Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Olde Review: French Connection II

This was written November 5, 1975 at the time of the film's release. As with the ASUW Film series "Olde Reviews," I've left it alone (despite the temptation to "fix" things), giving the snarky, clueless kid I was back in the 1970's a break. More current thoughts are in the customary light gray.  

French Connection II (John Frankenheimer, 1975) Fortunately, Friedkin's original The French Connection was on television last week, so that I was able to refresh my memory somewhat, as to what was there. As FCII is a sequel, it begs to be compared with its parent film. There isn't much difference alphabetically between Friedkin and Frankenheimer, but they are night and day on the screen. Friedkin in FCI punched the viewer with his action and cutting and forced people to crawl over the backs of their chairs because of it. Frankenheimer ain't no slouch, either, as one can see by his sequence on the Marseilles docks (I wasn't on the edge of my seat, but I was flinching a lot), or "Popeye" Doyle's (Gene Hackman) final chase down of "Frog One" Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).

But Frankenheimer has a different emphasis in his film. Friedkin's characters are one-dimensional. Even the most fleshed-out character, Doyle, is reduced to quirks: his fetish for boots, his gun holster on his ankle, his "Didja ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" line of questioning. Not so with Frankenheimer. He doesn't dwell on these (why should he, they've been done?), but fleshes them out. "Popeye," a stranger in a strange land, is reduced to having a drink with the only person who will, the bartender. A sympathy develops for him that was never attained in TFC (just as their was a twinge of disappointment when TFC's famous car-chase ended, so I felt a twinge, again, when Hackman's "cold turkey" scene with Bernard Fresson, where a pitiful "Popeye" talks about his Catholic upbringing and sports--just one of those moments that are instantly identifiable as "great.") Friedkin's people were there to be "blown away," an excuse for instant action, but Frankenheimer in most cases drags out the killing, allowing the viewer to get to know who's who before they're gone-gone.

Even the subject matter of the films reflect their directors. The French Connection was a pursuit film. We knew that "Frog One" was dealing in heroin, but heroin was an abstract term--it was bought and sold like candy--and Charnier could be afforded a little grudging admiration for his plot. Not so with Frankenheimer. In French Connection II heroin is no longer just a word. It's effects, its evil, is clearly displayed on the screen in vivid detail. Frankenheimer is a "feeling" director. Even Cathleen Nesbitt's "little old lady" is given sympathy by showing her a sweet, frail little thing, abandoned by her family, and then showing her gnarled hands, decimated arms and thieving habits.

Friedkin was action, with little heroics that weren't bordering on the obsessed. In FCII, even though battling for his life "Popeye" Doyle still has the time to try to save Barthélémy from drowning after being konked by a timber. When actions are obsessive and excessive (as in "Popeye" burning down the Hotel Del C______., as was his elevated train chase). Frankenheimer has the mind to show it as such by using a device common to Huston and Altman--by enveloping his subject in flame. The images that stick in my mind from this film are the ones that evoked a feeling in me from Frankenheimer's "feeling" direction--the ones already mentioned, Barthélémy's look of concern outside a locked door for that irritating foreigner jabbering inside the cell as he goes through withdrawal, the agony of stiffened limbs that is tangible to the viewer as "Popeye" tries to chin up, push-up, sit-up or jog. Oh, it is to be admired and appreciated.

French Connection II is a completely different animal from its Best Picture-winning predecessor, but in its way is a bit truer to the purposes of the original—it has more of a documentary (or should I say "verité") feel (despite the differences in style of the cinematography of Owen Roizman and Claude Renoir). Little moments are not made much of and you're allowed to notice them rather than have them telegraphed. Aiding that feeling is Frankenheimer's scrupulous adherence to french (without subtitles)* You feel like you've been dropped into a real scene and left to fend for yourself—much like Doyle, a couple years from the original film and sent to Marseilles...basically, to be a "sitting duck," to draw out Fernando Rey's Charnier.

What use could a stubbornly New Yorkish cop be to the French police other than that? But Hackman's Doyle is such a "dog-with-a-bone" that he won't let go, even if his best and worst instincts are being ham-strung by French "minders" from the department. Gene Hackman won the Oscar for Best Actor for The French Connection—ironic as he wasn't happy with the part, wasn't happy with the director** and had walked off the set once—but his performance as Doyle in the sequel is one of the best in a career filled with incredible work, showing the character so completely out of his depth, but pushing on with stubborn brio, stammering to be understood (Hackman ad-libbed through a lot of Pete Hamill's dialog work) by indifferent locals and blistering through the sequences where Doyle is nabbed, given a three-week crash-course in heroin addiction by the French mobsters, then dumped on the police doorstep to undergo the agonizing withdrawal symptoms of going cold turkey. It's as if Hackman is paying penance for the earlier Award by displaying such virtuosity. It's jaw-droppingly good work, a one-man show surrounded by a finely tuned film working at cross-purposes to support it.

It is always good to see a follow-up film—this was 1975 and "sequels" were not a part of the movie market-scheme nor were they automatically expected***—which builds on the foundations of the first film, but finds its own path, rather than giving us a reiteration of what has gone before. The French Connection II is a great follow-up, with greater breadth, depth, and ambitions and it ends with a decisive bang.



* Frankenheimer lived many years in France and insisted on French actors and crew, so there would be no compromise on the aesthetic. Non-French-speaking American audiences are as much at a disadvantage as Doyle is and his character's attempts to communicate make for a lot of frustration and humor. Curiously, the French-language version of the film has Doyle speaking French in an American accent, which confuses the issue and ruins the effect.

