French Connection, The

Reviewed By Alexandre Paquin
Posted 06/26/02 15:36:02

"Cutting to the chase too often: 'The French Connection'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In 1961, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso from the New York police's narcotics bureau busted what was then the largest drug deal in the history of the United States. A best-selling book by Robin Moore, named "The French Connection", followed, and it was only a matter of time before the film version of the story would be released. When it did, the acclaim was instantaneous; "The French Connection" went on to win five Academy Awards for 1971, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Friedkin), and Best Actor for Gene Hackman, who became a star overnight. Inevitably, a sequel, reportedly (and not surprisingly) disappointing, with Hackman and Fernando Rey (as the villain), playing the same roles, was released four years later.

"The French Connection" was very much a product of its own time. During the late 1960's and early 1970's, there was a marked revival of the detective and gangster genres, which had been recently liberated from the nefarious influence of the Motion Picture Association of America's rigid Production Code (in decline since 1956, abolished by 1968 with the advent of film ratings). Several films from this period, for instance "Chinatown" (vastly overrated), "The Godfather" parts I and II (pretentious), "Bonnie and Clyde", even "The Sting" and a few westerns ŕ la Sam Peckinpah, have become classics because of their audacity, violence, and characters of ambiguous virtues for whom the audience was invited to cheer for. "The French Connection" fits into several of these characteristics, and was controversial enough to be rated "R" by the Code and Rating Administration of the MPAA.

While such a rating, by today's standards, may appear unjustified, there are enough elements which justified this rating at the time. In "The French Connection", it is unclear what kind of appeal the two protagonists, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider), based on Egan and Grosso respectively, might have to an audience. "Popeye" Doyle is a controversial character, a short-tempered and blatantly racist cop who is not afraid to use physical means of persuasion to obtain the information he wants. The topic of a drug deal had not been covered often in films before that period, but what made the film truly groundbreaking was the depiction of the drug-dealing world as it was. Today, with social mores even more relaxed than thirty years ago, there is no such shyness to describe the narcotics milieu, but in 1971, "The French Connection" marked a major step towards much-needed realism.

Drawing his influence from the cinéma-vérité style, director William Friedkin called upon Ernest Tidyman (the creator of "Shaft") to pen the screenplay for the film, which Friedkin later rewrote. Friedkin's intent was to achieve a semi-documentary style which would resemble the raw truth. The film is at its most effective in sequences filmed in parts of New York tourists are not encouraged to visit. In order to give the film more of a documentary feel, the audience learns new clues at the same time as the movie's protagonists. For example, in a scene where Doyle watches the French drug dealer Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) having dinner with a financial backer in a restaurant, we cannot make out what they say, only what Doyle could see from across the street. The casting of Egan and Grosso in supporting parts (for a time, at Egan's insistence, they were considered for their own parts), as well as references to living persons (actor Don Ameche is mentioned as living in the same building as narcotics financier Joel Weinstock), also serve this purpose.

However, for all the attempts to give the film a feeling of complete verisimilitude, there are a few elements which appear unconvincing. Nowadays, the most obvious reminder that we are watching a Hollywood film is Gene Hackman. His performance was mostly correct, although he was at times overacting, but it is his subsequent superstardom, albeit largely unpredicted, which has hindered the film most of all. Parts of the action -- particularly the famous car chase to catch a speeding train, one of the best car chases ever done -- seem perhaps too Hollywoodish to fit correctly into the documentary style the film tries so hard to achieve. The film is fast-paced, but to such an extent that its artificial dryness is palpable. What seems to be mostly missing are extra clues linking elements, to help the viewer make sense of the case, the complexity of which one can only superficially assess. What "The French Connection" ultimately lacks is a well-developed story which actually gets somewhere.

The film could have been a great deal more offbeat than it is; one only has to take a look at the deleted scenes from the movie (which make Doyle even more repulsive) to realize that the quirky exercise masterfully achieved by "The French Connection" could easily have been pushed over the limit of what was acceptable for audiences of the time. One of the scenes involves a dominatrix; another shows Doyle hiring a prostitute. These scenes fully demonstrate into which excesses the film could have fallen; there is no doubt in my mind that these would have been highly detrimental to it.

The Oscar-winning editing blends perfectly with the directorial style. Don Ellis's delightfully edgy score only fails in the opening credits, where it sounds as though it was inspired by some fourth-rate news broadcast music (which I suspect is intentional, to increase the audience's impression of watching a documentary). The performances are mostly good, particularly Fernando Rey (although he sounds more Spanish than French), but "The French Connection" is an incomplete film, with its original inspiration bowdlerized to a great extent, and with characters improperly introduced, but which retains a visual interest. Its protagonists are originally unappealing, and its subject matter, daring.

If more thought had been given to the story, this could have been a perfect film. Unfortunately, "The French Connection" is all show, little substance, and more content to cut to the chase instead of allowing the audience to make sense of it all.

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