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.