The French Connection, 1971
Very often, when a film is considered the first of its type or genre, it’s hard to see what makes it great without understanding its history or the era it was made in. Blade Runner is a great example of this. As I wrote in an earlier post, Blade Runner seems dated and uninspired unless you realize that most of what it is doing and presenting hadn’t been done on film before. Only knowing the history do you realize that it was ahead of its time and creating images and tropes that are common place today. I went into my viewing of The French Connection expecting a similar experience. Here was a movie set in the early 70’s that established the idea of the cop with questionable tactics, which kind of created the idea of the anti-hero. I was ready to appreciate its role in film today, but felt a little underwhelmed comparing it to everything that has followed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It ends up there is much more to The French Connection than a dirty cop.
I couldn’t help thinking of The Wire while watching The French Connection. The detailed way that the movie tried to dive in and take the viewer through an investigation felt very much like the first season of The Wire. This isn’t the glorified version of crime investigation that we are used to seeing in film, this isn’t great lead after great lead, this isn’t all action and explosions and car crashes, this isn’t the good guy getting the bad guy. All of that is present, but there are warts that go along with all of that. Much like The Wire, The French Connection is also about sitting in a car for hours staking somebody out, listening to a wire tap for days on end, hitting dead end after dead end. There is nothing neat and clean about crime investigation, and that is the story The French Connection is trying to tell. What makes the movie great is even with these elements it never feels slow. It moves along like a runaway train from the moment Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle sees Sal Boca in the bar. It carries a sense of tension through car chases as well as listening to wire taps, through shoot outs as well as methodically following people. The movie takes the mundane aspects of investigation and makes them as edge of your seat exciting as the chase scene that made the movie famous.
The French Connection is also storytelling at its most efficient. There is no whale fat to remove from the plot, no wasted exposition to slog through. The movie throws its audience right into the thick of things and never really stops to catch them up. You don’t get told that Doyle doesn’t have the best track record busting criminals or working with others in the department, you have to pick up those facts from the arguments made to pursue the Sal Boca case. You are never given a long rambling explanation of why they are tapping phones or following certain people, you have to pay attention to and decipher the police speak that narrates the action. The film never dumbs things down for the audience, it expects them to rise up to the level of the film without coming off as avant-garde or out of reach.
The biggest accomplishment of The French Connection, though, is its ability to put the audience into the investigation. What makes its famous chase scene so compelling is that you feel like you are in as much danger on your couch or theater seat as Popeye is in the front seat of the car. William Friedkin does an amazing job of capturing the raw feel of the chase, whither it be a breathtaking car ride or a casual city walk, and putting it on the big screen for everyone to grab a hold of. Friedkin seems to know the precise technique needed at any given moment, tense music while entering the subway, the sound of nothing but heavy breathing and revving engines during a car chase, to turn a pedestrian scene into a heart stopping thrill ride. Explaining this movie scene by scene would bore someone to tears, but Friedkin found a way to heighten the mundane to a level that makes the audience never want to turn away.
The French Connection is not the Blade Runner of the dirty cop movies, it isn’t the originator of a trope or two that has been built upon and improved by the filmmakers that followed it. The French Connection is more than the first time we see the anti-hero cop, it is more than the best car chase scene ever filmed. The French Connection is a masterpiece of crime storytelling that can really only be copied or matched, but never improved upon.
I give The French Connection 5 out of 5 bowls of French Vanilla ice cream. The perfect version of a flavor everyone can enjoy.
I’m not sure why this movie was so hard for me to write about. I think we watched it six months ago, then got busy, we got married, we went away, I started a new job, then we ran a marathon, and I’m sure all of that is no excuse, but I really could not remember the damn movie at all. I have also decided I can’t be movie reviewer smart about this one. I can’t remember the characters’ names, or discuss the subtleties of their characterization, or tell you about the cinematography. I’ll let my husband do that.
Basically the film is about two New York City cops who haven’t really brought in any impressive criminals lately, whose boss is on their back about the amount of time and energy they have spent, despite their hard work, not making more progress for the squad. They stumble upon some criminals and realize they are on to one of the biggest drug rings smuggling heroin in from Europe. The movie chronicles their surveillance, the chase, and the (somewhat) bust of the drugs. If you say “famous car chase scene” to anyone who knows movies, they’ll name The French Connection. I also enjoyed the Lincoln Continental piece by piece disassemblage, and I learned what rocker panels are.
This is the kind of movie that makes me feel kind of stupid, because I get bored kind of easily, and I tend to think more about things that movie buffs don’t really care about. The music, the “evil music” they play each time they show Alain Charnier eating fancy food, the 1971 aspects of New York City: nothing is done up, everything is raw. Women aren’t wearing padded bras. People’s teeth are yellow or look messed up in various ways. People’s faces are just more, normal, than they are in today’s movies. The camera moves in ways that make you feel like you’re there, and at times, like when Gene Hackman’s character Popeye Doyle loses Charnier following him by foot, the camera angles and timing becomes more frantic. The subway scene is pretty damn memorable and brilliant: always carry an umbrella if you’re being chased. It also blows my mind at how different things were without cell phones, making calls from phone booths, being out on a chase without the constant connection. The famous car chase/elevated rail scene is done entirely without music, which makes it also very raw and intense. I love old cars almost as much as I love old buildings and studying cityscapes. I can’t believe how horrifyingly real the chase scene was, done in a 1971 Pontiac LeMans. Apparently it was actually quite dangerous and real. Many of the collisions were actually real, and the movie producers had only gotten some permits to film the movie.
Read more about it here, and watch an interview with William Friedkin:
Overall, besides the fact the movie has an undeniable cool factor, which is probably why I can’t write decently about it, it’s almost too real, like it was a true story being filmed. I’ve been told these blog entries are too long (Hi Jack) so I’ll end this one here.
I give The French Connection four bowls of French Vanilla ice cream, covered with some kind of alcohol-infused topping, for Popeye.
Up next: Goodfellas
Jon says: My first ICBYNS on this list!
Jenny says: One last chance I give this movie, one.
thanks for both your insights into this film…it has long been a favorite of mine. Do you pick your toes in Poughkeepsie? Love Popeye. Great car chase, however you will have to watch Steeve McQueen in Bullit to get something to compare it to.
As impressive as the Bullit chase scene is, I feel The French Connection had a rawness that made it feel more harrowing and made the audience feel they were part of the chase.