Since 1998, I have been maintaining a list of movies that I wanted to see. Sometimes these are all-time classics that passed me by, sometimes they’re genre classics that interest me. The list grows regularly and is currently more than 1300 movies long. Fogs has gone through and hand-picked several classic films for me to “fast-track” and review here. This is one of those films.
The French Connection first came to my attention when I was watching the AFI’s “100 Years, 100 Movies” program, which inspired my watch list; they had it ranked at #77. It was therefore one of the very first items to make it onto the list. It was also the Best Picture winner at the Oscars for 1971. As such, it seemed like a perfect choice for the inaugural entry in “Catching the Classics”.
In The French Connection, Gene Hackman stars as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a hard-nosed vice detective working in New York City. When he and his partner (Roy Scheider) decide to take up surveillance on a local lowlife on a whim, they discover that a record-breaking shipment of heroin is coming in from a French source. With the argumentative assistance of the feds, Doyle and Russo attempt to set up a sting operation to catch the French connection red-handed, and hopefully bring down not only the supplier but a local kingpin they’ve suspected for years.
The French Connection is not a film for the impatient. There isn’t a lot of action during the early stages when Doyle and company are still figuring things out; in fact, it takes a while for Doyle to even learn that there is something to figure out. The audience knows about it long before Doyle does. The film takes its time building things up to a climax. The most apt description is that it is a slow burn, though a less charitable reviewer might say it is merely slow. It is kept interesting in these stages largely by Hackman’s skillful portrayal of “Popeye” Doyle. Although he doesn’t get a great deal of character development, the audience is shown that while Doyle is a good cop, he is far from a paragon of virtue. He drinks, he smokes, he picks up random women for one-night stands. He plays fast and loose with the rules, he’s violent with suspects, and there’s a hint of racism in his mannerisms. In Doyle the audience is presented with a hero they want to cheer for because he’s doing good things, not because he’s a great person. And it’s unmistakeably Hackman’s show; while there are a number of other characters, when Doyle is on screen he has the spotlight, and Doyle is almost always on screen.
Once the events are truly in motion, however, The French Connection really shows its strengths. There’s an entertaining chase sequence on foot, car, and train, as well as a great shootout near the end. But it’s not just the action scenes that make it worth watching; it’s the moments in-between. Between Hackman’s hard-boiled detective and Fernando Rey’s sophisticated smuggler, there’s an intellectual conflict that develops into a game of criminal cat and mouse. Once each is aware of the other’s existence, they are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of each other, and the by-play is a lot of fun to watch. This is helped tremendously by director William Friedkin’s use of atmosphere in the film. New York City is shot primarily in late afternoon and evening lighting, giving it an air that isn’t just dark, but grimy. One can feel the criminal culture that Doyle is fighting against. Further, Friedkin opts to leave the musical score silent for much of the film, relying on ambient noise; thus, when Don Ellis’s music does start up, it adds even more to the suspense by virtue of being such a contrast from the norm.
While its slow start may make The French Connection a difficult film for some people to get into, it is ultimately a rewarding film to watch. A gritty, intelligent crime drama, it gives the audience plenty of reasons to keep watching all the way through.
Morgan R. Lewis writes about other classic (and just plain old) films at his own blog Morgan on Media.