Wednesday, January 18, 2012

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971)


THE FRENCH CONNECTION (DIR: WILLIAM FRIEDKIN) (SCR: ERNEST  TIDYMAN, BASED ON THE NONFICTION BOOK THE FRENCH CONNECTION: A TRUE ACCOUNT OF COPS, NARCOTICS AND INTERNATIONAL CONSPIRACY)

Just two years after giving the gritty, adult, New York set film MIDNIGHT COWBOY the best picture award, the Academy again embraced a dark urban film that illustrated just how much Hollywood had changed in the new decade: William Friedkin's violent cop film THE FRENCH CONNECTION.  
The film began as a nonfiction book by Robin Moore about the biggest drug bust in history.  The book raised the interest of Friedkin, who was relatively unknown at the time, but who eventually got Richard Zanuck of 20th. Century Fox to produce it for around two million dollars.  Former New York Times reporter Ernest Tidyman was hired to adapt the book, while various actors were discussed for the lead role of Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who was based on real life cop Eddie Egan. Names like Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason were thrown around, and even New York based writer Jimmy Breslin was considered before Gene Hackman, probably then best known for his supporting role in BONNIE AND CLYDE, was cast, followed by Roy Scheider as his partner Buddy Russo.  Before making the film, the two actors spent time patrolling with the real life cops their characters were based on.  Hackman was shocked by the experience, and came to dislike Egan, which lead to some tension with him and Friedkin,  with the director  wanting Popeye to be more brutal and racist than Hackman was often willing to play.  Despite this, the film would become a huge hit, making over fifty million dollars in the US, and influencing nearly every cop film and TV show that came after it.

Gene Hackman

The film's story is simple:  French drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Ray) is planning for a huge shipment of heroin to arrive in New York city.  Two Brooklyn based cops, Jimmy Doyle and Buddy Russo, get wind of the shipment, and begin tailing Charnier and some other suspicious characters.  After several shoot outs and chases, the police stop the shipment, although Charnier escapes at the end.

Although 1968's BULLITT clearly had an influence on this film (especially in the car chase scene), THE FRENCH CONNECTION was really where the modern cop film began. For years, cops on screen were portrayed as noble straight arrows who only used force when necessary, like Jack Webb on TV's DRAGNET.  Hackman's "Popeye" Doyle couldn't be further away from that: he's a driven, almost obsessive character who casually uses violence on suspects, unapologetically makes racist comments, and, in the film's most shocking scene, shrugs off his accidental shooting of a government agent while pursuing Charnier.  He drinks too much, lives in a shabby apartment, and, other than a one night stand, has no personal life.  He truly lives for his job, clearly relishing the way he intimidates and frisks an entire bar  and having no problem with going on stake outs that can last hours; the only moment in the film where he appears really happy is when he and Buddy discover that the wire tap they're listening to has given them definite information.  Hackman may have fought with Friedkin over how to play the character, but his intense performance won him a best actor Oscar and made him a star.  
Along with setting the tough cop template, there are other cop movie cliches that this movie more or less created: the strong bond between the two partners, complete with funny, foul mouthed macho banter, the often apoplectic  police chief who takes the heroes off the case, the seemingly erudite but actually evil drug lord (Fernando Ray makes a good villain), and, of course, the car chase.  Personally,  I think the chase here does indeed oneup the chase from the aforementioned BULLITT by making it a chase between a car and a speeding subway train, also through it's clever camerawork (I love the point of view shots from inside Popeye's speeding car) and by making the assassin that Popeye is chasing a real murderous slime of a villain (he shoots several innocent people), making Popeye's eventual victory (he shoots the baddie in the back) all the better. Unfortunately, the popularity of this  chase and the one in BULLITT would lead to one of the worst trends of 70's movies: films that were built almost entirely around car chases, like SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT.

The classic chase scene

Friedkin began his directorial  career making TV documentaries, and he uses that realistic technique to good effect in the way that he and his cinematographer Owen Roizman shoot  the steamy streets of New York city.  The constant motion and crowds make even a simple scene like Popeye tailing a suspect exciting.  I also like the way that Friedkin sets the tone of the film right away, with Don Ellis's thumping score grabbing the audience while the opening credits shoot out at the audience, promising action to come.  Yes, over forty years later, after literally hundreds of movies and TV shows with chase scenes and shoot outs, Friedkin's film still feels thrilling.  Sometimes, I think he may overdue the grittiness of the  film; in one scene, we see the remains of a car accident that has nothing to do with the film's main plot, and there is more than one pointless shot of the bloody bodies.  (One can almost sense Friedkin's glee at being able to show gore in a movie that he couldn't have a few years earlier under the production code.)  I also think that the film's ending is a cop out; Hackman chases Charnier through an abandoned garage, he thinks he has him cornered, we hear a gunshot without seeing what's going on, and then some credits tell us what happened to most of the characters.  Although I admire directors who confound audience expectations, I think it doesn't work here.  The whole film has been building up to a confrontation between Popeye and Charnier (they never speak to each other, but they know about each other), and by avoiding that confrontation Friedkin leaves the film unresolved.  Still, overall, this is a terrific action picture.
It is interesting to note that there was another influential cop picture released that year; Don Siegel's DIRTY HARRY, and the similarities of the two films are striking:  they are both violent films featuring tough guy cops  who often bend the rules on the mean streets of big cities.  The crucial differences are that Clint Eastwood's Harry is an outright hero, whereas Popeye is far less likable (Harry would never make a mistake like shooting a federal agent), and that Siegel's film is less realistic than Friedkin's, and really is downright cartoonish at times.  I don't think that it's a coincidence that the two films came out at the same time, with then President Richard Nixon promising to get tough on crime and often violent war protests still rocking the nation, audiences flocked to see movies that showed cops restoring order and taking down scum bags. But not everyone was as thrilled as they were, with both Harry and Popeye being labeled as Fascists by a number of people, like film critic Paulene Kael.  To be fair,  I think part of the reason people go to movies is to watch stories that have simple resolutions in which bad guys get what's coming to them, realizing fully that  the real world doesn't always work out so easily, so the Fascist label seems too harsh to me, even if I do cringe when Harry tortures a criminal for information in DIRTY HARRY.  In any event, both films are interesting as signs of their times, along with being entertaining films in their own right.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?

While I'm clearly a fan of this film, I think another violent movie released that year was even better: Stanley Kubrick's A CLOCKWORK ORANGE.  I also greatly enjoyed Robert Altman's MC CABE AND MRS MILLER and Alan Pakula's KLUTE, still, for its influence alone, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a good choice.