Friday, July 1, 2011

The French Connection

Doyle is bad news - but he is a good cop. 

 The French Connection and its its sequel used to be standard fare on NZ television in the early 1980's . I can remember my old man watching them but I found them boring and they went over my head. Thirty years later I couldn't even conjure a vague image of either film so I was really looking forward to watching this last night because in all essence it was a new film to me.

 I was really surprised to find that the AFI has this in its top 100 films of all time list. As with A Place in the Sun I'm not sure it warrants being there even though it is a fine film. It was released in 1971 and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning five, of which Gene Hackman won for Best Actor. I never knew he had actually won an Oscar before last night! It was with surprise also that I found out Roy Schneider was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

 The film is a fictionalised adaptation of a non-fiction work. In the 1960's and the early 1970's most of the heroin coming into the Eastern Seaboard came from France, hence the title. The script itself was also nominated and won an Oscar, and when you watch Connection it is apparent that it is a fine film and the nominations well deserved. Interestingly it was also the first R-rated film in the States to win an Oscar for Best Picture after the introduction of the MPAA system. In its day it was certainly violent and graphic, but now the gunshot wounds do look dated. This is the era when Hollywood was able to leave behind the puritanical system in which it worked under and have swearing, graphic violence and nudity appear on screen. Connection has all three but by today's standards in relatively small doses which I liked because it didn't go over the top and kept an air of realism by not doing so.

 As a cop film The french Connection is regarded to have set the standard. Sure Dirty Harry came out a month later but Harry lacked the credibility 'Popeye' Doyle achieved. This saw the Harry series became more a source of anti-hero entertainment than a cop film per se. Connection was the first real attempt at showing the gritty, unpleasant side of police work, but all the while it provided plenty of thrills along the way. The car chase scene is regarded as one of the greatest ever filmed. Hackman actually did a lot of the driving himself and it still stands up well today.

 Gene Hackman as 'Popeye' Doyle is superb and it is hard to credit after such a performance he wasn't initially considered for the role. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were wanted but well out of budget. Lee Marvin refused because he hated cops! Jackie Gleason was considered bad luck, and even Charles Bronson was considered before Hackman got the part. Doyle is in my opinion the best part Hackman played in the 1970's ( next to The Conversation ). He has the intensity and dis-regard for the rules needed for the role. He is ably supported by a very good Roy Schneider who after this never really scaled such acting heights again even after the his iconic role in Jaws.

 As a 1970's film this is an amazing watch and not only for the performances. Brooklyn as a city is an incredible backdrop and I couldn't get over the amount of rubbish in the streets! It was like a dump!! But it all adds to the certain timelessness that Connection has achieved as a film. It is a brilliant snapshot into 1970's Brooklyn and an inadvertent one. It is a film and meant for entertainment, yet in the process a period of a cities life has been preserved which I found fascinating. Any car buff out there to will enjoy the 70's buzz as the streets are chocked full of late 60's and early 70's cars and it was fun identifying them and seeing them as 'new' models!! As a film it is a piece of visual history on an era that is long gone. I suppose because of this, as well as the fact it is a fine film, it has been preserved in the U.S National Film Registry.

 I really enjoyed watching the French Connection. It is a very fine example of an early 1970's film. It has that 70's patina about it and Brooklyn is fascinating. I was enrapt with what was happening behind the action as much as by the film itself. It reminds me very much of Collateral with Tom Cruise where the lights of L.A are very much a character in themselves. The French Connection can I believe be accredited with starting the American cop movie/television series that took away the gloss and showed the gritty, boring, morale sapping, seedy side of police work. The sort of places they went into and the types of punks, crims, scum, they dealt with isn't pleasant at all, and yet all too real. Sure it has its dramatic moments but it is the 'air' and 'feel' of the film that is its key. As a cop movie The French Connection set a standard that has rarely been bettered.

 One other thing struck me as it added to the 'cop' feel, and that was the inadvertent humour. I found myself chuckling at certain parts, not because they were funny as such, but because they represented the frustrations of the job. Watch the subway scene and you'll know what I mean. It is black humour at its best! At times the situations almost became farce as three cops tried to follow three different suspects through the teeming streets. I really did feel for the cops as they lost them, and the swearing and cursing under the breath started. Not humour in the sense of the word but humour because it is so recognisable. It just adds that certain realism to the whole film.

 Highly recommended, both as a fine cop film, but as an inadvertant look back at the 1970's as most of the film is actually out on the streets of Brooklyn. A truly great piece of 1970's cinema. I'm just not sure it is top 100 material even though I do regard it as a fine film and a great cop/thriller in the process.

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  1. Good review Brent, I really want to see this film!

  2. If you like 1970's cinema this will mmore than satisfy!! It certainly is a very, very good film and should be on any 'must see' list!!

  3. Great film and it does definitely have the 70's feel to it. Hackman was brilliant here. One of the best "loose cannon cop" characters ever.

  4. Absolutely Brent! It is certainly one of Hackman's best performances and still stands up as one the very best cop films ever that set a real standard.

  5. Great review! I love the gritty "on the streets" feel of this film. The L-train/car chase is one of the best vehicular chases in cinema. Hackman's performance really nails how obsessive Doyle becomes in his pursuit of Charnier, and the very last shot is brilliantly ambiguous.

  6. Popeye certainly becomes obsessive doesn't he! That lost shot is a thought provoker all right...I loved how he shoots the cop and just shrugs his shoulders and runs off after Charnier!
    That gritty feel is what sets this apart from so many other cop films and yet we can see where the style originated from.