This happens to be a great film, yet also an action film, yet also with a deep, dark message. How? In the modern age, it’s sad that all of those are basically exclusive from one another. But, back in the early seventies, The French Connection was just about ready to revolutionise cinema.
The story is based around New York cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider), who set themselves the dangerous task of busting a heroin deal between polished French businessman Alain Chernier (Fernando Rey) and young corner shop owner Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco).
This was a vital film in the bad cop revival of the early seventies. Alongside Bullitt and Dirty Harry, it was not simply about plain old good guys. It’s about realism, taking us into gritty, dark and cynical truths. If you’re looking for characters with centred morals, this probably isn’t the film for you. The antihero is a different type of character in this perfectly timed resurgence – it’s an everyman against the system, tough, but in the end, their own greatest enemy.
Gene Hackman’s Doyle seems to sum that up perfectly. Corrupt, hot headed, heavy handed and racist, Doyle is worse than flawed. Yet his ‘hunches’ seem to get results, even if a few people die along the way. But he doesn’t seem to care too much about that – it’s just something that comes with the job. His colleagues don’t let him forget his deficiencies, but that only seems to spur him on more to catch criminals, which in turn makes him more unglamorously corrupt. It’s a vicious circle, and one that catches up with him in the end.
New York is the ideal backdrop for The French Connection. Alongside films such as Taxi Driver, their brilliant depictions of the city at that time create a darkened atmosphere that means The French Connection ends up feeling like one of the most true to life crime procedurals ever made. Obviously, New York has changed a lot since then, for better or worse, but films like this give us a lovely dose of nostalgia of what we used to dream the city that never slept was like.
But it’s also not just exclusive to New York: we have pretty and gracious Marseilles at the start, beautifully juxtaposed against our grungy US landscape. New York is then split into two as we progress – Manhattan, a playpen for the rich and powerful, perfumes and flowers in the extravagant shop windows, and Brooklyn, full of hobos, junkies and small time criminals. There’s even an exclusive scene in Washington, portrayed as an empty, soulless capital, away from the urban dogfights that really matter.
The film is a slow burner, especially at the start. But I still really appreciated those early scenes. Perhaps my film palette is improving after writing all these reviews, but I doubt that’s the reason. I think I appreciate them because they help to create such a satisfying climax. The slow burner is an art – you have to be able to suck the audience in, just about manage to keep them there, and then knock them out with a thrilling blow. And I think The French Connection has perfected that.
Hackman and Scheider’s chemistry is something to behold – it’s simply astonishing how good they are together, and their camaraderie bring some vital comedic touches to a pretty nihilistic film. This is a forgotten partnership, and one that definitely deserves more recognition. All of the casting is superb, in fact – Fernando Rey brings a classy performance, and I loved Tony Lo Bianco as Sal. He’s excellent. The director, William Friedkin, said:
The way that film was cast, it was like the Movie God took care of it.William Friedkin
And he didn’t do such a bad job himself. The direction, the cinematography – all stunning. He was relatively unknown at the time, and while some hasn’t aged too well, I love the vibrant, jaunty and rough style. He would go one to make The Exorcist two years later, a film which could be argued had a life of it’s own, but he also created some iconic scenes here, such as that car chase. Similar to Doyle’s lack of regard for human life, Friedkin filmed the chase without clearing the busy streets, and all without a permit. Which is pretty shocking, especially when you think it’s harrowing just watching it on a screen. This was a revolutionary five minutes that changed cinema.
Yet, I wouldn’t label that the best part of the film. Instead, I would go with the ending. This film is worth the wait. Doyle and Russo enter a building beyond repair, hideously decayed like the city and police force within it. Doyle’s task is already fanatical, but he gets swallowed up by his obsession. Leaving a dead colleague in his wake, the open ending, of Hackman walking through the gates of hell, the gates of his moral demise, to the sound of a singular gun shot, before cutting to black, is simply film – in all it’s glory.
There is no exaggeration or excess in The French Connection. It is perhaps the complete opposite of that. It’s tough, and compelling, and it’s impossible to look away. Mesmerised, you can’t help but witness the worst of humanity. Even at it’s finest, the downbeat, purgatory ending is what makes this a masterpiece.
The French Connection – 8.5 out of 10