William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971) remains a watershed crime action/drama, mostly for its pedigree of realism. Based on the gritty case files of undercover narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso as publicized in Robin Moore’s hard-hitting novel, the film antes up the unrelenting aspects of being a New York City police detective. Until The French Connection, movies about crime solving usually dealt with the intricacies of the crime and the process by which it was solved in a rather archaically elegant way; its criminals unshaven and bleary-eyed reprobates who were occasionally psychotic to boot; its investigators clean cut and impeccably attired Johnny Dollar’s straight out of Central Casting.
But Friedkin is more interested in what is than what is to be expected. His New York is a decaying dystopia where the good guys are not manicured supermen, but rough and ready, careworn crime fighters wearing rumpled casual clothes that look as though they’ve been slept in. They come to the task of apprehending the bad guys not entirely out of a sense of duty, but from some inbred frustration that borders on an ever so slight ‘us vs. them’ revenge. And the confrontations between these polar opposites are hardly stylish in their execution, but rather a resolute showdown between mismatched adversaries; each determined to destroy the other or die a bloody mess trying.
In that heightened realism, Friedkin and the film achieve a sort of heartless and uncompromising verisimilitude; a sense that everything that is staged is actually reoccurring for the camera in real time. Part of The French Connection’s success at convincing the audience of as much is the deliberately shaky hand-held camera work by Owen Roizman – then a novelty in films; ricocheting with a frenetic energy that throttles the viewer in its purposefully manic maneuvers through the decaying streets of New York. The other aspect that makes the film ‘real’ has to do with Friedkin’s unrelenting determination to tell a grittily good story. Striping off the varnish from the traditional police procedural melodrama, Friedkin fills the screen with an insane intensity that is embraced and embodied in his star, Gene Hackman.
At one point, Hackman’s Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle recklessly drives his automobile in hot pursuit of a killer beneath a suspended train. The sequence, envisioned by Friedkin without first gaining permission from the city to shoot it, was reportedly photographed by Friedkin in the backseat with Hackman gunning the engine; the two barreling at top speeds down the narrow corridors and byways while the neighbors – all of whom where in harm’s way – looked on. Years later Friedkin would confess that the moment left him white knuckled and exhilarated. After viewing the rushes and seeing how close they had come to a few accidents, the footage also sent a chill down his spine.
Not the most patient man one could ever work for, Friedkin initially opposed Hackman as his star. He had wanted Paul Newman instead, then Jacky Gleason or even columnist Jimmy Breslin who had never acted before. The most promising star up for the role, Steve McQueen turned Friedkin down flat. He had just completed Bullitt and didn’t want to do another ‘cop picture’. For one reason or another, Rod Taylor – who heavily campaigned for the part and was strongly considered as a forerunner by the director, was eventually bypassed in favor of Hackman who had no illusions about his looks or performance and agreed to do virtually all his own stunt work. But perhaps most ironic of all was the casting of Fernando Rey as the French heroin smuggler, Alan Charnier.
Friedkin had asked his casting director to sign Spanish actor Francisco Rabal (whose name he did not remember) but whom Friedkin had admired in the French film, Belle de Jour. A mix up in the initial inquiry led to a chance meeting between Friedkin and Fernando Rey instead. When it was discovered that Rabal spoke neither French nor English, while Rey spoke both, Rey won the part by forfeit instead. Ironically, Rey’s French would eventually be dubbed over while his English remained intact.
Ernest Tidyman’s screenplay concerns a heroin smuggling ring headed by a Corsican crime syndicate that operated between Turkey and France, importing their illegal contraband to the United States. By 1960 this real life operation was almost solely responsible for the entire heroin supply in America. The film picks up the trail in Marseilles after a policeman staking out Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is brutally dispatched by Charnier's henchman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi).
Meanwhile, detective James ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman), disguised as Santa Claus, and his partner Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider) are conducting a sting operation in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Russo goes into a bar to make the arrest. But his suspect, Baldy (Charles McGregor) bolts out the front door. After a harrowing chase through the streets and down a deserted back alley Doyle heads off Baldy who is successful at cutting Russo with his knife. Doyle is like a pit bull as he severely beats and terrorizes Baldy into a confession. An unrepentant Doyle tells Russo to never trust anyone, then encourages him to do some more undercover slumming, this time at the Copacabana where Doyle takes an immediate interest in Salvatore Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his young wife, Angie (Arlene Farber) who are entertaining known members of the mob.
On the surface the Bocas are a middleclass couple who run a modest aboveboard newsstand luncheonette. Confidentially however, they both have a criminal past. With a bit of investigative legwork Doyle makes the connection between the Bocas and lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gray), a middle man in the narcotic’s underworld who bankrolls drug shipments from Mexico. The next afternoon, Doyle and Russo roust a bar in their precinct where known drug dealers and buyers gather to deal in their stock and trade. But the rousting is merely an ‘in’ for Doyle who wastes no time pretending to be a dirty cop interested in getting a piece of the action. He quickly learns that a large shipment of heroin is due any day. Armed with this info, Doyle convinces his supervisor, Walt Simonson (the real Eddie Egan) to wiretap the Bocas' phones.
In the meantime, Charnier dupes a friend, French actor Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), into importing a flashy Cadillac through customs. The drugs hidden within its secret compartments are to be sold to Weinstock and Boca. Doyle and Russo attempt to shadow Boca and Charnier at the same time, but are soon found out in their covert efforts by Charnier who plays a very clever game of cat and mouse with Doyle, until he eludes him in the subway. Back at the precinct friction begins to mount between Doyle and Simonson who is working with a government agent, Mulderig (Bill Hickman) to bust Charnier’s smuggling ring wide open. Doyle resents Muderig’s intervention in his big case. This animosity boils over into a physical altercation after Muderig accuses Doyle of being responsible for a fellow officer’s death.
