31 Days of Film: The French Connection
Some people will tell you that romantic comedies are the best movies. Some people will say horror. Others action or art-house or fantasy or western. All those people are wrong. The best genre of film is crime and heist. The worst part of about crime movies is how under produced they are, there should be seven or eight a year, we’re lucky if we get three. Last year some of my favorite movies were in the crime genre, Logan Lucky, Free Fire, and Wind River were some of the best films of 2017. In 2018, we haven’t gotten nearly enough; Hotel Artemis is kind of a crime movie but it’s mostly action, The Predator was a crime against humanity but still not a crime film. We did get Den of Thieves which was not very good and American Animals which is pretty fantastic, but for the most part we’ve been starved of a real classic crime movie for over a decade. Especially when last decade was so great: No Country for Old Men, American Gangster, Eastern Promises, Zodiac, Inside Man, The Departed, Layer Cake, and the Ocean Series, and that’s not even half of them. But as far as crime film goes it doesn’t get much better than The French Connection.
The 1971 classic by William Friedkin follows detective “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) as he and his partner investigate a French heroin trafficking ring. The beauty of The French Connection comes from its simplicity in concept and execution. The movie comes in at a lean hour and 44 minutes and there is not a wasted second in the whole thing. The first line of every synopsis of the film has the word “fast-paced” in it and for good reason. The film opens up on the idyllic seaside scenery of Paris where we silently follow a few unsavory seeming Frenchmen until without warning one of them is shot in the entrance of his building. And from that point on the film is pretty much all gas no brakes. As with every film detective before the turn of the century Gene Hackman looks like he’s seen better days, but that doesn’t stop him for running for what seems like 50% of the film’s run-time. We are introduced to Doyle and his partner, Detective Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider), in the following scene where, disguised as Santa and a hot dog vendor they arrest a heroine dealer from a black club. And as you would expect if you’ve seen any movie with a cop from before 1989 the scene is a little but more racist than it needs to be. But it is a good primer for the film to come and a few incomprehensible shouted lines about Poughkeepsie are all one needs to know everything about Doyle.
Making a great film is never as simple as having a good writer or director or a great cast or even a good story. There are thousands of great directors throughout the history of film that have made terrible films and even more great actors have done the same. Hackman and Friedkin have a few of their own to speak of—no body wants to talk about Superman IV or Rules of Engagement so we won’t. But for The French Connection everything clicked perfectly. Gene Hackman entering the peak of his career in the 70s gives an incredible performance stealing the scene every moment he steps on screen whether he’s hurtling through New York City traffic or doing a terrible job of blending in on a subway platform. Hackman’s performance makes Doyle one of those classic 70s detectives that are loathsome in almost everywhere imaginable but still so charming that you can’t help but like them—basically the opposite of Nick Nolte in 48 Hours. Scheider is also entering quite a decade for him that will include All That Jazz, Marathon Man, Sorcerer, and a little-known film called Jaws. William Friedkin is hardly the most prolific director, you could argue that he’s made more bad movies than good. But to go French Connection, The Exorcist, and Sorcerer back-to-back-to-back that is a pretty fantastic run and all speak to a style and tendency with directing film that really thrived in The French Connection; Friedkin loves to shoot with an energetic mobile camera that even in stagnant scenes creates a sense of tension and action. And in the action sequences puts the audience right on their seat. Hackman and Scheider are fantastic and Friedkin delivers the directing performance of his career, but the true star of The French Connection is Don Ellis. Ellis is a legend of jazz composition but some of his best work was done on movies scores of films like this, The Seven-Ups, and Kansas City Bomber. Every scene of pursuit in the movie is all that more intense all those degrees exhilarating because punchy strings and intoxicating horns. A personal favorite moment was when Rousso is pursuing Sal on foot into the parking lot and it seems like very step is punctuated by a high blast form a horn.
You don’t need me to tell you that The French Connection is an all-timer. It’s up there with Goodfellas and The Godfather as the greatest crime films ever made. But often times you can come into a film like this and be disappointed simply because you weren’t absolutely blown away. Especially with four decades of hype behind you it’s hard to live up to it, but the French Connection manages to. Makes me want to go back and watch Enemy of the State again or Mississippi Burning or really any Hackman movie. Except Superman IV. We will never speak of Superman IV.