William Friedkin's gritty police drama portrays two tough New York City cops trying to intercept a huge heroin shipment coming from France. An interesting contrast is established between 'Popeye' Doyle, a short-tempered alcoholic bigot who is nevertheless a hard-working and dedicated police officer, and his nemesis Alain Charnier, a suave and urbane gentleman who is nevertheless a criminal and one of the largest drug suppliers of pure heroin to North America. During the surveillance and eventual bust, Friedkin provides one of the most gripping and memorable car chase sequences ever filmed. Written by
Tad Dibbern <DIBBERN_D@a1.mscf.upenn.edu>
The French Connection is number seventy on the AFI's list of top 100 movies, right before Forrest Gump. But why is it known as such a great film? Why did it win Best Picture at the 1971 Academy Awards? Why was it so important?
The French Connection was made in 1971, starring a then 41-year-old Gene Hackman in the lead, and directed by William Friedkin, who started his directing career with `Alfred Hitchcock Presents' in 1955. The film follows an aging but truculent `bad-boy' police officer Popeye Doyle and his slightly kinder partner (Roy Schneider) in their journey to bust a drug-smuggling ring of French origin. The movie itself is basically one big chase scene, following Popeye on his cat and mouse game of catch the crook.
The film has been classified as both an action and drama movie. Both are right, in their own way. The film at its core is a tense, slow-moving thriller, dramatic in its musical score and over-acted brutality. Scenes are left to their own devices, moving forth indeterminately, in a very drama-characteristic fashion. However, there's plenty of chasing and violence to satisfy an `action' classification. This action, however, is played so that it's less about the adrenaline rush (so common in today's big-budget action flicks), and more about that tense underlying heartbeat. The style of the film then, is a very paced and dingy chase scene. By today's post-Matrix standards, the film is slow. But in its own way, it's subterrainiously charged.
The camera is mastered by cinematographer Owen Roizman, whose previous film, Stop, is essentially unheard of, and who went on to make The Exorcist with Friedkin two years later. Shots are varied. There are handheld shots of the streets, coupled with static medium wide, along with crane shots, along with close-ups and wide shots. And even though the shots are extremely eclectic, one common theme shines through-realism. Every shot composed is just a little bit shaky, a little bit unclean. There's no truly innovative lighting used, simply that yellow coarse light that everything is eternally bathed in. It succeeds in making the movie that much more tangible to the eye. The mood created within is one of belief. You can believe the movie, because it's shot in such a rugged manner. The car scenes, filmed at night, use the same technique; red and white car lights with a subtlety lit car. It is clear that the film Taxi Driver, made 5 years later, contained car shots obviously influenced by the ones in The French Connection. Furthermore, actors' faces are lit without any superfluous shine or luster-they are simply real human faces, and are not hyped up. This influenced cinema in the way that it brings the mood and story above the actors' egos.
The editing, done by Gerald Greenberg, is, in the same manner, very real. Characteristic of films made pre-computer based editing, shots are held for longer periods of time, and not as many cuts are used. The editing is almost unnoticeable, because it seems to pass by so soft, especially during dialog. However, conversely, it cuts much more often (but never frantically) during action sequences, like the bar roust or the car chase under the train tracks. But still, drama is tensed out by holding shots long during action sequences, and it works. But this never comes to fault. The few times when quick cuts are needed, they are used, such as the train crash. In general though, the editing satisfies the mood of the film.
It is said that silence is golden, and in The French Connection, it seems to be just as valuable. While the tense, stringy score (by Don Ellis) is important to the film in some aspects, its not used very often, and instead, director Friedkin employs simple background noise. For instance, most of the scenes in the movie simply work with dialog and city noise. This all goes back to the pre-established mood: realism. The music is used only when it wont get in the way of the framework of the film. So therefore, background noise suffices wonderfully for most action and dialog scenes. Some of the music is setting-based as well, and so, comes from the movie's plot itself, and doesn't break the reality theme. Modern audiences might be surprised by the lack of `action-music', but car chases and fight scenes sans pumping bass are surprisingly welcome, and help the film, as well as add an aire of classiness.
Director William Friedkin is a director who knows what he wants out of a film. For The Exorcist, it is told he violently slapped an actor who wouldn't cry, and, with The French Connection, he establishes his premise, and lets the story tell itself. It is a different style of filmmaking. The French Connection is important to modern cinema not only because it taught modern directors the art of silence and visual suspense, but because it artfully embodies its theme. Its story, rough characters, locales, color, and pace all bleed a very dark, yet very familiar reality; one that has shaped nearly every cop movie since its making. While the film is at times hard to follow, simply because the story is left to its own devices so much (there are 15 minute periods of no dialog), but in the end, it succeeds admirably. While not the best film ever made,
The French Connection is a classic, and worthy of the honors it has received.
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