The French Connection Review
In a genre that too often seems like a swirling morass of mediocrity, The French Connection has been celebrated both at the time of its release, winning the Best Picture Academy Award, and as the decades have piled up afterwards, maintaining a lofty reputation that includes a place on both incarnations of the AFI's 100 films list. It seems to still be a fairly popular film with the public also, and has often been cited as one of the first batch of gritty, director-centric movies to emerge from Hollywood's Renaissance of the 1970s. There's a very basic cops and robbers quality to William Friedkin's film, something that allows The French Connection to age gracefully while still remaining true to its distinct time and place. We see little or none of the personal lives of the gallery of good guys and bad guys. A couple of scenes drive home the idea that Gene Hackman's Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle is a mess when away from the job, but these bits of information mostly just reinforce his vulgar emptiness when not chasing the targets.
Doyle and partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), nicknamed "Cloudy," are on the trail of heroin smugglers. Against the advice of his superior, Doyle tenaciously tracks a drug ring that, as the film's title implies, originates in France. Doyle and Russo begin the hunt while off duty and become convinced that something major is going down that involves a young married couple who run their own store in Brooklyn. The suspicion is that the drugs are brought over from elsewhere and sold out of the couple's little shop. As it turns out, the heroin is exceptionally pure and transported in extremely large quantities from Marseilles. The chief mastermind associated with the deal is Alain Charnier, played by Buñuel favorite Fernando Rey. In a justifiably famous scene that still crackles, Doyle tracks Charnier to a New York City subway station, but is ultimately outsmarted and mocked with a little wave which Friedkin later calls back to during the start of the final climax.
Hackman's indelible portrayal of Popeye Doyle illuminates a man determined to bust whoever he damn well pleases basically at his leisure. If you've ever picked your feet, and God forbid you did it in Poughkeepsie, then you're permanently ensconced on Popeye's radar. The fact that all this is based on actual events, with the real Popeye right there acting alongside Hackman and Scheider as their boss, adds an unintentional layer of ironic damnation for Hackman's performance. If you ask yourself what is it that he's doing in comparison to other actors who've played cops over the years, remember that Doyle as played by Hackman is essentially a maniac with no discernible positive qualities other than a commitment to his own idea of justice. The idea that this guy is made even slightly sympathetic as a result of Hackman's performance while nonetheless keeping that aura of hard nosed asshole renders the actor basically untouchable in my eyes.
As an intentional contrast to Hackman as Doyle, Fernando Rey is wonderfully coquettish, a term not often used to describe males much less those of the drug smuggling variety, playing Charnier. Rey gets that little wave as the subway car departs and his goateed villain otherwise makes do with the actor's mischievous twinkle in his eye, which is still more than enough to captivate the viewer. Without his dismissal of those trying simply to enforce the law, I don't know whether the film would've been quite so enduring. We don't necessarily root for the bad guy, but we still stay intrigued by how sophisticated and glamourous, qualities completely lacking in Doyle, he appears at all times. Since Friedkin positions his film in a devoutly matter-of-fact, quasi-documentary style, these small glimpses at the antagonists as more than merely our black hats help to elevate the picture above the simple good guys versus bad guys dichotomy.
It's interesting, actually, to view The French Connection in terms of a traditional procedural where the cop goes after the perp. You'd normally get an investigation that adheres to certain procedural guidelines. You'd also have a build-up and a release. And, yet, we keep some of that while still losing the conventional feeling. Part of what makes the film so downright great is how far it strays from the expected. The singular focus on the lead-up to and the carrying out of this drug bust investigation is what transforms the film from a mere police procedural to an actual small masterpiece of process and method and character. There's little in the way of explanation or dialogue. If you wonder what exactly a director does, watch The French Connection. See how little the dialogue matters? See how unimportant the words in the film are? William Friedkin reminds us that the motion picture is inherently a visual medium. Scene after scene is tied to seeing what transpires. The dialogue is almost always unimportant. Friedkin either didn't like his screenplay (he claims in the commentary they didn't really use one) or had alternate ambitions.
The most known and obvious of these strictly visual expressions is the car chase, which also happens to feature some of Hackman's most taut and best acting in the entire picture. The scene is positioned as a study in chaos, with the speeding automobile racing against an out of control subway car. Hackman is remarkably intense throughout, nearly psychotic in focus. As his prey commandeers a subway train to the chagrin of numerous passengers, Doyle bashes and crashes a borrowed/stolen car across the Brooklyn streets, narrowly avoiding a young mother and her baby at one point. It's a scene that's become somewhat iconic and it remains as harrowing as ever. That the chase doesn't completely overshadow the picture, far from it, is a testament to just how endlessly engrossing this film is. The uncommon tightness and intelligence - no one can say The French Connection panders - are among the numerous qualities I find remarkable no matter how many times I view the film. There are very few movies that are so successful at draining out the artificial drama only to obtain a remarkably nervous mood throughout the picture. I'm not sure if there's ever really been another American crime drama quite like this one.
