Director: William Friedkin
Reviewed: April 2010
As a fan of The Wire, Law & Order, Homicide: Life on the Street, and NYPD Blue, I was instantly drawn into the world of The French Connection, a shadowy thriller set in New York City, with its memorable cop characters, shady villains, rooftop snipers, and evocative chase scenes on foot, public transportation, and most memorably, on the El. Gene Hackman plays Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, and Roy Scheider plays Buddy "Cloudy" Russo; together, they form a brutal narcotics force of nature, brutalizing criminals, perfecting the good cop, bad cop routine by peppering suspects with random questions. "Are you still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?" Popeye badgers one of their witnesses, confusing both him and me. I had to call my dad later to find out what Popeye was doing.
Late 60's, early 70's New York with most of the film shot on location. Shadowy villains in France, traveling to America. Some sort of drug deal. The film takes a long time to get going, but in a sense, it is moving forward from the first scene of violence. What I liked is that Popeye and Buddy have to follow, observe, and wonder about many of the connections and criminal activity in the film. And so do we. As opposed to their brutally racist shake-downs of African-American bars, these criminals will require the detectives to draw the lines among the players, getting wiretaps, staging elaborate ways to follow "Frog One" or "Frog Two" on the street.
Popeye emerges as a complex, dark character; his pursuit of his objective is both brutal and single-minded. As a sniper nearly takes his life, killing an innocent woman with a baby behind him, Popeye glances at her, but his primary goal is catching his man, completing his mission. At whatever cost. Gene Hackman is electric in this role, and Scheider serves as a great foil to him. Popeye's hat and trench coat are iconic images, stomping his feet and drinking his nasty coffee as he stares through windows, jumps on and off of trains, gets caught in traffic jams.
The use of music and the decisions when not to use music are masterful. Friedkin shoots this film in an urgent, captivating way. At times, his camera zooms way out to the extreme, giving us the bigger picture, how things fit together. At other times, the camera zooms in, focusing on a key detail on the street. The sets seem for the most part to be real locations, the detritus of New York City. The centerpiece, of course, is the driving under the El scene where Hackman's character pursues a suspect on foot, on train, and then in a car chasing a train. It is iconic; watching it was almost anticlimactic, especially since I have seen it featured at the Academy Awards and in numerous clip shows. I can imagine seeing that chase on the big screen must have been epic. It stands the test of time.
In closing, I like the ambiguity of The French Connection, the darkness and the way that Friedkin is confident in telling his story his way, never giving the audience too much information. The final shot is troubling; what does that final gunshot mean? The closing titles telling the future of the characters leaves us frustrated and upset. My dad told me that this film made Gene Hackman's career, bringing him his first Academy Award for acting. It is a powerful, tour-de-force performance, and I'm glad I finally caught up with it.