The French Connection [Blu-Ray]
Director : William Friedkin
Screenplay : Ernest Tidyman (based on the book by Robin Moore)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1971
Stars : Gene Hackman (Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle), Fernando Rey (Alain Charnier), Roy Scheider (Buddy "Cloudy" Russo), Tony Lo Bianco (Sal Boca), Marcel Bozzuffi (Pierre Nicoli), Frédéric de Pasquale (Devereaux), Bill Hickman (Mulderig)
Prior to its release in late 1971 and subsequent winning of five of that year’s Academy Awards, including best picture, director, and actor, there had never been a movie quite like The French Connection. There have been dozens and dozens since--most of what we associate with police-themed TV shows, especially Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, owe a direct debt to the film--which is what makes it all the more impressive that it still stands up so well nearly 40 years later. Viewers and critics alike knew they were seeing something different and daring on-screen in 1971. The French Connection riveted them in their seats even if they were somewhat wary of the brutality of its images and the coarseness of its methods.
The French Connection is a deeply New York movie, shot entirely on location during the freezing winter of 1970. The location photography lends a distinct authenticity to the movie’s texture, as director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman, who also worked together on The Exorcist (1973), get their jittery, handheld cameras deep into the rotten underbelly of America’s greatest city. Most of the movie takes place in dingy alleyways, cheap watering holes, and backstreets in Brooklyn. There are a few fleeting glimpses of the fabled New York skyline, with its shining skyscapers of steel and glass. But, that is just to establish the fact that most of the story will take place beneath those symbols of capitalist enterprise, in a seedy world that is both the antithesis and a perverted mirror reflection of American society.
The story is a thinly fictionalized account of one of the biggest narcotics busts in U.S. history by two New York detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso (who have cameos in the movie). Egan and Gross become Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), their nicknames coming directly from Egan and Grosso’s. Popeye and Cloudy are hardened, experienced narcotics detectives who work their jobs like a game that never ends; even when they’re off-duty they’re still sniffing around for dirt.
One night they happen to spot some known dope peddlers lavishing large amounts of money at a restaurant, which catches Popeye’s attention and leads to an investigation that eventually culminates in the capture of some $32 million in heroin imported from France. The French connection of the title refers to Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), the wily and aristocratic French crime lord responsible for the importation of the heroin via a well-known, but struggling French actor (Frédéric de Pasquale) who is desperate for cash.
The French Connection probably couldn’t be made today, relying as it does on a borderline repulsive central protagonist and ending as it does in hard-edged frustration, a single, hollow gunshot in an abandoned warehouse still echoing in our minds as we find out that the villain escaped justice. The screenplay by Ernest Tidyman (who wrote the screenplay for Shaft that same year), taken from the factual book by Robin Moore, plays somewhat loose with the plot, and the film’s overall tone and structure suggest the influence of European art cinema on American films of the early ’70s, even in the action-thriller genre.
Much of Doyle and Russo’s investigation relies on coincidence and luck, and we don’t attribute this to lousy screenwriting, but to the fact that much police work progresses by exactly those means. The pacing is so quick and intensive that it becomes easy to overlook when the script does leave gaping holes, such as the scene in which the police strip a car to its frame in order to find the smuggled drugs and then manage to get it all put back together in a few hours so that the smugglers don’t notice it’s been tampered with.
Gene Hackman deservedly won an Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle, a complex, antiheroic protagonist. Ironically, it is his most questionable personality characteristics--his bitterness, his vanity, his ruthlessness--that make him such an effective cop. He is given to racist remarks and quick-tempered brutality, but we never get the sense that he is a truly bad human being, even when he shoots an unarmed man in the back. Rather, he is someone who has seen the worst aspects of society and feels that certain liberties must be taken in order to combat them. Liberal-minded viewers of the movie are appalled by Popeye’s behavior, and it is often appalling. Yet, there is a stark reality to his circumstances that, even if they don’t justify what he does, they at least explain it. His actions are never fully gratuitous because they are always contextualized within his desperate plight as a police officer battling an urban malaise that is overwhelming.
The film was helmed by first-time feature director William Friedkin, whose experience in documentaries was precisely what the cops-and-criminals genre needed at the time. Using a style he terms “induced documentary,” he gave The French Connection an immediacy and depth that is lacking in most highly polished Hollywood product. The photography is sometimes shaky, the images a bit grainy, mostly taken in long and medium shots. The film’s raw visual aesthetic gives the rushing sensation of actually being there, right in the middle of the action, as if the cameraman just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was trying to keep up with the action.
