Tuesday, September 8, 2015

2015 Blind Spot Series - The French Connection



During my last Blind Spot post I mentioned that there were a few movies that were locks to make my list of twelve films to watch for the first time this year. Pi was one of those films. This one, The French Connection sat very clearly at the top of the list. I love cop procedurals and crime dramas and this recognized as one of the best ever. In fact, it shows up on lots of 'best ever' lists. It also won Best Picture in 1971, the first R-rated feature to do so, stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, and even came out the year I was born. How have I not seen this? The obvious question is how come I didn't watch this first? There is a method to my madness. This one seemed to be a better fit for summer. As I found out, it's good for any time of the year.


Our story follows a pair of rough-and-tumble detectives, "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and "Buddy" Russo (Roy Scheider), in the ultra-gritty atomosphere of New York City in the early 70s. They are known for trying to bust everyone for every thing. They seem to specialize in bringing people in for minor offenses that do little more than create a logjam at the precinct and a mountain for headaches for their superiors who want more substantial arrests. As luck would have it, our boys stumble upon something that could be big. While blowing off some steam at a bar after work, Doyle notices a nobody and his gal yukking it up with some well-known players. After following the guy for a while, Doyle and Russo figure out that this guy, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) is connected to something big. That something is a drug smuggling ring run by a wealthy criminal out of France by the name of Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). Lots of cat-and-mouse ensues. This is loosely based on a true story.

The cat-and-mouse on display in this film is of magnificent quality. Watching these people try to follow and avoid each other is endlessly compelling. The lengths to which the bad guys go to lose their tails is occasionally extraordinary, occasionally not, but always makes sense and is fun to watch. Particularly impressive is the scene of Popeye following Charnier on foot which ends up in the subway with the two men stepping on and off a train about to depart. It's a brilliant scene that has been overshadowed by another scene that we'll talk about shortly. Both of them demonstrate a major strength of The French Connection. It maximizes the city of New York in its role as a character in the film. It's impossible to imagine this movie taking place anywhere besides the Big Apple. The place imposes itself upon the movie to the effect of being a living, breathing entity. Even if they could, things that happen here seem like they could not have happened elsewhere. This is made clear by the contrast in the appearance of New York with a couple of other cities during brief stretches when the film switches locations.


One of those things that could not have happened anywhere else is that other scene I referenced. The car chase scene. Sure, there are car chase scenes in tons of movies before and since The French Connection, but this one has a different quality to it. I'll admit to being skeptical of this before I sat down to watch the movie. Over the years, I've heard how great it was, but avoided watching clips of it, for the most part, and didn't read much about the movie in general. I mean, it's just a car chase, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. Now, this is not some Fast and Furious nuttiness with tons of explosions and people jumping from one vehicle to another while moving at a hundred miles an hour. This is a cop trying to get through busy city streets as fast as possible and having a tough time of it. The kicker is that what he's chasing is not a car, at all, but an elevated train. This whole scene is oh-so-New York, fitting the entire film so perfectly, it made me giddy. If you want proof of that go no further than noticing that I just wrote an entire paragraph about a car chase scene.

A great car chase scene and some excellent cat-and-mouse doesn't amount to much without a strong movie wrapped around it. The French Connection is exceptionally strong in most areas. most of it stems from our relationship with our two hard-working cops. For starters, Gene Hackman is flat out awesome as Popeye Doyle. He's a flawed, sloppy kind of guy and prone to acting on hunches. However, he is passionate about what he does, if a bit overzealous, at times. Russo is a world-weary sort. Watching him, you get the idea that he's seen it all and heard it all simply by being around Popeye for who knows how many years. However, he shares his partner's passion. Though it's the far more subtle role, Scheider delivers no less of a performance than Hackman. In some ways, pulling it off is more difficult than what his co-star does because he has to do much of his acting with just facial expressions. Together, the two have an excellent chemistry that really carries the movie during the slower scenes.

When things speed up, they don't crank up to breakneck speeds. It all flows organically and feels like its done without pretense. This keeps us in the movie, fully locked in to the investigation that Popeye and Buddy are conducting. The French Connection does such a great job of drawing us in, and Popeye is such a great character, we feel like we're watching a real operation go down. William Friedkin, who would go on to direct horror classic The Exorcist does a masterful job here, crafting a truly gritty crime drama wrapped around some wonderful performances. By the way, Friedkin is now eighty years old, but as recently as four years ago was still shocking audiences with the criminally underseen Killer Joe. The man and this movie have aged gracefully. It holds up against any of its cinematic descendants. True, it took me entirely too long to see this film, but it was well worth the wait.

16 comments:

  1. This movie hasn't aged well but I still think it's very, very good. Absolutely love that chase scene.

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    1. I think it's aged very well, actually. Still holds up for me.

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  2. I haven't seen The French Connection either but I really, really want to. I've heard so much about 'that' car chase scene and I'm glad it's a bit different to your average action movie chase, great post! :)

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    1. Thanks. I highly recommend it. I'll probably watch it again soon, myself.

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  3. I have this on my Blind Spot list for next year. I'm glad you enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to it too.

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    1. Cool. Can't wait to see what you think of it.

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  4. Oh, YES. I watched this last month on the big screen and decided to write it up as a Blind Spot as well (it wasn't on my original list, but I hadn't seen it before and I was behind). It is SO awesome. Big yeses to everything you say here, especially about that subway cat-and-mouse scene being stupendous and almost unjustly overshadowed by the car chase. I didn't know that he was actually chasing an el-train either until I saw it, and it really does add something special. I so love what you say about NYC being a character in the film. It definitely is, and I really felt transported back to 70s Manhattan while watching this, in a far more real way than any other film I can think of. Great write-up - so glad you liked this!

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    1. I loved it. And I'm very jealous you got to see it on the big screen.

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  5. This is such a great slo-burn thriller. Great acting, script, and the whole set up is suspenseful. That foot chase is one of the best in film history IMHO.

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    1. It absolutely is...to everything you said.

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  6. I'm glad you got around to seeing this because it's certainly one that stands out for me. I watched it because I felt I should and wasn't prepared for how much I wouldlike it! Fun read!

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    1. Thanks! That's exactly my experience. I knew it was something I "should" watch. I even figured I'd like it. When I saw it, I was blown away!

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  7. Happy to see this suddenly popping up and being discovered again, first Dan and now you! It is a terrific film and as it turns out a great snapshot of down and dirty vibrantly ALIVE New York in the 70's, as different from the Disneyfied tunnel it is today as day is to night. Hackman is brilliant and he holds the screen and pulls you in to Popeye's problems, Scheider and Fernando Rey add considerably to the film but Hackman is the movie's heart.

    I remember when it came out that it was considered fast paced and now looking back its surprising to see it referred to as so but it illustrates how speed has sometimes became a substitute for substance in films now. On a rewatch I found the lack of fast cuts refreshing. Glad you put a spotlight on that subway scene it is often forgotten in the shadow of the truly awesome car chase.

    Since you really enjoyed this I'll recommend the same film I did to Dan, the original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. It was made around the same time period as this and has a very similar feeling to it. The remake is okay but doesn't match the original.

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    1. I'm so glad I finally got around to watching this. The pacing is just perfect as it never drags or rushes. Considering when it was made, I can see it being called fast paced, though.

      I have seen both versions of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. The original is far superior, as you stated.

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  8. Definitely one of the finest films ever made and I'm glad William Friedkin is making a comeback with Bug and Killer Joe while Sorcerer is finally getting its due. I hope there's a few good movies in him as this one is a favorite of mine.

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    1. The dude just knows how to make a good movie. This might be his finest.

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