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The French Connection

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on June 5, 2010

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)

Behold, a young Gene Hackman and possibly the best car chase scene in cinematic history!

Forgive me, but I just got obsessed with The West Wing and I kinda need to finish it before the fall begins (SEVEN SEASONS) so I have been powering through the episodes and not devoting my free time to this blog. I am ashamed.

The French Connection should ring at least SOME bells. It’s a definite classic, it’s a rough and dirty film, and it’s incredibly famous for the car chase sequence. This is a major Oscar-winning film, bringing in the little gold man for Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Writing (based on another work), and Best Picture–the first R-rated film ever to win for Best Picture after the MPAA adopted the rating system. It also had nominees for Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. It is another selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.  This movie, my friends, was a big deal. And rightly so.

I love gritty 'buddy cop' films.

The film is about two Narcotics Bureau cops in NYC who are pretty liberal with their interpretation of the law and the rules by which they should live. Jimmy Doyle, portrayed by Gene Hackman (please tell me you know who he is) is the more careless and edgy of the duo. Buddy Russo, played by Roy Scheider (Jaws), is more cautious but is also willing to go on a limb to back his partner. They want a big bust, and they want to make a name for themselves. So, when they spot a table full of questionable characters, many of them known criminals, they have a feeling something is going down soon. They see one guy who looks kinda like a schmuck and they decide to tail him to see if anything pans out.

No, it's not her wig that makes them suspicious. It might be his eyebrows.

What unfolds is a case that is wrapped up in international affairs and puts the two cops in way over their heads, though they insist they can handle it. A lot of what they are working upon is based on Doyle’s gut feelings, which has gotten him into trouble in the past. What no one counted on was the wild card that the involvement of a French ‘businessman’ and his lackeys. The cops are finding themselves not only frustrated by the length of time that this case is lasting, but also out-maneuvered by the wild card.

This is they way that the French toy with people--with style and subtlety.

They also suddenly find themselves to be in much more danger than they ever were during this operation, as the French men decide to deal with their presence on their own in a manner that actually lacks subtlety and draws much more police attention to the situation. This power play brings us to… the car chase scene:

This is a view of the car traveling at a high speed under a New York City Subway line.

This is a view from the perspective of the car to let us know how fast it's going.

This is a view of a crazy and enraged Gene Hackman behind the wheel. Any questions?

The brilliant thing about this car chase sequence is this: it involves only one car in the chase. The car chase is a car chasing a subway train through Brooklyn. And I need to tell you, it’s an amazing sequence. Apparently, the director, William Friedkin (dir. of The Exorcist, To Live and Die in L.A., Bug), had the scene cut to the tempo of “Black Magic Woman”, even though there’s not a single bit of music during this scene. And I’m not surprised at that little factoid because you can feel it–this is some of the quickest and most intense shot-cutting that I have ever seen. I felt the tension, I felt the rush, and I felt the panic. It was insane. Even the shooting for this sequence was insane–it turns out that a car crash occurred on-set that wasn’t planned, and was actually because a local didn’t realize there was a film being shot at the time and drove his car right into the scene. The crash stayed in the film due to his realism, and the producers footed the bill for his car. I have yet to see Bullit, also famous for its car chase, but I am not surprised that Friedkin managed to outdo it. It absolutely upped the game for the rest of the film, and pushed Doyle’s character into a new realm of recklessness.

Gene is not pleased.

The film is based off a non-fiction book written by Robin Moore, based on the lives of Narcotics Detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso. I was amazed by some of the less-than-politically-correct aspects of the film, but then I remembered the where and when of it all and I understood. It’s a bit hard, living in the super-PC world of today and watching these films without that context. Sometimes I forget myself. But as for the gritty–well, that’s how Friedkin rolls. As with To Live and Die in L.A., these cops are not the ‘superheroes in blue’ that we often see in films. Rather, they act more like the anti-heroes playing the parts of heroes. So much of what they do, and how they do it, is questionable–especially on Doyle’s part–yet they are clearly ‘fighting the good fight’. You want them to win, almost as much as they want it, and still you can’t help but wonder how they can get away with so much and be kinda awful while doing it.

Don't play dumb, boys. You know it's true.

It’s not hard to see why this was such an award-winning film. The acting is basically flawless, with Hackman and Sheider leading the way. It was a bit shocking to see Scheider in such a down and dirty roll, considering his better known role as the family-oriented small-town Chief Brody, but it was a pleasant surprise and I think he was great in this role. The casting was also stellar in regards to the the rest of the supporting cast. Fernando Rey gave an extraordinary performance as Alain Charnier, the French man adjusting his tie in an earlier image, and Bill Hickman does a great job playing the ‘same-side’ adversary to Doyle as the federal agent Mulderig, who never passes up the opportunity to openly attack and mock Doyle whenever one should arise.

Doesn't he just reek of 'federal tight-ass'?

And I can never say enough about how much I adore William Friedkin’s directing in this film. It’s artistic, but not terribly so. It’s thoughtful, it’s active, and it’s informative. It’s anything but a passive ‘point and shoot’ sort of style that passes for a lot of films, especially these days. But it’s not over-directed, either. It’s, dare I say, exceptionally suitable for the film. Much credit must be given to the scriptwriter, Ernest Tidyman, for the bizarre and engaging screenplay, as well as the film and sound editors, Gerald Greenberg (film), Theodore Soderberg and Christopher Newman (both sound). The pacing of the film picked up in all the right places, and the use of sound, especially in the chase sequence, greatly enhanced the intensity and the realness of the film. Another shout-out is needed for cinematographer Owen Roizman, whose use of undercranked film during the chase scene really made the speed so much more palpable onscreen.

Do I recommend this film? Yes!!! This is actually is a classic that people will tell you to see and you absolutely should listen to them. I don’t even care if you end up not liking the film–it’s worth it just for the chase scene, which was far more…’wow‘ than I expected. There are all sorts of odd things throughout the film that escaped my understanding at first (such as the recurring dialogue about picking feet in Poughkeepsie, but I found the answer to that one) but the bits of messiness and confusion actually enhanced the film. I doubt that such situations in reality ever conclude in a neat and tidy little packaged tale, and things occur that don’t perfectly fit the crime scenario. By the end, this film made sense.

It was one hell of a crazy ride, and I’m glad that I tagged along. I think you should, too.

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3 Responses to “The French Connection”

  1. Bryan said

    I haven’t seen this movie in so long, but I remember it being amazing. The much-discussed car chase scene is particularly memorable. I didn’t know that the car crash was unplanned though. I love movie trivia like that. I agree with your recommendation. Totally fantastic movie that everyone should see.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Thanks for the response! I LIVE for that kind of movie trivia–I always check the IMDB trivia page, and I look things up on Wiki, too. I love throwing in fun little factoids, but I try to be sure that I am careful with my wording with IMDB/Wiki facts that I haven’t heard elsewhere because they may not be 100% accurate :P.

      Thanks again!

  2. TheBigFeccopotamus said

    Classicly great movie and a great review.

    The car chase is Legendary. One of the best ever. You really should see Bullitt. Not only does it have an equally awesome (some say better but screw them) car chase, but it’s Steve McQueen. I mean come on, is any one cooler than Steve McQueen?

    In fact, now that I think about it you don’t even have a Steve McQueen movie review. Where’s the love for Papillon?

    But this comment is meant for showing love, not condemnation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, you are a talented writer and critic. I look forward to future reviews.

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