Of course, this does not describe the movie as a whole. While The French Connection has been hailed as masterpiece of documentary-like realism grafted onto a crime thriller, there are moments of stylized action, most notably the famed car chase in which Popeye pursues a would-be assassin who is riding above him on an elevated train. Friedkin, working under pressure to top the much-celebrated car chase sequence in Bullitt (1968), which was also produced by The French Connection producer Phil D’Antoni, pulls no punches as he puts us in the middle of the hurtling action, literally on the car’s grill as it rips around support poles and narrowly avoids dozens of collisions. There have been bigger and grander car chase sequences since The French Connection, but it would be hard to come up with one that is more raw and intense, uncluttered and primal in its single-minded relentlessness--much like Popeye Doyle himself and the film as a whole.
|The French Connection Two-Disc Blu-Ray Set|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, Mandarin, Cantonese|
|Distributor||20th Century Fox Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||February 24, 2009|
|VIDEO & AUDIO|
|The French Connection is presented in a new high-definition 1080p transfer on a 50GB dual-layer disc that improves on the previously available THX-certified DVD. The film was shot in a gritty, semi-documentary style on actual locations in the dingiest sections of New York City, thus it has an intentionally rough, unpolished look, and the high-def image does wonders in bringing out the detail of the images but also downplaying some of the noise on the standard-res DVD. The film’s muted color scheme, which is dominated by drab shades of brown and gray, and dark tones look excellent. As Friedkin explains in one of the supplements, the film was color-timed during the transfer to achieve a more desaturated look with a slightly cooler color temperature, which is quite apparent when comparing the Blu-Ray to the DVD. The soundtrack is available in either the original monaural or a new DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround mix. Don Ellis’s blaring, in-your-face music sounds better than ever: rich, full, and nearly pitch perfect (for fans of the score, it is also available as an isolated track). Similar to the DVD, the 5.1-channel soundtrack is also particularly good at utilizing the surround channels to expand the ambient noises of New York--cars honking, the wind blowing, the rustle and murmur of crowds--to create an intensely enveloping environment, just as Friedkin intended.|
|The Blu-Ray of The French Connection has a strong mixture of supplements new and old, all of which are worth perusing for maximum enjoyment of this tough, landmark film. Held over from the Five-Star Collection DVD released back in 2001 we have two audio commentaries, one by director William Friedkin and one by stars Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Friedkin’s commentary is informative, but a bit dry at times because he tends to spend a lot of time recounting plot details and essentially narrating what is on-screen (it is definitely worth listening to his commentary during the chase scene just to hear him point out how much of it was unintentional). Hackman and Scheider’s commentary is not screen-specific, and the two actors were recorded separately, with Hackman talking for the first half of the movie and Scheider picking up for the second half. Thankfully, neither actor limits himself to discussing only acting, and each goes into some depth about other aspects of the production. |
Also from the DVD are two excellent documentaries, both of which are worth watching, even if much of the information contained in each is also in the other. The first doc, Making the Connection: The Untold Stories, was produced to celebrate the movie’s 30th anniversary for the Fox Movie Channel. Running a solid hour in length, it is structured around Sonny Grosso retracing the steps he and Eddie Egan followed when making their historic drug bust in the early ’60s. The documentary has a dual focus on covering the factual basis of the case and the production of the movie. It includes face time with virtually every person involved with the movie who is still alive: Grosso, director William Friedkin, producer Phil D’Antoni, executive producers David Brown and Richard Zanuck, stars Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, and Tony Lo Bianco, writer Robin Moore, cinematographer Owen Roizman, and editor Jerry Greenberg, among others. The other documentary, Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Following the French Connection, was produced around the same time for the BBC. Running just shy of an hour in length, it covers much of the same ground as the Fox Movie Channel documentary and features interviews with most of the same people, but from a somewhat different angle in that it focuses more on the movie’s production and less on the connections between the movie and the real-life story on which it’s based.
The last holdovers from the DVD are seven deleted sequences that can be viewed individually or they can be viewed interspersed with video commentary by Friedkin. During his commentary, Friedkin jokingly refers to these deleted scenes as having sat in his garage for the 30 years, and that’s exactly what they look like. Dull, washed out, and hazy, they almost border on the unwatchable except that they are so fascinating as a near-perfect example of extraneous material that needed to be cut out (the S&M sequence with the assassin is an early indicator of the kind of pointless, sadistic excess that would eventually ruin Friedkin’s Hollywood career).
And now, on to the new stuff. The first disc opens with a brief, one-minute introduction to the film by Friedkin. This disc also includes a new trivia track and an isolated score track so you can enjoy Don Ellis’s innovative, discordant jazz score on its own. On the second disc we have a host of new featurettes that in some instances expand on, and in other instances replicate, the previously available supplements. In “Anatomy of a Chase” (20 min.) Friedkin, producer Phil D’Antoni, and former NYPD detective and technical advisor Randy Jurgensen return to the locations in Brooklyn where the infamous chase sequence was shot to reminisce about the production. “Hackman on Doyle” (11 min.) is a new interview with Gene Hackman about his iconic role, and listening to him discuss his discomfort with the character underscores just how brilliant his performance is. “Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection” (19 min.) is a sit-down discussion between Friedkin and Sonny Grosso in Grosso’s office about the actual case that inspired the film. In “Scene of the Crime” (5 min.), Friedkin interviews Sonny Jurgensen about how he helped the production essentially shut down the Brooklyn Bridge for a crucial sequence in the film. In “Color Timing The French Connection” (13 min.), Fredkin shows how the film was color timed for its new high-definition transfer, which he says brings it closer to his original intention than any film print ever has. “Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis” (10 min.) features an interview with music historian Jon Burlingame about Ellis’s innovative musical score, and “Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection” (14 min.) features film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini discussing the film’s connection to classic film noir (it also includes some great clips from Fox noir films).
Finally, this Blu-Ray is equipped with information for D-Box Motion Control Systems, which synchronizes your home theater seating with the action on-screen to create real-life motion.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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