The French Connection Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of The French Connection. A great film receives a very good DVD release.

William Friedkin is not what you’d call a “subtle” director but sometimes his rough and brutal style is exactly what is required. The French Connection is one of those times. Shot on a short production schedule for a ridiculously small amount of money, it’s a film which has barely dated at all and remains the benchmark for all real-life cop dramas – to use the old but very apt cliche, much imitated but never equalled.

It’s based fairly closely on the record breaking 1961 drug bust by NYPD officers Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso which netted $30 million worth of uncut heroin imported from Marseilles. Egan was a superb police officer whose theatrical sadism and disdain for the rule book allowed him to collar more criminals in a year than any other officer in the history of the NYPD. Grosso was a comparatively restrained chap who eventually left the police force to move into film production. In the film, they are named “Popeye” Doyle (Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Scheider) and a number of events are fictionalised and, despite the determinedly verite style of the film, glamourised, but it still remains closer to the truth than most Hollywood movies. Doyle is a foul individual in just about every way you care to mention; he’s racist, obnoxious, insanely brutal, sexist and short tempered. But he’s also a superb cop and the film, like Dirty Harry suggests that society has become so insane that only a near-psychotic is able to actually survive on the streets. His self-righteous certainty is both scary and exhilarating, and Hackman – in a brilliant, star-making performance – uses it to make Doyle both unsympathetic and yet exciting to watch. You really don’t know what he’s going to do next and, eventually, he becomes just as crazed as any of the criminals he has chased. The reason this is such a great performance is that it is totally atypical to anything Hackman has ever done – in the sequel, he tones down Doyle’s misanthropy and gives a more rounder human portrayal, but in the original he goes for broke and becomes this horrible but compulsively watchable individual. Perhaps the key line is when he says, “Never trust a nigger”, and then follows up this casual bit of racism with the more revealing line, “Never trust anybody”. The ultra-Liberal Hackman found this very distasteful, and nearly left the set after being forced to beat up a suspect, but his efforts in portraying a character that he despised eventually won him a well deserved Oscar. Roy Scheider is very good as Russo, but he essentially plays support to the main act. There are memorable bits from Tony Lo Bianco as Boca, the hood who becomes involved over his head, and Fernando Rey as the “French Connection” of the title, an effete drugs smuggler called Charnier and christened “Frog 1” by Doyle and Russo. Even Eddie Egan makes an appearance as the bad tempered police captain. But it’s Hackman’s show – he dominates the film and he makes this far from conventional character believable.

Along with Hackman, the other star of the film is William Friedkin. Now, from what I’ve seen of him and heard in interviews and commentaries, he appears to be one of the least likeable men in the film industry, but when he puts his mind to it he is a master director. Using the example of Costa-Gavras on the superb Z, he uses documentary techniques to tell his fictionalised story. Several weeks of going on patrol with Egan and Grosso results in a totally convincing picture of police work – essentially, hours of tedious waiting followed by intense bursts of activity. The grinding process of tracking a suspect is beautifully evoked by Friedkin who captures the boredom of the process without making the scene itself boring. His camera often appears to be observing reality thanks to the naturalism of the filmmaking – the scenes in the bar where Doyle spots Boca for example, or the raid on the club. This verite quality is illusory however, since the most famous scenes are classic examples of sheer filmmaking wizardry, none more so than the wonderfully exciting car chase through 50 blocks of New York. Faced with the challenge of outdoing the chase in the producer’s previous hit, Bullitt, Friedkin wins through with ease. Thanks to a combination of real driving, clever editing and breathless pacing, he succeeds in making us believe that we are behind the wheel with Popeye. Then, even better, he gives us a pay-off that is more satisfying than we could have hoped for – an image so good it was used for the poster.

Friedkin is working here with two master craftsmen. Owen Roizman’s dingy, gritty cinematography is perfect for the film and it’s hard to believe that he had never lit a major film before this one. His later work on films like The Exorcist, Network and Tootsie is obviously influenced endebted to his experience on this film – he is one of the definitive chroniclers of New York on film. The editor Jerry Greenberg, who also did the razor-precise work on Dressed To Kill, is equally important, especially to the chase scene where the interplay between Doyle in the car and his quarry on the train is so vital to the suspense. The other collaborators work hard too. Ernest Tidyman’s script is sharp and funny and Don Ellis’ discorant music score is just right for Friedkin’s view of real life.

