Monday, February 8, 2010

The French Connection (20th Century-Fox, 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked was The French Connection, which I hadn’t seen since the 1970’s when it was considered a state-of-the-art crime thriller and won the Academy Award for Best Picture as well as Best Actor for Gene Hackman in the lead role of “Popeye” Doyle, a sort of blood brother to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in his utter disregard for Constitutional due process in his chase after various crooks. The movie was directed by William Friedkin based on a script by Ernest Tidyman (who also wrote the adaptation of the first Shaft film; he and Friedkin also won Oscars for The French Connection, as did the film’s editor, Jerry Greenberg) which in turn was adapted from a nonfiction book by Robin Moore. The same true-life case was the subject of an even better book, Martin Mayer’s Merchants of Heroin, and also cited two uncredited writers, Edward M. Keyes (who wrote a novel about drug smuggling that was the basis for part of the script) and Howard Hawks — yes, the Howard Hawks, ace director in the 1930’s and 1940’s known for tough, fast action dramas about people under stress, who’d directed his last film, Rio Lobo, in 1970, a year before The French Connection was made.

The French Connection is one of those movies that’s become so much a part of the unconscious of cinema audiences that its catch-phrases (like “Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” — a virtually incomprehensible metaphor for heroin use, though it may have its roots in the way some long-time junkies who have collapsed all their veins inject by slashing their feet open and sticking the needle in the wound) and in particular its famous chase scene (Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle commandeers a brown Pontiac and drives under the elevated railway while a sniper who’s just tried to kill him rides the train above him, holds the driver at gunpoint and forces him to bypass the normal stops, and ultimately is shot by Popeye when he finally does get off the train and finds the cop waiting for him) are familiar even to people who’ve never seen it start to finish.

The plot deals with “Popeye” Doyle and his only marginally nicer and more law-abiding partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider in what turned out to be a star-making part for him) — based on real-life NYPD narcotics detectives Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, both of whom have technical adviser credits and small parts in the film — stumbling onto a small-time drug dealer named Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and finding that he’s in line for a major shipment from a French longshoreman turned shipping magnate turned international crook, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), who enlists a chronically cash-poor French TV personality, Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale), to help smuggle the heroin into the U.S. inside the rocker panels of his fancy car (identified on the soundtrack as a Lincoln but looking more like a Chrysler Imperial to me) — and, in case you didn’t know what a rocker panel was before you saw this movie (I didn’t!), it’s the panel under the bottom of the door that, in one of the most frustrating scenes in the movie, the cops who’ve impounded the car stumble on only after they’ve ripped out the entire rest of it and not found the drugs Doyle is utterly sure are there. Doyle is depicted as an out-of-control cop — he’d already killed one of his fellow officers before the film opens and he kills an FBI agent during the final shootout and gets busted out of the narcotics unit — at odds with his superiors who think he’s wasting his time on such a small-time dealer.

The French Connection was a sensation when it was released — and certainly it, like Dirty Harry, reflects the politics of the Nixon administration and its damn-the-Constitution, full-speed-ahead attitude towards fighting crime — but though it’s not a bad movie it doesn't hold up all that well. One thing it does do is depict with a fair degree of accuracy the real nitty-gritty of police work — every show I've seen endorsed as accurate by real cops, and every real cop I've talked to about their profession, describes it as hours of boredom very occasionally interrupted by moments of excitement, and so it’s shown here. For long stretches we see almost nothing but Doyle and Russo tailing Boca during his rounds, waiting for him to do something that will lead them to the higher-ups in the drug ring; Mad magazine’s parody (which lampooned the famous “Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?” line by having the Black junkie Doyle says it to answer back, “No, but I pick my nose in Harlem!”) had one great panel in which Doyle says to Russo, “I thought Bocceballo was getting suspicious always seeing the same car behind him, so I thought of this.” “Yeah,” says his partner, “but isn’t sitting in his back seat a little dangerous?” “Not so loud! He’ll hear you!” Doyle replies.

The car chase (in which stunt double Bill Hickman — who’d driven the car Steve McQueen was chasing in Bullitt — drove for Hackman) is an exciting piece of filmmaking and Friedkin deserves kudos for “scoring” it only with amplified city sounds instead of a thundering music score (The French Connection has a spiky modern-jazz score composed by trumpeter Don Ellis, but Friedkin deploys it quite sparingly instead of drowning the movie in music the way directors of the classic era tended to) and thereby letting his exciting visuals make their effect without audio distraction. The final shoot-out is a bit limp, though — it’s not much of an action highlight, and it doesn’t help our sense of closure that though most of the low-level players in the drug ring are caught, the Big Cheese gets away. (There was a little known sequel, French Connection II, made four years later, in which Charnier kidnaps Doyle and force-feeds him heroin to turn him into an addict; it was directed not by Friedkin but by John Frankenheimer, who took the assignment only on condition that the producers would let him turn Doyle into a heroin addict because he’d always wanted to make a film about a junkie cop — and, not surprisingly, the sequel flopped.)

When new The French Connection was a breath of fresh air — a crime movie not only set but actually made in New York (though The Naked City had beaten it to that particular innovation by 23 years!) and a film that at least attempted a realistic and deglamorized portrayal of police officers and their work — but today it’s a movie that is still somewhat effective but also shows the signs of age and the inevitable rounding off of its hard edges by the many people who’ve imitated its approach since. It’s also got an intriguing name on the producer credits — G. David Schine, the infamous sidekick to Roy Cohn in his days as chief investigator for Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, who made this and one other movie (That’s Action, which he both produced and directed, in 1977) before dying in a plane crash with his wife and stepson in 1996 — and there’s also a rather lame trio of Black soul singers, a bunch of Supremes wanna-bes called The Three Degrees, singing a song called “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” that seems to be an oblique comment on the appeal of drug use that is powering all the criminal machinations at the root of the film’s plot.