I don't have a good reason for never having seen The French Connection. In fact, I don't even have a bad reason for not having seen it. It's one of those movies that regularly turns up on all-time-best lists. It stars actors I like in a genre I like. Everyone I know likes it. I just never got around to it, just as I've never gotten around to plenty of other classic films that I'd name here if I wanted the comments section to fill up with posts beginning, "What do you mean, you've never seen ___________?" (Okay, here are three: The Apu Trilogy. Would someone put them out on DVD already?)
If I have a reason at all, it comes from another movie by French Connection director William Friedkin: The Exorcist, a movie I've seen quite a few times and never really liked. Though I'll gladly concede it's technically accomplished, I've always seen it as a horror film that's all shock and no subtext. Linda Blair's possession by a demon is just that and only that: possession by a demon. On subsequent viewings, I've come to appreciate the crisis of faith experienced by Jason Miller's priest, but it still feels too muted to matter. If you don't believe in demon possession—and who in this day and age does?—it can seem too literal to be effective. I've always found Rosemary's Baby far more unsettling.
I've also had the misfortune of seeing the Friedkin films that nobody likes while missing out on those that people do. Scott, Noel, and Nathan have all recommended Sorcerer and To Live And Die In L.A. I haven't seen those. But I have seen Rules Of Engagement, Jade, and the largely misnamed Good Times, Friedkin's directorial debut starring Sonny and Cher. And, for some reason, George Sanders.
But enough about those Friedkin films. Let's move on to The French Connection, which I liked. And let's start at the beginning. Don Ellis' jarring score accompanies a credits sequence that takes less than a minute to take care of business before dropping viewers in the middle of the action in the French port of Marseilles, where an undercover French cop eats a slice of pizza as he watches some gangsters. He won't last much longer. But when we see Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle doing the same thing on the other side of the Atlantic, it's almost as if he didn't die at all.
That, the film suggests, is the way it is with cops and crooks, now and forever. It's an eternal struggle with no clear winners. About 25 minutes into the movie, there's a memorable scene in which Doyle and partner "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) roust a seedy bar in which everyone appears to be carrying one sort of drug or another. It's a noisy ritual of bluster and humiliation, but neither the busters nor the bustees pretend that what's happening will change anything. Though Doyle and Russo sweep the bar clean of drugs, it's one bar in a city filled with them, and it will be just as full of drugs tomorrow.
But these are better-than-average cops, as it turns out. And the whole bust is largely a ruse so Doyle and Russo can talk to a friendly informant without blowing his cover. We first meet them cornering a user, then chasing down a small-time Brooklyn dealer. And now they're on to something even bigger. It's all about moving up the food chain one link at a time.
That attention to the realities of the drug trade makes the film work. Without much setup, Friedkin plows into the heart of the story and lets viewers put it all together with his characters. Of course, viewers might have known some of it from headlines already. Though the credits maintain that the film is a work of fiction, it's a names-changed version of a true-life story, fictionalized by screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (author of Shaft) from a non-fiction account by Robin Moore.
Friedkin never tries to shake off the grit of the real, using New York locations brilliantly, and finding moments of cinéma vérité poetry in seemingly casual moments, like this shot in which a watchful Doyle stands in the cold, choking down pizza and coffee while the bad guys enjoy a feast:
Friedkin packs the film with moments like those, building tension out of the drudgery of police work, then exploding into scenes like the justly famous car-vs.-subway chase:
I'd seen moments from that chase for years, held up as an example of what makes the film great. And it is a great sequence. But it's even better in context, arriving after many scenes of false starts, wrong turns, and frustrating dead ends, like a brilliantly staged cat-and-mouse game on the subway involving Doyle and Fernando Rey's smooth French gangster. The explosions have even more impact when you first get to see the fuses slowly burning down.
It's also what most imitators don't get. You can put together the most exciting sequence ever filmed, and it won't matter—or at least won't matter beyond the seconds it takes to unfold—if the material around it isn't there. Watching The French Connection now, I kept thinking of how someone from the Bruckheimer school would shoot it, with many more cuts and much more straightforward, dumber storytelling. (Which isn't to launch into a things-sure-were-better-then rant; there's a clear line between this film and the Bourne movies, and I think those are terrific.)
I can't wind this down without talking about Gene Hackman's performance as Doyle, a character whose job consumes his every moment. The film suggests that Doyle has a reputation as a ladies' man, and one scene has Scheider finding him handcuffed to the bed after a tryst gone kinky. But the film largely elides over anything personal. Whatever pleasures life has to offer—a chance to pass out in a seedy bar, a one-night-stand with a much younger woman, a beer with his partner—get squeezed between, and sometimes not even between, his on-duty moments. (Hackman would use the same gift for obsession to play Doyle's introverted flipside in Coppola's The Conversation.) Even his darkly witty, occasionally racist, openly hostile manner on the job can be seen as an act created toward the end of getting the job done. If you can't call him a good man, you can call him a good cop and for the sake of the city, it might be better not to make that sort of distinction at all, even if he's just keeping up his side of a fight without end.