Director: William Friedkin
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Stars: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey.
Synopsis: New York City cop Doyle and his partner are trying to bust a drug cartel based in France. Albeit short-tempered, Doyle is a dedicated cop whose nemesis, Alain Charnier, is too polished for a criminal.
There is something magical that happens when you look back at classic cinema years after its release, the way they age over time only adds to their brilliance. I was excited about looking back at this film 50 years on because it is a technical joy and more exciting than any film I’ve watched in the past 20 years. Hailing from 1971 (the 70s had such good cinema) Hackman delivers with one of his most memorable roles – the first of his two Oscar wins – as the dedicated, albeit brash, New York detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle – nicknames don’t get much better. Hackman is surely one of the greatest actors of all time (no bias by any means), mastering the many gimmicks that contribute to a member of law enforcement – he is electric in this film. Roy Scheider is also superb as his partner (his finest role next to Jaws), more level-headed than the uncouth Doyle, but still very stern and effective.
To say this film was a success would be an understatement, it swept multiple awards at that year’s Oscars, including best director for William Friedkin. However, the travesty for me was that it didn’t win best cinematography, it is the standout of many standouts. There are certain scenes and certain framing techniques where you just sit back and admire its art form – simple yet stunning – as well as that rough and extremely edgy camera work that adds to the grittiness of the story and the characters.
In a star-studded career littered with iconic films and performances, surely this is Hackman’s most defining role? The Conversation, The Poseidon Adventure, Unforgiven, are just some of the memorable roles Hackman has graced us with, but Popeye is him and Hackman is Popeye, they are one of the same, manifesting as one of cinemas greatest pairings. I’ll tell you one thing as well; this was my Grandad’s favorite film from his favorite actor – I can tell the old man had taste – no wonder I hold The French Connection in such high esteem.
The French Connection revolves around New York City cop “Popeye” Doyle and his partner “Cloudy” Russo (Schneider) as they are trying to uncover a drug cartel in France that has been supplying heroin to the city. Doyle is short tempered but incredibly dedicated at tracking down the mastermind behind the imported drugs, one Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), Doyle’s self-titled nemesis and a man as slick as they come. Doyle and Russo spend weeks following various leads, establishing wire taps, just trying to discover where the drugs are coming in and who is involved locally. There is an intense noir feel attached to the film, with a cold blue color palate featuring quite predominantly throughout.
The film’s action consists of various games of cat and mouse; incredibly intense tailing segments all played out at walking pace – I couldn’t get enough of it. The way in which the framing accelerates these sequences is exhilarating; with the cops hiding behind every corner, jostling for different places of concealment, it is so fluid and natural. Never has a film sequence involving a man following another man been so exceptional, so lively, so exciting, and that is down to Owen Roizman’s cinematography skills. The score is sharp as well at times, providing an intense build-up and then a soothing exit and then on to the next scene – this really is a film ahead of its time.
Doyle and Russo begin to close in on Charnier (or so they think) before Charnier’s hitman takes it upon himself to have a pop at old Popeye, which leads to one of the most famous car chase sequences in cinema history, filmed on a very busy street as well by all accounts – the idea of which wouldn’t even be considered today. It has it all: gunshots, bad driving, train crashes, and a climactic ending – I’ve got hot sweats just thinking about it. With the police chief breathing down their necks, Doyle and Russo must salvage any information they have and attempt one final bust on Charnier, will they capture the elusive Frenchman, or has time ran out for the crime fighting duo, the ending is one we should all know by now.
Man, I just love classic cinema like this, it can be even more special when watching it from a present-day point of view; you appreciate its art form more, its robustness, and how it contrasts to today’s cinema. The French Connection is rightly in many a list of the greatest films ever made; it is an era defining film and a stylistic anomaly, from the acting to the camera work, to the editing (I didn’t even mention the brilliant editing) this film has a little bit of everything, it is grittier than a freshly tarmacked road and will leave you wanting more – it is a good job they did make a sequel, and not a bad one either by the way. They just don’t make cinema like this anymore, which is a travesty – take me back to that golden era of film, the magical 70s.