But what really makes this so interesting thirty years later is not the chase or the action, it’s the strangely off-centre aspects of the film. Although this was a major studio production, it shares with other films of the period like Five Easy Pieces and Mean Streets the sense of intense experience being transferred to screen unfiltered, while obviously being totally stylised. Everything is slightly odd, from the wonderfully and deliberately obscure accusation thrown at suspects by Doyle – “Did you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie” – to the ending, which is so splendidly ambiguous that one can hardly imagine Friedkin getting away with it nowadays. It’s also interesting as one of the relatively few police movies to have such an ambivalent attitude to its central character. Dirty Harry is the obvious point of comparison here, especially if you then look at the increasingly simplistic sequels. Like Siegel, Friedkin refuses to judge his hero, he simply lets us have the evidence and then leave us to make up our own minds. The sequel deepened Doyle’s character, but missed out on this ambivalence – and the change, while dramatically satisfying, does change the whole tone of the sequel from the original. This is a highly personal look at events which looks, superficially, like a documentary but is actually very carefully selected and edited. Like Costa-Gavras, and Oliver Stone for that matter, Friedkin realises that the literal truth of the dramatisation is less important than the overall intent as long as you get your central ideas across. Friedkin may be guilty of over-egging the pudding, but he is never boring or needlessly arty and he keeps the story straightforward while adding subtle character touches and working closely with his actors. It’s a great achievement.

The Film

Fox DVD have kept us waiting a long time for this release but they have done the fans of the film proud with this 5 Star edition. There are one or two slight disappointments, but otherwise this is a DVD to be proud of.

The first pleasant surprise is the quality of the picture. The deliberately grainy and dark look of the film must have posed quite a challenge to the encoders but they have generally done a fine job. The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 format. The level of detail is impressively high and the deliberately muted range of colours is transferred faithfully. You should notice an unusual darkness to the image, but this is intentional. There are a few artifacts here and there, but nothing serious. There is an important difference to note between bad transfers and good transfers of films which have, for whatever reason, grimy pictures. Generally, this is just about the best version of the film I’ve seen on video and most of the flaws are inherent in the way the film was shot.

The soundtrack is also good. The disappointment of not having the original mono track on the disc is slightly alleviated by the fact that the 5.1 and 2.0 Surround mixes are both very limited in terms of range. The soundtrack of the film is deliberately muddy to add to the documentary feel and the new Dolby Digital mixes replicate this faithfully, although the sound elements do seem to have been cleaned up. There is some attempt to use the front speakers to give a more expansive sound, but this is mostly used for the score and the sound effects. Otherwise, both tracks is predominantly monophonic. On the 5.1 mix, the sub is used occasionally, notably during the car chase. I prefer this limited transition to the sort of full remix which often sounds artificial on older films. A French Mono track is also included.

The extras are uniformally superb. We get two commentary tracks, two detailed documentaries, some great deleted scenes with discussion from the director, a fascinating stills gallery and two trailers. Yet another great Fox Five Star Edition in fact.

The commentaries are both good without being essential. William Friedkin supplies the first one and, true to form, he rarely shuts up. Sadly, however, he spends too much time telling us what’s happening and too little on his trademark endearingly obnoxious ranting about everybody and everything. There is a lot of interesting information here, especially about the fact/fiction balance in the film, but it’s a track which I found hard to become enthusiastic about. He doesn’t stay silent for too long though. The second track features Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in separate interviews which are not scene specific. What they have to say is fascinating but both actors only speak for about 20 minutes each. Rather a wasted opportunity in fact.

The two documentaries, however, are exceptional. The first is the 2000 BBC documentary “Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection”, compiled and presented by Mark Kermode. This is a model of the form, 45 minutes of sheer pleasure for fans of the film. There are interviews with the major players involved in the film, loads of good stories about the shooting and some insights into the animosity between Hackman and Friedkin. The second documentary, “Making The Connection: The Untold Stories” does cover some of the same ground – untold is not exactly the way to describe these stories – but goes into more detail about the real life events behind the film. More interviews with those involved but my favourite bits were from a TV discussion between Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan which are funny and touching. Grosso presents the documentary and pops up frequently to provide us with wonderfully redundant links. Put together, these documentaries are just about exhaustive in covering the film and both are highly recommended.

There are seven deleted scenes on the disc. You can access these on their own or you can watch them with discussion from Friedkin in a separate 17 minute featurette. The quality of these varies from adequate to virtually unwatchable, but all of them are well worth a look. As usual, it’s not hard to see why they were deleted although one of them does add a nice little touch to the scene where Popeye is handcuffed to the bed by a young lady cyclist.

We also get an impressive stills gallery and trailers for this film and its sequel. There are 32 chapters and some superb menus. There is also a THX calibration test to sort out your TV settings.

Another extra, pretty significant but available only in the box set, is the sequel French Connection 2. I’ll be reviewing this separately but suffice to say that it’s one of the better sequels and contains a really brilliant performance from Gene Hackman.

An important film has received a highly impressive DVD release. If you like the film, I can’t see any valid excuse for not getting this disc, so unless you’re busy picking your feet in Poughkeepsie, get it ordered !!

Mike Sutton

Updated: Oct 13, 2001

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