Thursday, January 6, 2011

The French Connection (1971) & French Connection II (1975)

          Cop movies were never the same after The French Connection, a scalding thriller about a New York detective obsessively tracking a Gallic drug smuggler. Once audiences watched morally challenged policeman Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) rattle suspects with twisted psychological tricks, snare hoodlums with outrageous traps like dressing as a Salvation Army Santa Claus, and instigate the most frightening car chase 1971 audiences had ever seen, any policier with less verve suddenly seemed old-fashioned by comparison. Based on a bestselling nonfiction book by Robin Moore and directed with docudrama realism by William Friedkin, the movie meticulously tracks how Doyle and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), latch onto a small-time hood, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), who unwittingly leads the cops to an enigmatic supplier nicknamed “The Frog” (Fernando Rey). Ernest Tidyman’s muscular script juxtaposes character-development scenes with explosive sequences of police action, creating just the right ambiguous context for moments like Doyle shooting an escaping felon in the back; the storyline presents Doyle as a one-man exploration of whether Machiavellian law enforcement degrades or protects society.
          Even with its probing questions about right and wrong, The French Connection is breathlessly exciting, particularly during that infamous car chase, which has Doyle pursuing an elevated train carrying a suspect—Doyle’s high-speed close calls with pedestrians are so terrifying that they powerfully reinforce the movie’s theme of a cop who’s as dangerous as any crook. Lo Bianco, Rey, and Scheider provide sterling support, with Scheider demonstrating the streetwise charm that made him a leading man a few years later. As for Hackman, he’s on fire, alternately ferocious, funny, perverse, and wild, turning scenes like the “pick your toes in Poughkeepsie” interrogation into unforgettable moments. Friedman, Hackman, and Tidyman all won Oscars for their work, and they each spent much of their subsequent careers trying to recapture the bristling intensity of this film.
          For instance, Hackman continued the “Popeye” Doyle character’s journey in French Connection II, which was directed by hard-hitting journeyman John Frankenheimer instead of brash provocateur Friedkin. A terrific thriller in its own right, French Connection II sends Doyle to France, where he continues the investigation left hanging at the end of the first picture. In the sequel’s brilliant contrivance, Doyle gets abducted and doped by the drug dealers he’s pursuing, leading to an extraordinary sequence of Doyle going through violent DT’s. While the sequel’s storyline isn’t as focused or potent as that of its predecessor, Hackman’s performance is just as powerful the second time around, so both movies sit on the top shelf of ’70s crime cinema. FYI, the real-life cops who inspired The French Connection also inspired two other thrillers, both released in 1973: Badge 373 and The Seven-Ups.

The French Connection: OUTTA SIGHT
French Connection II: RIGHT ON


J. Griffin Barber said...

While it might seem Popeye's shooting the felon in the back is wrong, at the time it was acceptable police practice in the US.

Tennessee Vs Gardner, a case arising from the 1974 shooting of a fleeing felon:

It is the Supreme Court Case that prevents officers shooting a fleeing felon except under very specific circumstances. The case was not ruled upon by the US Supreme Court until 1985. The fleeing felon the officers shot in that case, on later reflection, was much less deserving of lethal force than the hood shot in The French Connection.

Great article. Great movie.

Pop Off! said...

Originally Doyle was to be played by Jackie Gleason. I forget why the never panned out but it would have made for a different film for sure.