Twentieth Century Fox's Blu-ray release of The French Connection is an especially troubling situation. The film was put out on R1 DVD a few times, though I believe each edition was basically the same as the next give or take a few bonus features. A Blu-ray release, apparently identical to this set, hit UK retailers last December. The latter shares the disastrous and revisionist image quality with its Region A counterpart. And both, to the utter frustration of many, only use director William Friedkin's new to everyone else presentation of how he says the film is supposed to appear.
From the start, when a black and white 20th Century Fox logo slowly adds faded colours, and throughout my first viewing of the disc, I kept thinking this was not how the film should look. This is not The French Connection any more than a full screen television version of the movie is or the limited image those with black and white sets would see. It's simply not what I've been watching for years and, more importantly, it's not how the film has been presented to audiences since its original release in 1971. To alter a beloved, Best Picture-winning classic film merely to satisfy personal whims, which may or may not have existed during original production, is as close as one can get to shameful when we're dealing with the likes of a DVD or Blu-ray release. Additionally, preventing the release from also including the familiar version we've been told was the correct one for nearly forty years now, whether this was done intentionally or just out of neglect, is largely unforgivable.
This is hardly new territory for the film's director, who's had his hand in alterations small and large on DVDs of The Exorcist and Cruising, though this is surely the worst such offense. The air of legitimacy Friedkin's name probably draws is unfortunate for multiple reasons. It may tacitly give him some license to tinker while also allowing said changes to parade about as authoritative. What Friedkin has done here, though, is an insulting disservice to everyone except him. Once a finished film is established as being one way it takes a gigantic leap of faith to accept it in any other fashion. Popular films like The French Connection become the unofficial property of audiences once they enter the mainstream. Simply because Friedkin directed the movie years and years ago gives him no more right to drastically change it now than if you or I decided to insert ridiculously fake-looking CG monsters into Popeye Doyle's borrowed car during the famous chase scene.
Furthermore, Friedkin's position as the director of the film was a finite responsibility. He shouldn't get to mess around with things indefinitely and without consequence. Now that he's done just that, the lead question ideally concerns not how this thing looks but whether it's true to the original incarnation. Plain and simple, it is not. Reportedly so incensed was director of photography Owen Roizman, who was Oscar-nominated for shooting The French Connection, that he characterised Friedkin's inept colour-timing as "atrocious" and "horrifying," stating also that it "emasculated" the film. Roizman was not consulted by Friedkin or Fox, and he apparently only learned about these issues with the release of this U.S. Blu-ray.
The problematic transfer is explained, though still not convincingly rationalised, by Friedkin in a supplemental piece found on disc two. "Color Timing The French Connection" goes into some detail on the process undertook to essentially bastardise the film's established look. Step one was to eliminate all the colour entirely and begin with the movie artificially altered to show only black and white. From there, a heavy oversaturation, to the point of garish, blurred colours, then bled into the black and white, making for 28% of the image to be colour. Some contrast was also added in. The point throughout is that Friedkin wanted less colour and was trying to achieve a pastel appearance.
What results is frequently awful. The example scene used in that featurette is when Charnier gives his young girlfriend a camera in Marseilles. The timing may be acceptable there because it's not as drastic and Friedkin's intent, however revisionist, doesn't impact the original version to an almost unwatchable degree. However, most of the film obviously takes place in gritty New York City and eliminating the colour often makes everything look bright and blue. The effect is extremely artificial, reminiscent of a Jean-Pierre Melville film gone awry. Some scenes look like they were lit with a gigantic bug zapper. The brightness is sometimes blown out to ridiculous extents. Sunlight or any shade of brown or orange is altogether missing. Scenes have had their entire colour palettes reconfigured. There's nothing improved in terms of mood or feel as a result of these changes. It can also be quite the eyesore, to the point where no film, much less one with an already known and accepted look, should ideally have this appearance. The idea that The French Connection has an inherently ugly and grimy quality is simply a truism at this point. Fans of the film know this and expect somewhat heavy grain. What no one should have to accept is intentional manipulation that denigrates the already muted, but nonetheless familiar colours.
To be clear about my complaints, Fox's encode is on a dual-layered disc and seems like a sound transfer in terms of any ancillary problems. Aspect ratio is correct at approximately 1.85:1. While nice and evidence of the disc being fundamentally competent, any strengths are so far outweighed by the supreme blunder of Friedkin's colour timing that I couldn't possibly recommend this release to anyone who cares in the slightest about the integrity of a film's appearance.
The (Rest of the) Discs
Unlike the lone video option, there are enough audio choices to please most everyone on this Blu-ray. The default is an English 5.1 DTS-HD track. The clarity and urgency conveyed on this track really gets your attention. Don Ellis' frenetic, industrial-sounding score has probably never been this overwhelming. The dialogue is understandable, but maybe a little off at times, either owing to recording techniques used originally or possible alterations to this mix. Additional English offerings are available in Dolby Digital Surround, utilising the three front speakers and the subwoofer, and two-channel Mono. There are also Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs. An isolated score track, which has more of Ellis' tension-filled music than the existing film, is yet another option. Subtitles are white in colour and available in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese. The French speakers will apparently have to make do with that dub.
