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.

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