“The American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies was selected by AFI’s blue-ribbon panel of more than 1,500 leaders of the American movie community to commemorate 100 Years of Movies”. Every weekend(ish) during 2015, I’ll review two(ish), counting them down from 100 to 1.
Wanna see a cop movie that’s not a cop movie? Wanna see crime movie that’s not a crime movie? Wanna see an anti-hero character who blurs the line between grudgingly likeable and completely detestable more than any Tony Soprano, Vic Mackey or Walter White? Wanna see a movie that helped shape and define American cinema more than 40 years ago in ways that can still be seen today? You wanna see The French Connection.
New York narcotics cops Popye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) are shaking down local hoods, making nickel and dime arrests. It seems the entire city is dry of heroine, which means it’s only a matter of time until the next big shipment comes in. Cut to small time hood, looking to be big time drug mogul, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). He’s looking for finance to buy a massive importation of heroin on its way from France that’s so pure, it could be cut enough times to fuel New York’s junkies for years.
His French connection (see what I did there?) is Fernando Ray’s Alain Charnier, a suave professional who is always one step ahead of his colleagues and the authorities. Doyle and Russo are on the trail of Boca and Charnier almost immediately, but this movie isn’t about the cops discovering who the bad guys are, that’s the easy bit. In the 1971 New York City of The French Connection, bad guys are so good at playing the system, they’re notoriously known and always finding loopholes to avoid prosecution. The tension, suspense and action of this story come from Doyle and Russo figuring out how to catch them in the act, unravel their meticulous schemes and bring them down once and for all.
The French Connection is the movie that made William Friedkin a legit heavy weight director, considered on par with other 70s auteur big knobs, like Scorsese, Coppola and Bogdanovich. And watching it, I can see why. Made at the beginning of the decade, it obviously deserves a lot of the credit for the gritty, lived in, real look that defines so many of the great movies of the 70s.
A lot of that gritty, lived in, real look comes from the fact that this movie had such a miniscule budget and was shot, largely, in real guerrilla style. While filming its epic car chase, there was a car accident with a private citizen on his way to work. When they needed a massive traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge, they just instigated an actual traffic jam with no permission or permits from the city. And no one in the background ever looks like extras trying to look like real people, because a lot of the time, it’s actual real people, just going about their daily lives, oblivious to the film being shot around them.
And that gritty, lived in, real feeling is perfectly personified by Hackman and Scheider. Beyond anti-hero, Popye Doyle is almost an outright villain. Sure, he’s on the trail of bad guys technically worse than him, but the ends don’t even really come close to justifying the means. Especially as his desperation to make his big arrest grows.
The French Connection is a movie that has a more than deserved admiration and place in movie history. The French Connection is a movie I had even seen before, years ago and really liked it. But The French Connection is a movie I now realise I just didn’t appreciate the first time as much as I should have. And I have no idea why. I guess I was just dumber back then. Watching it now, I’m a complete convert and totally on board with the obviously deserved admiration.
Best Director – William Friedkin
Best Actor – Gene Hackman
Best Supporting Actor – Roy Scheider
Best Adapted Screenplay – Ernest Tidyman
Best Cinematography – Owen Roizman
Best Sound – Theodore Soderberg, Christopher Newman