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)

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