The French Connection [DVD]
Screenplay : Ernest Tidyman (based on the book by Robin Moore)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Gene Hackman (Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Roy Scheider (Buddy "Cloudy" Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Frédéric de Pasquale (Devereaux), Bill Hickman (Mulderig)
Prior to its release in late 1971 and subsequent winning of five of that year's Academy Awards, including best picture, director, and actor, there had never been a movie quite like The French Connection. There have been dozens and dozens since--most of what we associate with police-themed TV shows, especially Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue owe a direct debt to the film--which is what makes it all the more impressive that it still stands up so well 30 years later. Viewers and critics alike knew they were seeing something different and daring on-screen in 1971. The French Connection riveted them in their seats even if they were dimly wary about the brutality of its images and the coarseness of its methods.
The French Connection is a deeply New York movie, shot entirely on location during the freezing winter of 1970. The location photography lends a distinct authenticity to the movie's texture, as director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman get their jittery, handheld cameras deep into the rotten underbelly of America's greatest city. Most of the movie takes place in dingy alleyways, cheap watering holes, and backstreets in Brooklyn. There are a few fleeting glimpses of the fabled New York skyline, with its shining skyscapers of steel and glass. But, that is just to establish the fact that most of the story will take place beneath those symbols of capitalist enterprise, in a seedy world that is both the antithesis and a perverted mirror reflection of American society.
The story is a thinly fictionalized account of one of the biggest narcotics busts in U.S. history by two New York detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (who have cameos in the movie). Egan and Gross become Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), their nicknames coming directly from Egan and Grosso's. Popeye and Cloudy are hardened, experienced narcotics detectives who work their jobs like a game that never ends; even when they're off-duty they're still sniffing around for dirt.
One night they happen to spot some known dope peddlers lavishing large amounts of money at a restaurant, which catches Popeye's attention and leads to an investigation that eventually culminates in the capture of some $32 million in heroin imported from France. The French connection of the title refers to Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the wily and aristocratic French crimelord responsible for the importation of the heroin via a well-known, but struggling French actor (Frédéric de Pasquale) who is desperate for cash.
The French Connection probably couldn't be made today, relying as it does on a borderline repulsive central protagonist and ending as it does in hard-edged frustration, a single, hollow gunshot in an abandoned warehouse still echoing in our minds as we find out that the villain escaped justice. The screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (who wrote the screenplay for Shaft that same year), taken from the factual book by Robin Moore, plays somewhat loose with the plot, and the film's overall tone and structure suggest the influence of European art cinema on American films of the early '70s, even in the action-thriller genre.
Much of Doyle and Russo's investigation relies on coincidence and luck, and we don't attribute this to lousy screenwriting, but to the fact that much police work progresses by exactly those means. The pacing is so quick and intensive that it becomes easy to overlook when the script does leave gaping holes, such as the scene in which the police strip a car to its frame in order to find the smuggled drugs and then manage to get it all put back together in a few hours so that the smugglers don't notice it's been tampered with.
Gene Hackman deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a complex, antiheroic protagonist. It is ironically his most questionable personality characteristics--his bitterness, his vanity, his ruthlessness--that make him such an effective cop. He is given to racist remarks and quick-tempered brutality, but we never get the sense that he is a truly bad human being, even when he shoots an unarmed man in the back. Rather, he is someone who has seen the worst aspects of society and feels that certain liberties must be taken in order to combat it. Liberal-minded viewers of the movie are appalled by Popeye's behavior, and it is often appalling. Yet, there is a stark reality to his circumstances that, even if they don't justify what he does, they at least explain it. His actions are never fully gratuitous because they are always contextualized within his desperate plight as a police officer battling an urban malaise that is overwhelming.
First-time feature director William Friedkin, then known as a director of documentaries, turned out to be the perfect choice to helm the movie. His experience in the documentary look was precisely what the cops-and-criminals genre needed. Using a style he terms "induced documentary," he gave The French Connection an immediacy and depth that is lacking in most highly polished Hollywood product. The photography is sometimes shaky, the images a bit grainy, mostly taken in long and medium shots. The film's raw visual aesthetic gives the rushing sensation of actually being there, right in the middle of the action, as if the cameraman just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was trying to keep up with what's going on.
