had in mind, but these scenes are rough enough to make any viewer uneasy.
The French Connection is frankly too messy to be made today, but given how early it was in the trend of truly violent crime thrillers, we can’t fault it too much. A much cleaner, more efficient telling of this sort of story can be found in Scorcese’s 2006 film The Departed, a film as tight as a drum, with not a single frame wasted or moment that does not further its story and investigation of identity and responsibility. That film is also a Best Picture winner, so might also hit this blog at some point. I’ll be kinder then, I promise.