The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

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Maybe running over the nun wasn't such a good idea...
Maybe running over the nun wasn’t such a good idea…

Twitter Plot Summary: Two New York cops investigate a drugs ring that has… A French Connection. Clue’s in the title.

Genre: Action/Crime/Thriller

Director: William Friedkin

Key Cast: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco, Bill Hickman, Benny Marino

Five Point Summary:

1. Gene Hackman in a Santa outfit. Brilliant.
2. Some people running around…
3. …some more people running around…
4. That chase sequence. Tense stuff.
5. Anti-climax and end credits?! What the fudge?

The French Connection opens rather inauspiciously as a man is shot in Italy for reasons that will soon become apparent. Cut to a United States that is now heavily involved in 70s fashion and a bust involving the most stereotypical black man you will ever see and Gene Hackman dressed as Father Christmas/Santa Claus/choose your appropriate bringer of festive gifts as appropriate. As a film opening goes, it does at least grab your attention. Like some attention-starved child or something.

I’m a bit confused as to how this film managed to garner quite so much attention in the 1972 awards season. Yes the story is relatively engaging, but the fact that we spend most of our time watching characters run from one place to another does not an engaging film make. Furthermore, Gene Hackman spends the rest of his time shouting at people and making a nuisance of himself. Seriously, if there had been any more shots of people following other people, running after other people, or shouting at people, it might as well have been an episode of Eastenders for all the dramatic weight, or lack thereof, that it creates. I’m all in favour of tense, nicely constructed chase/surreptitious following sequences, but this was just not thrilling.

Jesus impressions were not popular with Popeye Doyle.
Jesus impressions were not popular with Popeye Doyle.

It’s not all mildly unappealing though. The film is noteworthy for its impressive chase sequence where Doyle, driving a lovely brown Pontiac LeMans, follows an elevated train. The scene has no soundtrack and lets the action speak for itself (although according to director William Friedkin it was edited to the beat of Black Magic Woman by Santana). Narrowly missing other cars, pedestrians and, at one point, even a woman with a baby in a pushchair (oh, the humanity!), Doyle weaves his way through them all, blaring the car horn at every opportunity. It’s the best sequence by a long distance, and it’s a pity that there weren’t more similar scenes of tension. In second place, admittedly by some distance, is where Doyle and Charnier jump on and off a subway train. It’s almost a touch too silly for you to engage with, but just about maintains its credibility. If nothing else it’s amusing watching Doyle think he’s being very subtle when in actual fact Charnier has telegraphed his every move.

Friedkin also chose to shoot it in a realistic, documentary style way, but littering it with a mixture of dramatic slow zooms and crash zooms. You know, just to mix it up a little. All of this I’m not too sure about. Yes, it works to an extent and essentially makes you believe that what you’re seeing actually happened (it is based on a real life story, I must add), but on the whole it doesn’t build dramatic tension and, other than that chase sequence, has a detached air to it. Furthermore Roy Scheider is wasted as Doyle’s cop partner, although in fairness this was pre-Jaws so he was leading up to bigger and better things. As for Hackman, he’d return to the character in the imaginatively named French Connection 2 in 1975. But that’s a review for another time…

Favourite scene: Doyle and Charnier hopping on and off trains.

Quote: “Popeye. You still picking your feet in Poughkeepsie?”

Silly Moment:  All that insufferable walking around. Will people just do something already?!

Score: 3.5/5

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