by David Cornelius
Let me be direct here: you’re not a real fan of Guy Movies until you’ve watched “The French Connection.” The movie is one of the undisputed must-sees of guydom, raw, gritty, grimy, elegant in its plot simplicity yet incredibly complex in its action movie craftsmanship. This is a cops-and-robbers film so expertly constructed that it deserves its status as the only pure action flick to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.(Sure, other Best Picture winners can be called “action films,” but those are mostly dramas with action elements. “The French Connection,” meanwhile, can’t be classified as anything other than a hardnosed, badass, tough guy action picture.)
"You still pickin’ your feet in Poughkeepsie?"
Anyway, if you’re a dude who’s seen all the latest chase-heavy actioners, then it’s about time you checked out the adventures of Detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. It’s best known for its groundbreaking ten-minute chase sequence (more on that later), but it’s not just a chase film. It’s a detective yarn of the highest order, capped off with a star-making performance by Gene Hackman, who manages to take a wholly unlikable character and make him endlessly watchable.
Hackman’s Doyle is a nasty sort on par with Harry Callahan, who also debuted in 1971. Dirty Harry’s neo-fascist ways took most of the controversy that year, and so Doyle, with his racism, his bitter demeanor, and his affinity for violence didn’t seem too bad by comparision. But wow, is this guy a royal prick, the kind of cop needed, I suppose, to work the roughest, meanest corners of the inner city, but not the kind of cop you’d want to come across in an alleyway at night. Watch the “shakedown” scene in which Doyle raids a neighborhood bar; here’s the cop, pushing everyone around, slapping and screaming the druggies into submission. This moment shows just how much respect (or fear) is given to Doyle, for why else would a room full of bigger, tougher men stand aside and let themselves be roughed up by this narc?
It’s a testament to Hackman’s talents that he not only manages to convince the audience to buy such a situation, but he also wins us over; he effortlessly keeps his Doyle as a Grade A asswipe but still gets us to root for him by being so stern in his good guy convictions. This brilliant performance is the one that put Hackman on the map, but more importantly, it helps form an unexpectedly complex character - something we rarely get in action movies.
The Doyle character is based on real-life New York cop Eddie Egan, who, along with partner Sonny Grosso, wound up logging the largest single drug bust in American history. Their case was chronicled in a book by Robin Moore, then transformed into kinda-fictionalized movie form by producer Philip D’Antoni (who previously made the equally gritty cop flick “Bullitt”) and director William Friedkin, a then up-and-comer who made grit his area of expertise in such later works as “Sorcerer,” “To Live and Die In L.A.,” and even “The Exorcist,” a movie far dingier than your typical fright flick (which is, of course, why it works so well).
It’s Friedkin’s visual style that makes the film far more than your run-of-the-mill cop thriller. The director used a style he’s dubbed “induced documentary” - to make it look as real as possible, he often kept the cast’s actions a secret from the camera operators, who then had to shuffle around as if capturing the story like a news crew. In addition, heavy emphasis was placed on cast improvisation. As a result, the camera rarely knows what’s going to happen next, lending the footage a startling amount of realism.
Friedkin, D’Antoni, and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (the novelist who previously wrote “Shaft”) made another crucial decision in giving realism to their film: they opted to limit their story to the ugliest, filthiest, most run-down sections of New York. And not a soundstage version of New York, but the real thing. This nasty world is where Egan and Grosso - and their movie counterparts, Doyle and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) - spend their days and nights, this is where they must go to find the worst of society. The filmmakers are unafraid to show the worst settings, and as moviegoers at the time had rarely seen such corners of the Big Apple, the grime they witnessed here only made the story more effective. (And this effectiveness still holds over three decades later.)
So yes, “The French Connection” has enough visual grit and hardass attitude to fill several lesser detective flicks. That’s good and all, but when do we get to that chase scene?
Ah, the chase scene. If it’s not the single greatest chase ever put on film, then at least it’s certainly on the short list of runners-up. This is the scene that everyone remembers, even though it’s not the climax of the story, but just a throwaway action set piece. No matter; it’s enough to wind the audience up, get ’em on the edges of their seats, and kick everything into high gear.
The chase was not in the original script, but producer D’Antoni, having made such an impact with the dynamite chase scene in “Bullitt,” was set to top himself. Friedkin, however, was uninterested in doing more of the same. So instead of car versus car, the chase here is car versus elevated train. The plot finds Doyle chasing down the nasty who’s been shooting at him, only to lose him on the train. Doyle then swipes a car and, for ten minutes, whips like a madman through traffic, hoping to beat it to the next stop. The catch, and Friedkin knew it, is that such a chase puts so many innocent bystanders at great risk, a fact often forgotten by action movies.
Just filming the chase put passers-by in harm’s way. Much of the chase was filmed illegally, without permits, without warning the neighbors or the authorities. Stunt driver Bill Hickman wound up peeling through several 26-block runs, never stopping for red lights. (While cinematographer Owen Roizman was in the front passenger seat, as he describes in the making-of documentary “The Poughkeepsie Shuffle,” “wrapped in a mattress,” Friedkin was slightly more comfortable in back, gleefully shouting at the driver to give him “more.”) So while most of the other chase footage was carefully planned by stunt coordinators, these rebel runs gave the scene some of its most memorable shots, as when the car slams into a car making an unexpected left turn. That was a real New York driver, not a stuntman. The driver of that car had no clue that after trying to make that turn, he’d suddenly be immortalized in a major Hollywood production.
As much of an impact that the illegal footage has on the heightened reality, the chase sequence actually works mainly because of its brilliant editing (editor Jerry Greenberg won a much deserved Oscar for Best Editing). The pacing, the sense of urgency, the knowing of when to cut from the street to the train to Hackman’s reactions to the passers-by and back again... it all becomes a masterful study in creating tension and thrills entirely in the editing room.Greenberg also earns praise for forming the tone of the film outside the chase scene; his use of jump cuts and other editing tricks inspired by the French New Wave, mixed with the rough story elements and Friedkin’s improvisational style, gives the film a dark, rugged, thoroughly real feeling. This feeling draws us in and hooks us but good, captivating us with its unflinching look at police procedurals, dope dealers, and the violent collision of the two. It’s an intense action experience, right down to its mysterious, final shot (how I love the ambiguity and cynicism of that last moment). With “The French Connection,” great filmmaking and thrilling action come together in splendidly ingenious ways. And as its box office, critical, and Oscar successes have proven, this is a film that tells us that actioners can be more than dumb fun. They can, from time to time, be outstanding cinema.
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originally posted: 02/09/05 15:41:10