** Friedkin had made him doing the "Santa Claus" rundown seen at the beginning of The French Connection 27 times and Hackman had notoriously bad knees, as is evident in the chase in French Connection II

*** The Godfather Part II had only come out in December, 1974; French Connection II in May of 1975.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The French Connection

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971) Peripatetic police thriller with quite discernible street-grit in the film-emulsion, The French Connection (adapted freely from Robin Cook's "True Crime" book) tells the story of two New York police detectives Eddie "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy Russo (Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, playing the noms de film of real-life detectives Eddie Egan and "Sonny" Grosso) tracking a high-level cocaine operation hiding in plain sight from overseas. 

The French Connection won the Oscar for best Picture of the Year, which seems like a good choice until you realize it was in contention with A Clockwork Orange and The Last Picture Show (as well as Fiddler on the Roof and Nicholas and Alexandra).*  Then, the choice feels as safe and conservative as can be. Yes, it's gritty. Yes, it's "edgy," but what does it have anything to say besides 1) that sometimes the good guys have to be rough with the bad guys in order to break even on the law-and-order scales, and 2) that outlaws have an easier time of it simply because they're outlaws who are bending the rules?

Not much of anything, really.  But The French Connection did take the police procedural in another direction.** The cops are less formal in their attire and language, and tougher in their asking of questions. Friedkin took a near-documentary approach to the subject matter (with the help of Owen Roizman's inelegant, constantly-searching, subjective cinematography), while conveying the frustration that cops, though maybe not crossing the "T's" and dotting the "i's" on the letter of the law, go through to try to achieve a legitimate, legally-binding "collar". One is left with a morally ambiguous ending in which lines are crossed to merely achieve a semi-positive result, as opposed to being for the greater good.

And (of course) everyone remembers the car chase.


But, the biggest through-line of The French Connection is Friedkin's constant contrasting of the cops and drug-dealers as diametrically opposed in almost every way. Charnier (Fernando Rey)—dubbed "Frog One"—and his traffickers travel and conspire unimpeded, while the detectives skulk and blend in with the savage streets and observe their targets working out in the open. The criminals live the high-life, dining and dressing elegantly, while the cops sit in the cold, eating stale sandwiches and swilling bad coffee on their stake-outs, dealing with bureaucracies and competing enforcement agencies, as the bad guys blithely go about their bad business and routinely handle such impediments punctually with gun-fire.

It is only at the end when a police road-block stops the conspirators in their tracks that the tables are turned, and the lines blur, and the ambiguities become real. And what is essentially a police chase has no discernible finish line.





* It was also the year of Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Walkabout, Carnal Knowledge, Klute, and Harold and Maude, none of which made the Best Picture category and in some cases, didn't receive any nominations at all.

** Wikipedia has a funny story about Friedkin's behind-the-scenes decision-making.   The director was living with the daughter of legendary director Howard Hawks, who suggested that, since Friedkin's pevious pictures were (in Hawks' view) "lousy," he should put a good chase in the movie "better than anyone's ever done."
The real-life Eddie "Popeye" Egan with the fictional Sonny Russo  (Roy Scheider)

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Don't Make a Scene: Jaws

The Story: For me, the artistry of Steven Spielberg is not in the big things, but the little ones. Yes, Jaws is a great picture for the brio with which it was made, crafting an action thriller in the one place where things get cinematically slowed down—the water—with an antagonist that is barely seen, because it was technologically tough to pull off in salt water (translation: the damned shark rarely worked).  

Spielberg had to conjure suspense out of nothing but ideas, and he was learned enough in cinematic tricks to pull it off. That's what everybody remembers.  

But, when I think of Jaws, I remember how he managed to get a sense of community and decent performances out of the locals, and how he managed to make things matter before we go shark-hunting. In a movie where the people could get lost in the movie-making mechanism, ground up like in the teeth of a shark, Spielberg and his writers emphasized character and made us care.  

I always remember this scene from Jaws, when I think of how good a film-maker Spielberg is. It's just an economical thirty seconds, hardly a bump in the road, in the film's momentum. But it shows the depths of grief Brody is going through, and why he would personally take on the task of joining the Orca expedition to take on The Great White Shark.

The Set-Up: Amity Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) has had a rough few days. He's getting pressure from all sides. A great white shark has decided to make a high tourist season beach its personal buffet, killing several of its townspeople. The citizenry is, naturally, alarmed. The mayor wants the news stifled, and local experts are starting to nose around. Plus, there are several shark-vigilante groups stupid enough to try to hunt it down. A tiger shark has just been caught, but the interest has died down when the mother of one of the victims has confronted and slapped the Chief in public.  

That night, at the dinner table, things are subdued.

Action.



INT. BRODY HOUSE - NIGHT - DINING ROOM 


Brody and Ellen, Sean and Michael, have all finished dinner. 
Brody's plate is untouched, a virgin meatloaf. His glass, on the other hand, is well used, with the remnants of a stiff scotch and ice. 
 He is staring across the table at the youngest, Sean, who makes a face at him.
He makes a face back. 
They play this game together for a few minutes.
 BRODY C'mere
BRODY: give Daddy us a kiss. 
SEAN Why? 
BRODY Because he I needs it. 
Sean gives Daddy the kiss. Brody shoos him and Michael off to bed. 
Ellen, who is feeling progressively more left out with each passing moment, gets up abruptly and clears a few dishes. Brody is not letting her into his world for the moment, and it shows. 
There's a knock at the door.
BRODY Now, get outta here.



Jaws

Words by Carl Gottlieb and Peter Benchley

Pictures by Bill Butler and Steven Spielberg

Jaws is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.