A winner of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, The French Connection is a taught and edgy police thriller starring Gene Hackman in the role that won him the first of his two Oscars. The film is inspired by the book of the same name and blends fact and fiction to bring a major drug smuggling operation to the big screen. Detectives Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) uncover a plot to smuggle a large quantity of heroin from France to the East Coast of the USA and tail leads, battle assassins and fight their bosses in an attempt to bring the traffickers down.
Early scenes criss-cross the Atlantic between New York City and Marseilles where the protagonists are either setting up to smuggle drugs or carrying out street busts. A few of the opening scenes gave me eye strain due to the slightly juddery hand held style of camera work used by Director William Friedkin. Once I was over the initial disorientation that the camera work gave me though, I was able to appreciate the almost documentary style of realism that Friedkin captures. He gets right to the heart of the action with cameras placed in close quarters to the actors when necessary but also stands back at times, delivering long tracking or panning shots as the characters play a game of cat and mouse through the streets of New York.
I enjoyed the sight of my favourite city at what I consider to be its grimy height. Any regular reader will know of my love for beauty in decay and this is precisely what The French Connection gives its audience. The streets are littered and grubby and people sleep in doorways, sheltered by discarded cardboard. There are half torn down buildings stood side by side with rubble strewn vacant lots and iconic skyscrapers. Friedkin treats his audience to several long scenes on the streets of the city as characters duck and dive between cars and buildings, attempting to either evade or capture. The film’s climax in an abandoned warehouse brings the film to a suitably grimy visual conclusion.
The stand out sequence is the elevated train-car chase, a chase considered by some to be one of the greatest in the history of film. It’s a magnificent few minutes as Popeye chases down a man who has tried to shoot him, he in a car with the assailant overhead, rattling through the city at high speed. The action is captured beautifully by cameras protruding from the front of Popeye’s car as well as on board the train with some of the best angles shot from a block away showing both car and train in vertical pursuit. The chase is messy and Popeye crashes and has numerous near misses. He loses sight of the train from time to time and this all adds to the realism that Friedkin creates throughout. Some of these crashes were actually accidental but were included in the final film for realism. The sequence has since been copied many times, most notably for me in video games such as Driver and Grand Theft Auto.
Another sequence that stood out was a foot chase between Popeye and French smuggler Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). This scene meanders haphazardly through the streets of Midtown while the shrewd men try to out manoeuvre each other. It climaxes as Grand Central Subway Station in a tense but also amusing scene in which Charnier repeatedly gets on and off a stationary train as he tries to lose Popeye who is just mere feet away from him. This chess like game lasts a long time but is incredibly tense and engaging. The film’s editing, another Oscar winner, helps to give these chase scenes a real sense of tension and urgency even if they’re much slower than their petrol powered counterparts.
Gene Hackman gives a superb performance as a detective who won’t let the bust of a lifetime elude him. His character is shown to by slightly murky in his methods and the actor conveys the desperation for arrest wonderfully. He’s a man always on edge and his fiery temperament comes screaming out of an actor who is great when playing loud or quiet. Roy Scheider is fine but doesn’t really shine alongside his more accomplished co-star. He isn’t given quite so much to do but is a solid number two. Tony Lo Bianco plays a great small time mobster hoping to make big and Fernando Rey is dangerous but illusive. You can’t really pin the character down which really helps extend the metaphor of his evading capture throughout the movie.
Overall after a shaky, slightly slow start, Friedkin’s film builds itself into a grand, tense thriller. It could be argued that it was lucky to feature in a weak year for film (Fiddler on the Roof anyone?) but I don’t begrudge it any of its five Oscars. It’s clever and expertly made, creating an edgy feeling though its realistic cinematography and performances and features a couple of truly outstanding scenes.
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