French Kiss of Death
Published on September 16th, 2011 | by Daniel Guzmán1
“The French Connection” is playing at Film Forum.
Running Time: 104 Minutes. Rated: R for for strong language and a few scenes of violence.
The 1970s were a very good time to be an artistic badass. As anyone who has read “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” will tell you, Hollywood films were reaching an apotheosis of creativity, a time when the studios and artistic visions seemed to have a working, albeit volatile, cinematic relationship. Starting with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, films were gradually moving towards a more realistic approach. Inspired by French New Wave filmmakers, Orson Welles, and Alfred Hitchcock, directors like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Peter Bogdanovich invigorated the movie industry, developing a series of modern classics known for balancing stark realism with a stylistic touch.
Predating Scorsese’s 1973 “Mean Streets” by 2 years, William Friedkin’s violent New York crime thriller “The French Connection” exploded onto screens in October 1971, shortly followed by a handful of other violent films that have become movie icons (If you were a moviegoer in December 1971, you had the choice of watching “Dirty Harry,” “Straw Dogs,” and a “Clockwork Orange” in local theatres. When was the last time you saw a Christmas movie season like that?)
Friedkin has been a bit of an oddity in modern Hollywood. Where many of the other 70s favorites managed to find their respective perches after the “New Hollywood” fell apart in the 80s, Friedkin was cast out into the wilderness. He had burned too many bridges, become too independent and costly. After 1973’s “The Exorcist,” he hit a string of expensive box-office failures, a kiss of death for anyone looking to get funding from the new producers taking over the studios, especially the same ones he had snubbed on the way up.
This inner volatility is apparent in “The French Connection.” Hackman’s Popeye Doyle is a vicious cop – relentless, brutal, possibly insane. He is determined to see things through to the end, to get his man no matter what the consequences. In a way, Doyle is Friedkin’s avatar, busting up drug users in place of cocky studio executives, berating angry cops instead of stubborn actors. The film has aged strangely, though – and the funny part is, the places where the film fails come from a result of Friedkin trying to do away from conventional Hollywood traits. That is, had he stuck to a more traditional way of developing and pacing his story, it would actually be a lot better. Unlike directors like Scorsese, or even Coppola (hit-or-miss as he was), Friedkin seemed to have this burning desire to be artistic as possible, resulting in some unusual camerawork and editing (especially in the last act) that now just looks quaint, less like an homage to French New Wave than a strange American remake of it (which makes the title “The French Connection” even more appropriate). Of course, the sad truth is that filmmakers have been aping this film’s style for decades now, diluting the blunt effect that it had in its release. After so many years of violent crime films and gritty “real-life” New York avenues, the hardboiled qualities here seem cartoonish. Basically, everything that was sensational and not grounded by solid storytelling looks limp.
That said, when the film is good, it’s really good. Gene Hackman as Doyle is still fantastic, still ragged and talking offensively like the wacko cop he is. The introduction of Doyle and his partner Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) is an excellent scene, showing viewers just how committed they are to getting results, a scene that foreshadows the events in the third act.
The scenes where the film focuses entirely on the police closing in on their suspects (such as the stake-outs and chases) are pristine. Here, Friedkin’s talents shine with such power that one forgets any faults or clunky one-liners. I won’t spoil some of the film’s surprising moments, but I will say this: the car/subway chase scene where Hackman hunts down a suspect is still impressive. A French suspect has hijacked an elevated subway train, barreling through stations without stopping. Hackman, in pursuit, commandeers a car and drives at high speed, following the train above him, narrowly hitting pedestrians and other cars as he tries to stay underneath the tracks. It is an inspired scene, probably because at this point, Friedkin is no longer trying to do right by his mentors. He is surpassing them, injecting the French Cinema DNA with ballsy American panache (funny how, nowadays, French filmmakers are the ones delivering the American manly epics, what with “The Professional” and “From Paris With Love”). It is a brilliant sequence, and a reminder as to why this film remains such a cultural milestone, still enjoyable after all these years and all these crime movies and TV shows. “The French Connection” may be an uneven film, but mon Dieu, it’s fun while it lasts.