Of course, this does not describe the movie as a whole. While The French Connection has been hailed as masterpiece of documentary-like realism grafted onto a crime thriller, there are moments of stylized action, most notably the famed car chase in which Popeye pursues a would-be assassin who is riding above him on an elevated train. Friedkin, working under pressure to top the much-celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt (1968), which was also produced by The French Connection producer Phil D'Antoni, pulls no punches as he puts us in the middle of the hurtling action, literally on the car's grill as it rips around support poles and narrowly avoids dozens of collisions. There have been bigger and grander car chase sequences since The French Connection, but it would be hard to come up with one that is more raw and intense, uncluttered and primal in its single-minded relentlessness--much like Popeye Doyle himself and the film as a whole.
|The French Connection Five Star Collection DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround|
Dolby 2.0 Stereo
Dolby 1.0 Monaural
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (1.0)|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director William Friedkin|
Audio commentary by stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider
Making the Connection: The Untold Stories: retrospective documentary
Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Following the French Connection BBC retrospective documentary
Seven deleted scenes hosted by William Friedkin
Original theatrical trailers for The French Connection and The French Connection II
THX OptiMode test signals
|Distributor||20th Century Fox|
|Release Date||September 25, 2001|
|The French Connection was shot in a gritty, semi-documentary style on actual locations in the dingiest sections of New York City. Thus, the movie has an intentionally rough, unpolished look. Presented in a THX-certified anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, the image on this DVD is the best the movie has ever looked on home video. The muted color scheme--dominated by drab shades of brown and gray--and dark tones are well presented without being oversaturated or pushed. Most of the movie looks surprisingly smooth and clear, although there are numerous insert shots that are noticeably grainy, especially in comparison to the rest of the movie. The higher resolution of the anamorphic image really brings out the grungy details of the location photography.|
|The soundtrack is available in either two-channel stereo or a brand-new 5.1-channel surround mix that is quite effective without sounding too gimmicky. Don Ellis' blaring, in-your-face music sounds better than ever--rich, full, and nearly pitch perfect. The 5.1-channel soundtrack is also particularly good at utilizing the surround channels to expand the ambient noises of New York--cars honking, the wind blowing, the rustle and murmur of crowds--to create an intensely enveloping environment, just as Friedkin intended.|
| As part of Fox's consistently impressive Five Star Collection, The French Connection is packed with an excellent array of supplementary materials spread out on two discs. |
First up are two audio commentaries, one by director Williams Friedkin and the other by stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Friedkin's commentary is informative, but a bit dry at times because he tends to spend a lot of time recounting plot details and essentially narrating what is on-screen (it is definitely worth listening to his commentary during the chase scene just to hear him point out how much of it was unintentional). Hackman and Scheider's commentary is not screen-specific, and the two actors were recorded separately, with Hackman talking for the first half of the movie and Scheider picking up for the second half. Thankfully, neither actor limits himself to discussing only acting, and each goes into some depth about other aspects of the production.
While far too many DVDs these days have lightweight making-of featurettes, this set has not one, but two engrossing one-hour retrospective documentaries on the second DVD. They're both worth watching, even if much of the information contained in each is also in the other. The first doc, Making the Connection: The Untold Stories, was produced to celebrate the movie's 30th anniversary for the Fox Movie Channel. Running a solid hour in length and presented in nonanamorphic widescreen, it is structured around Sonny Grosso retracing the steps he and Eddie Egan followed when making their historic drug bust in the early '60s. The documentary has a dual focus on covering the factual basis of the case and the production of the movie. It includes face time with virtually every person involved with the movie who is still alive: Gross, director William Friedkin, producer Phil D'Antoni, executive producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, stars Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, and Tony Lo Bianco, writer Robin Moore, cinematographer Owen Roizman, and editor Jerry Greenberg, among others.
The other documentary, Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Following the French Connection, was produced around the same time for the BBC. Running just shy of an hour in length and presented in anamorphic widescreen, it covers much of the same ground as the Fox Movie Channel documentary and features interviews with most of the same people, but from a somewhat different angle in that it focuses more on the movie's production and less on the connections between the movie and the real-life story on which it's based.
The second disc also contains seven deleted sequences that can be viewed individually or they can be viewed interspersed with video commentary by Friedkin. During his commentary, Friedkin jokingly refers to these deleted scenes as having sat in his garage for the last 30 years, and that's exactly what they look like. Dull, washed out, and hazy, they almost border on the unwatchable except that they are so fascinating as a near-perfect example of extraneous material that needed to be cut out (the S&M sequence with the assassin is an early indicator of the kind of pointless, sadistic excess that would eventually ruin Friedkin's Hollywood career).
Other supplements include a stills gallery divided into three sections (behind the scenes, unit photography, and poster) and the original theatrical trailers for both The French Connection and The French Connection II (which is also available on DVD in a box set with the first movie) in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick