When it comes to the great crime films of the 1970s, there are certain films that seem to never be left out of the discussion. Pictures like The Godfather I & II, Taxi Driver, Serpico, and even crowd pleasers like Dirty Harry, Death Wish, and Shaft are usually mentioned; but for some reason, even though it was showered with awards the year it came out, The French Connection seems left out of the conversation all too often. Capturing 70s New York as well as any movie at the time was able to do, and standing as perhaps the grittiest cop movie ever created, William Friedkins Oscar winner has stood the test of time and in some respects may never be topped.
There are several reasons why this movie has had such an enduring legacy. First and foremost are the performances of its two leads, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider; both men near the peak of their craft. For Hackman, this is the first time he really ever got to shine as the tough-guy headliner, and here he makes it count. The actors “Popeye” Doyle is one of those ultimate 70s cops. Hes a racist and he stretches the law as far as it goes, but policemen have rarely come any tougher, as Popeye could stand in there with Clint Eastwoods Harry Callahan and Steve McQueens Bullitt any day of the week.
Earning Hackman the Oscar for Best Actor, Doyles obsessive detective has some major flaws, such as the aforementioned racism as well as his habits as a womanizer, but his drive keeps us on his side. Everything he seems to do, he does in the name of the law, and though he may violate some civil rights along the way, Doyle never crosses the line to the point were not with him. Fortunately, to help keep him in the audiences good graces is an amazing partner.
Roy Scheider gets the thankless role as Det. Buddy “Cloudy” Russo, the straight man to Popeyes tough guy antics. This may not eclipse his performance in Jaws, but Scheider is pretty wonderful as Cloudy, sticking by his partner, even if Doyle steps on the wrong toes. The two actors just have amazing chemistry throughout the movie; especially demonstrated in an early interrogation scene, where Cloudy keeps asking a suspect questions and Doyle keeps the suspect off-kilter by asking questions that only serve to put the man on edge.
This kind of chemistry is demonstrated throughout the picture, as the movie really emphasizes their closeness and how well their instincts work together. Setting the plot in motion is a sequence where the two cops follow what end up being men smuggling drugs into the country, completely on a hunch. Off duty for the night and trying to pick up women in a bar, the two instead end up tailing suspects all night, with poor Cloudy simply along for the ride as Doyle wont let the feeling in his gut go.
Really the plot, based on a the true story of New York cops breaking up a major drug ring, is a pretty simple cat and mouse narrative, but what makes this movie really special is the work by Director William Friedkin to make this picture as authentic as possible.
For example, take a movie like Coogans Bluff, which was produced just a few years before. Featuring the star and director of Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel, and taking place on these same NYC streets, the movie is a solid cop thriller, but the movie feels like a studio picture, a million miles away from the dirty, drug filled streets of The French Connection. The film makers behind Connection knew you couldnt reproduce NYC on a backlot, so instead the movie busts heads on the actually streets of Manhattan and Queens.
The atmosphere created by Friedkin feels newer and hits harder than any cop movie that had come before it. Part of this comes from just how well the director is able to demonstrate the dichotomy of these two flat footed cops and the criminals they are trying to take down, most notably Fernando Rey as Alain Charnier, the wealthy drug supplier trying to get his heroin distributed in the New York by local connections. While Popeye lives in a scummy apartment building that looks likes like a cheap college dorm room, Charnier stays in the nicest hotels, fills every desire of his wife and lives the life of a king. Really, this is done more subtly in the movie than Im describing it, but the power of showing the audience these really starts to sink in slowly as the movie progresses.
More to the point of how Friedkin displays the films grittiness comes in the form of the movies centerpiece action sequence; the completely insane car chase as Hackmans Doyle chases down a subway car. The car is housing an assassin out to take down the officer, but Doyles obsessive nature turns himself from the hunted into the hunter, giving us one of the best car chases of all time. About as far out as you can get from your run of the mill action scene, Friedkin basically staged the sequence on an actual New York street, pedestrians and peoples cars still in view as Hackman drives like a madman, the director in tow in the passenger seat. Hackman looks as if he is actually in danger in this scene, probably because he actually was, but again this all shows how genuine the movie really was, and audiences took to it.
The French Connection absolutely belongs in the pantheon of best cop movies ever made, alongside such examples as the aforementioned Dirty Harry and Serpico, L.A. Confidential, Michael Manns Heat and John Woos Hard Boiled, but theres a special place this movie should hold because of the lengths it went to break the crime picture away from the studio backlot, and onto the very same streets it was depicting. Like Popeye Doyle himself, Director William Friedkin was obsessive about making this movie feel as real as possible, and for all intents and purposes, he succeeded admirably. All too often forgotten when talking about the great films of the period, The French Connection still holds up, and its grittiness never stops making you glad that youre not really a cop.
So when setting out to do this Blu-ray version of his movie, Director William Friedkin wanted to produced the ultimate example of his vision on screen. This meant a production staff had to go to amazing lengths to get this accomplished, including taking a oversaturated color version of the movie and overlapping it with a black and white version, giving the movie a look that completely captures the atmosphere that Friedkin wanted. Colors are de-saturated, and the movie is the very picture of “gritty”. The whole thing is beautiful in how ugly it is if you can get my meaning. Artifact free, but full of life and film grain, Friedkin accomplishes again what he set out to do, just like he did when he decided to direct this movie in the first place.
The sound too is nonstop incredible. Don Ellis amazing jazz like score simply booms on this audio track, and youll want your surround sound turned all the way up for the movies car chase, as the sounds of New York fill your speakers while you only see a pantomime Hackman screaming his lungs out within the car itself.
William Friedkin Introduction – This goes about two minutes and has Friedkin talking about the new look for the film and how it differs from other DVD editions.
Commentary by William Friedkin A decent Commentary track, Friedkins insights are often contained to what is actually happening on screen, but on occasion he also recollects his experiences with the cops that inspired this movie, Eddie Egan and Sonny “Cloudy” Grosso, and how theyre stories relate to what is happening in the movie at the time. Also, I really like the commentary during the chase scene, as we get all kinds of insights as to how the chase was filmed, many of which will still surprise you.
Commentary by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider – Good stuff from these actors, but I wish when this commentary was recorded it could have been the two of them together instead of taken separately. Still theres some great tidbits here about how each of these two prepared for their respective roles.
Deleted Scenes – You get about 12 deleted scenes here, as well as optional commentary from Friedkin, all of which were featured on the previous DVD release of the movie.
BBC Documentary: The Poughkeepsie Shuffle – Also carried over from the original DVD, this is a fascinating documentary about the real French Connection case and how it relates to the events in the movies.
Making the Connection: The Untold Stories of The French Connection – The last of the previous released material, this nearly hour long look at the making of this movie has some terrific interviews from all the cast and crew, as well as Sonny Grosso getting to speak about his experiences on the original case.
Trivia Track Everything you could possibly want to know about this case and how it related to the movie.
Isolated Score – This innovative and moody score can be listened to all on its own in this feature.
Anatomy of a Chase – About 20 minutes in length, this Featurette has Friedkin and Producer Phil D’Antoni recalling the filming and staging of such a dangerous stunt sequence.
Hackman on Doyle – This is an amazing interview with Gene Hackman, who talks about having major reservations about playing Popeye, almost leaving the movie. Thankfully, William Friedkin talked him out of it. He also talks about Eddie Eagan, the cop he protrayed in the movie, who apparently didn’t get along with Hackman on set.
Scene of the Crime – This is a breakdown of a chase on the Brooklyn Bridge, with Friedkin and former NYC Police vet Randy Jurgensen.
Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection – This is a nice interview with Grosso, who again recalls his experiences while working on this case and on the movie.
Color Timing The French Connection – The Supplement follows the detailed process by which Friedkin supervised the re-coloring of this movie to fit his original vision.
Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis – A 10 minute look at the composers incredible score.
Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection – This neat Featurette is a 14 minute look at the relationship between Popeye Doyle and the Noir detectives and anti-heroes that came before him. We get a look at some other Noir films slightly related to The French Connection and how the movie evolved from those earlier pictures.
If you love crime thrillers or cop movies, I cant see how you wouldnt love The French Connection. The grittiest of all cop movies, you get some of the signature roles from leads Hackman and Scheider as well as a fascinating cat and mouse thriller getting topped with the greatest car chase of all time. The Blu-ray disc is absolutely packed with features, making this a dream for any real fan of this movie. Highly recommended.
20th Century Fox presents The French Connection. Directed by: William Friedkin. Starring: Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Written by: Ernest Tidyman. Running time : 104 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: February 24, 2009 . Available at Amazon.com