Director William Friedkin’s 1971 classic police thriller, The French Connection, which won the 1971 Academy Award for Best Picture (and four others) over A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler On The Roof, The Last Picture Show, and Nicholas And Alexandra, is not a great film, but it is a very good and taut prosaic thriller, and a significantly better film than his later, overrated non-scary horror film The Exorcist. The reason it is not a great film is rather simple- there is nothing of depth that the film imparts to its viewer. Yes, the direction, the acting, the screenplay (by Ernest Tidyman, adapted from the nonfiction book by Robin Moore), the faux documentary cinematography (by Owen Roizman) and the taut scoring (by Don Ellis), are uniformly excellent. The music, especially, is effective because it’s not applied to every scene, as a way to convey the exegesis of what is going on in a ham-handed manner. Instead, it is used judiciously, and only to enhance moments of equivocal emotional power. But, other than this being a well made cop thriller, there is nothing that gives one an ‘in’ to its lead characters, and there is nothing deeper than ‘stopping the bad guys’ going on.
The 104 minute long film opens with a great musical score and title sequence that really sets the tone. The first shots of the film are in Marseille, France, and depict a Corsican shipping merchant and heroin smuggler, named Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey, soon to be called Frog 1), being followed by a French law enforcement official. Within a minute or two of the film’s start, the cop is killed by Charnier’s hitman, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi, soon to be known as Frog 2). The action then switched to Brooklyn, New York, and NYPD narcotics detectives James ‘Popeye’ Doyle (Gene Hackman, who won the Best Actor Oscar) and Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo (Roy Scheider, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor)- who were based upon real life New York cops Eddie ‘Popeye’ Egan and Sonny ‘Cloudy’ Grosso; both of whom make cameos in the film. After seeing some of their routine daily antics, the pair stumble upon a small time hood and drug dealer, named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco), who, along with his teenaged wife, Angie (Arlene Farber), are making inroads into the heroin trade. The pair are quickly wiretapped by the police duo. They soon find out that others involved in the American end of the heroin trade are Sal’s brother, Lou (Benny Marino), and a behind the scenes kingpin Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary).
Weinstock knows that Boca is under the gun, and although he has an underling test the heroin for purity (and finds that it is good- worth perhaps $32 million dollars on the street, for a half million dollar investment), he wants to move slowly with the Frenchmen. The smack has been brought into the country, hidden in the car of Charnier’s dupe, a French actor named Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale). The other main player in the film is a Federal narc named Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who loathes Doyle as an idiot whose actions ended up in the death of cop. There are a number of scenes of Doyle, Russo, and other cops, tailing Charnier, and the best of them show how Charnier outfoxes Doyle and escapes on a subway train, then waves to Doyle, who is exasperated. Nicoli then offers to kill Doyle for Charnier, who refuses. But Nicoli does not relent, and tries to kill Doyle from a rooftop. He snipes but misses, and kills a woman. Doyle heads to the rooftop, but Nicoli escapes to an El train, and Doyle commandeers a civilian’s car and pursues the runaway train, after Nicoli has killed several people. The train stops, and Nicoli escapes, and is confronted by Doyle as he heads down the stairway from the El. Doyle shoots him in the back and kills him as he attempts to flee.
Doyle and Russo then systematically assist a police mechanic as he takes apart the car Devereaux brought into the country. The television star, after sensing that he has been a dupe in some illegal scheme, objects to being used, and walks out on Charnier, after the car has been stripped and put back together, intact with the smack. The cops then tail Charnier (who has to close the deal in person), Boca, and the others, to Ward’s Island, and get in a shootout with them, killing Boca, as Doyle takes off after Charnier. He tails him to an abandoned factory, and accidentally kills Mulderig, after being joined by Russo. He then takes off into the distance of the factory, turns into a room, and a gunshot is heard. The film ends on this equivocal note, not knowing whether Doyle is crazy or not. Before the end credits, the film rounds up the fates of all the major participants. Chief among the facts given is that Charnier (like his real life counterpart, Jean Jehan) somehow evaded a fifty cop manhunt, and made it back to France, which refused extradition because of Charnier’s past with General De Gaulle.
The DVD package, put out by Twentieth Century Fox, is a two disk set. Disk one contains the film, the original theatrical trailer, and two audio commentaries- a full length one by Friedkin, and a brief ones by stars Hackman and Scheider. The film is shown in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Friedkin is very detailed and quite loquacious in his comments, and he is a good raconteur who provides a bevy of information for fans of the film to feast on. Probably the oddest bit of information revealed is Friedkin’s stating that this film was influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s overrated cheeseball crime drama, Breathless, as well as Costa-Gavras’s Z. The Hackman and Scheider tracks are less comprehensive, although still interesting to listen to. They are also staggered. Hackman’s begins with the film and goes on about a half an hour, while Scheider’s begins around chapter 18, in the DVD, and lasts a few minutes less in duration. Neither is scene specific, as the DVD cover claims. But it’s still worth a listen. Disk two has the rest of the extras, including a 53 minute long BBC making of featurette called Poughkeepsie Shuffle. There is also a 56 minute long American making of featurette called Making The Connection: The Untold Stories. Both are good, although, along with the commentaries, both rehash old legends and talking points. There is also a deleted scenes documentary with Friedkin explaining the seven deletions, mostly due to their slowing the film down with recapitulative character development. The scenes can also be watched individually, sans Friedkin’s comments. There is also a photo gallery, production stills, a theatrical poster, and trailers for The French Connection and French Connection II.
That pretty much sums up the film and DVD. And, if one is feeling a bit underwhelmed, despite my praise for the film, then you will viscerally understand what your mind will already know, after you watch the film: that this gut absence is one of the primary emotional distinctions between great art and very good art, especially for those who need such, rather than intellectual persuasion. The film it most reminds me of is L.A. Confidential (even down to its gotcha moment, wherein ‘good cops’ shoot the film’s villains in the back, and the viewer says, ‘Yes, baby!,’ although, whereas that later film has a ‘Hollywood ending,’ this one does not- likely a sure sign of the times the films were made in, almost three decades apart. On a personal note, the film’s scenes in abandoned tenements, heroin galleries, and on the shitty streets of Queens and Brooklyn, presents an immediate sense of ‘home,’ and the requisite fondness one feels for such, to me. Yet, purely objectively, the film misses greatness because it is just a thriller. There is little effort made to dig into any of the characters’ motivations, even those of Hackman’s Doyle. Sans that, no amount of affection can lift this film from being a mere genre great, in the action/thriller film mode, to being just plain cinematically great. That said, The French Connection is a hell of a good film. No, it should not have beaten out Stanley Kubrick’s great A Clockwork Orange for the Oscar, but don’t hold that against it, although, I’m sure Popeye Doyle would!