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Monday, March 1, 2010

Oscarstravaganza: The French Connection

* * *

Winner: Best Actor, 1971

Director: William Friedkin
Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider

I've got to imagine that The French Connection played a lot differently in 1971 than it does in 2010. I mean, in the first 15 minutes we watch Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) help his partner kick the hell of a suspect they have in handcuffs and a couple of scenes later he releases this pearl of wisdom: "Never trust a nigger." And he's the hero! What a difference 40 years makes.

So, as I said, Doyle is our hero in this story which gets going with him and his partner Russo (Roy Scheider) stumbling onto what they believe to be a major drug ring. At a bar they spot Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) throwing money around like it grows on trees and become convinced that he's in on something nefarious. They begin a surveillance operation that confirms their suspicions, though their proof is never concrete. It isn't until Boca's partners - the eponymous French connection - tip their hand by trying to take Doyle out that the enormity of the situation becomes incontrovertably obvious.

The story is constructed to work on two levels. On the one hand it's a police procedural film which takes great pains to show us how Doyle and Russo gather evidence, and on the other hand it's a psychological character study. Doyle is a very troubled character, a loose canon whose part in the death of a fellow officer is frequently eluded to though never elaborated on. We're left to assume that his ends justify the means attitude played some role in his colleague's death, an assumption justified by the film's final scenes in which he's so desperate to capture the French mastermind Alain Charnier (played by Spanish actor Fernando Rey) that he doesn't even given a second thought to who gets hurt in the process. He's so stuck on the idea of getting his man that he fails to see the situation as a whole or the consequences his actions have for other people.

I found the film more interesting when it focused on this aspect of the story, showing us just how messed up Doyle is. Hackman is good at expressing that Doyle is lost, his life empty except for his job. He needs his job because it's the only thing that gives his life any sense of structure or meaning, and he needs to bring the drug ring to justice in order to make people stop talking about that time when he wasn't so good at his job and someone died as a result. He's tortured by his past and needs to vindicate himself with this case to prove to everyone that he's a good cop because that's all he has. He's not a particularly nice character - he's racist, he's an alcoholic, he's extremely self-centered - but thanks largely to Hackman's nuanced performance he's not unsympathetic. We understand his drive even if we're sometimes appalled by his actions.

I know that The French Connection is a much loved film, but I have to say I was a little disappointed in it. The famous chase sequence is amazing, of course, and Hackman's performance is great and very deserving of the Oscar he won, but I felt that as a whole the film wasn't really all that special. Admittedly that might be because it influenced many subsequent films and helped establish new tropes in the genre and so things that might have been groundbreaking about it in 1971 just seem standard now - the film can't really be faulted for that. Still, there are a lot of films that influenced decades worth of other films that still manage to retain that magic something that made them worthy of reverence in the first place and I just didn't feel that with The French Connection. It's a good movie but having seen it once I don't know that I'll ever feel the need to see it again.


The Film Connoisseur said...

I loved this movie for a couple of reasons. One is of course the films last half which is solid, I mean that chase sequence is historic! Friedkin tried to recapture that awesome chase sequence in other films of is (mainly To Live and Die in L.A. and RONIN) but sadly wasnt to successful because this chase sequence is just pure perfection!

The other thing I loved about this movie is how beautiful the cinematography is. You can defenetly tell the difference between seeing a film shot on FILM, and seeing one shot digitally.

The sharpness of the image is way better, everything is more crisp and therefore simply stunning to look at. I love that look that films shot in the 70s have. So classy!

And of course...Gene Hackman steals the show, I fully agree!

Norma Desmond said...

I agree about the photography. Technology keeps advancing to make things "better" but to me, most of those advances just rob the product of its charm.