The same two commentaries from other home video releases, one with Friedkin and the other featuring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, have wisely been carried over to this edition. Friedkin's weaknesses as a commentator, which are on display in numerous other DVDs, don't particularly seem bothersome here. He still has a tendency to narrate, but it at least feels more connected to the creative process since he's the one who made the movie. Other details and background are often shared, including some things you'll hear over and over in the various supplements. Generally, though, I think Friedkin's commentary is more effective on this, his best film, than when he's discussing something he's just an admirer of, and his track is appreciated. The track with Hackman and Scheider doesn't run the length of the film and the two speak at separate times. It also is not scene-specific. Hackman, amiable and interesting, talks for about 25 minutes before the commentary goes silent for half an hour. Just when chapter 18 begins, roughly 55 minutes into the film, Scheider's contribution begins. He's a little less guarded with his comments than Hackman and really praises his screen partner. He speaks about 23 minutes. Both actors are absolutely worth listening to if you haven't already heard the same track from the DVD.
There's sort of a third commentary by way of a Trivia Track, which obscures roughly the bottom third of the image and has running information about the film for those who'd rather read. The first disc also has a short introduction (1:15) by Friedkin, which is in HD. All of the bonus material on disc two is in HD except the two documentaries that were first available on the film's various DVD releases. Looking at the array of extras on the second disc, it's clear that this release is pretty well stuffed with supplements. It's definitive-level if not for the massive ball drop on the transfer. A lot of the behind the scenes information is repeated across the material, but I still find this stuff so fascinating as to not really get tired of it and the true life aspect helps to keep your attention.
The same seven deleted scenes found on the DVD lead off the second Blu-ray disc. It's not the same presentation, though, and Friedkin, who basically hosts this entire release, has a brief discussion (1:15) before they play. He also explains in optional commentaries why he cut each of the scenes, with most involving character development for Doyle which Friedkin decided was unnecessary due to the quality of Hackman's performance in the rest of the film. The director mentions that he put them on a 16 mm reel (which is why they look so rough) to show to various schools and such. These deleted portions run over ten minutes total.
"Anatomy of a Chase" (20:20) lets Friedkin and producer Philip D'Antoni revisit the area where the chase scene was shot and reveal some of the details of how it was filmed. "Hackman on Doyle" (10:49) finds the actor discussing his impressions and memories of working on the movie. This is a particular highlight of the extras and actually feels too short, possibly because Friedkin is nowhere to be found. "Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection" (19:12) is a conversation between the retired police detective played by Roy Scheider in the film and the director. It allows them to reminisce and specifically talk about the real participants' backgrounds and fates. I was especially interested to learn that the man who the Charnier character was based on was actually a Resistance fighter and friend of Charles de Gaulle.
"Scene of the Crime" (5:14) is Friedkin and former NYPD detective Randy Jorgenson standing beneath the bridge where the movie's traffic jam occurs and discussing that scene. "Color Timing The French Connection" (13:15) is the piece I referenced earlier. Friedkin uses John Huston's Moby Dick as a reference to how he wanted the film to look, though it was shot with three-strip Technicolor and The French Connection, of course, was not. I'm not convinced Friedkin didn't lift this rationale from Martin Scorsese, who did something similar to mute the colour of the blood in Taxi Driver. If you must purchase or rent the Blu-ray, this is the most salient extra feature to watch. It's misleading because of the particular scene they are colour timing, but you at least get some idea of the method to the madness.
"Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis" (10:04) is a really neat look at the late composer of that incredible theme in the movie. It mentions that only 22 minutes of music is in the film, and just 16 minutes of that is Ellis' score despite him composing 50 minutes' worth. Presumably, some of this has been added back in for the isolated score option. "Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection" (13:47) features film noir talkers and writers Alain Silver and James Ursini discussing the similarities the picture has with classic (Fox) noir like I Wake Up Screaming and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Film noir is my favorite, but I thought this went on too long and rambled around quite a bit. It often felt like a quasi-promotional bit for the Fox Film Noir DVDs.
Lastly, the two excellent documentaries on The French Connection that could be found on the DVD editions also make the trip to Blu-ray, though not upgraded to high definition. The 2000 BBC Documentary "The Poughkeepsie Shuffle" (53:38) is particularly good and features interviews with nearly all of the available principals. "Making the Connection : The Untold Stories of The French Connection" (56:33) is, at this point, somewhat redundant, but still a pretty good 30th Anniversary special from 2001.
Missing is the film's theatrical trailer, though it can be found, in its original non-Friedkinised glory, on the Blu-ray release of French Connection II.
The French Connection is perhaps the best film of its kind, but, while keeping things in perspective, it's nonetheless a huge black mark to see what director William Friedkin has done to it now, nearly forty years after the fact. I can only hope that Fox comes to its senses and puts out the real version on Blu-ray because the special features included here are mostly terrific, if repetitive.