In another part of town Weinstock's chemist (Pat McDermott) tests a sample of the imported heroin and estimates its street value at $32 million. Impatient to clinch the deal and have Charnier return to France, Boca gets sloppy. But Weinstock already knows that Boca’s phone is tapped. With Charnier’s complicity Nicoli is assigned to gun down Doyle. The opportunity falls apart, however, and Doyle makes chase through the streets in his car while Nicoli escapes on an elevated train. Eventually, the men face each other and Doyle, wounded but still very much alive, guns down his would-be assassin.
In the meantime the police impound Devereaux’s car, dismantling it at the precinct garage until they uncover the smuggled heroin ingeniously stashed within its rocker panels. Returning the car to Devereaux seemingly untouched Doyle and Russo tail Boca’s brother, Lou (Benny Marino) to a location where another car has been picked out to be imported to France with Charnier’s payoff. On the way to the airport Boca and Charnier are confronted by Doyle and a roadblock of police that force them to an isolated abandoned factory. In the ensuing pursuit and gunfire Boca is killed and Doyle inadvertently kills Mulderig. But Charnier has vanished without a trace.
Viewed today, The French Connection remains both taut and dynamic; its real life counterparts Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, serving as consultants throughout the shoot. From the crash and bang-up that takes place during the penultimate car chase (not originally intended but left in the film for its heightened realism), to having actual motor men and conductors operate the subway trains (city authorities would not give the crew permission to use an actor), the movie leaps across the screen with a rawness that continues to ring true. But it must be said that the plot remains incidental at best. The French Connection broke the mold for telling crime stories both in film and later, on TV. For that alone it deserves honorable mention. I’m just not entirely sure it deserved the year’s Best Picture Oscar.
The characterizations are stick figures at their best; even Hackman who does everything to give Doyle a hidden agenda or at least modest backstory despite his limited dialogue. Don’t get me wrong. The French Connection is stylistically thrilling. But it is a rather pedestrian tale that becomes more than slightly convoluted rather than more intricate and revealing midway through.
Now let’s talk about this Blu-ray. In 2009 Fox debuted its first hi-def incarnation with Friedkin’s re-envisioning of a ‘pastel’ color scheme and blown out contrast levels that were entirely unrepresentative of the film as it appeared back in 1971. Friedkin not only defended this color ‘correction’ redux (that made the image look as though it were a colorized B&W movie) as the way he presumably had always intended the film to look, but also insisted that this blu-ray was the best way to view his film in 1080p. All evidence to the contrary. The image was so ugly then, marred by excessive manipulations and excessive film grain that even cinematographer Owen Roizman spoke out against it.
But now we get Fox’s second bite at the apple: a “Filmmakers Signature Series” originally marketed exclusively through Best Buy, now made readily available at video retailers everywhere. Most, but not all of the extra content created for the first flawed Blu-ray has been imported on this second outing, but this time everything has been condensed on one disc instead of two. Fox has advertised this Blu-ray transfer as a new high-definition master supervised by director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman. I must admit, that alone gave me some initial misgivings. Would Friedkin’s misguided color correction remain intact?
Thankfully, the answer is no – well…mostly. The old disc had a comparative analysis of the raw hi-def scan and Friedkin’s redux. I’ll assume the raw scan was the basis for this release. They look similar. Bearing in mind that The French Connection’s visuals were never intended to look ‘clean’, I have to say the new 1080p remains excessively grainy in spots and extremely soft focused in others. Is this true to the original film stock? Perhaps. I can only speculate. But the grain structure still doesn’t look all that natural to my eyes. As for the colors. Whew! Better. Much better.
Perfect? Well…we won’t go there. Okay, I will. Blood looks too red for my taste and the grass seems way too green for a movie that is supposed to be taking place in the dead of winter. At least the purple tint is gone from night scenes, but whites still frequently adopt an unflattering teal hue. Overall I must concede that this incarnation of The French Connection is at least watchable. For lack of a better word, the color looks ‘normal’ or perhaps I should say, ‘natural’. Flesh tones lose their pasty bleached look. Fine detail seems a tad more pronounced without being artificially enhanced.
For this reissue The French Connection retains its 5.1 remastering effort from the previous disc, understandably strident because the film’s original audio mix was mono. This we also get and frankly, I prefer it to the pseudo stereo attempt at updating the soundtrack. As for the extras: we lose the personal intro by Friedkin, the featurette on color timing, and the textually dense and fascinating BBC documentary, The Poughkeepsie Shuffle that covered not only the film but the real life French Connection.
So, what’s left? We still have Friedkin’s commentary, another by Hackman and Roy Scheider, a trivia track and isolated score. Twelve minutes of deleted scenes and a 20 min. deconstruction of the chase, plus ten minutes on Don Ellis’ score. There’s also an all too brief featurette on tough cops as portrayed in this and other Fox film noir classics. Finally, there’s the much regurgitated Making the Connection: Untold Stories of The French Connection. At 57 minutes it is by far the most comprehensive extra included this time around.
New to this Blu-ray are 11 min. of Hackman on Doyle and 5 minutes of a conversation Friedkin had with former detective Randy Jurgensen. Bottom line: I had hoped this would be a flawless remastering effort. It wasn’t. I had assumed all of the extra features would be consolidated together for this ‘comprehensive’ presentation. They weren’t. But overall I have to say my viewing experience was better than expected and that’s at least saying something. I just wish Fox would get their act together and start doing some truly stellar work on Blu-ray; particularly where their catalogue titles are concerned. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)