Love them or hate them, action movies are here to stay. They’re more than here to stay, in fact. These movies form the very basis of Hollywood today. All the really good movies, like The Shape of Water, could not be made without formulaic and, sometimes cheesy, action movies. All the superhero movies and remakes of old films keep Hollywood afloat. I hate that it is this way, but it certainly is.
That is not to say that the action movies are bad, per se. Many of them are quite good and feature very meaningful stories and the raising of great moral and ethical questions (I’m looking at you, Avengers: Infinity War). Some other ones, though, are just blatant money grabs.
Regardless of how the film themselves stack up to each other or to the audience, one question has always lingered in my mind: when and where did these come from? Well, really, they’ve been around for as long as movies have been. They’ve changed over the years, though. Today, these movies generally tilt in the direction of science fiction, heavy on the special effects. But this week’s film, William Friedkin’s 1971 true-crime detective story The French Connection shows us that the movie doesn’t have to be full of CGI to be interesting and full of action. In fact, I think this Best Picture winner is a little better on the action.
This film was the first “R” rated film to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and it’s brilliant in its use of narrative, cinematography, and dialogue, to help with the first true crime detective movie that we’ve seen on this list.
Now, for the rest of the film:
The film follows two New York City narcotics detectives, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (Roy Scheider) as they track down and punish many of the city’s drug dealing lowlifes in various bars and landfills.
The the pair is tipped off about a very large shipment of heroin from France and the two are instantly on the case. What follows is an extraordinary game of cat and mouse between Popeye and Cloudy as well as French drug mastermind Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) and his minions. These are brilliantly done sequences with amazing blocking and camera placement (more on the second part below). The stakes are ratcheted up higher and higher throughout these sequences until the constant chases and tailing reaches a boiling point.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the narrative of this film is that there is really no narrator. Normally in film, there exists what I call the “silent hand” that guides you through the story. The French Connection does not have this feature. This is similar to Dunkirk. This film doesn’t give you a lot of the story upfront. You have to sit back and figure it out for yourself. 1.
This movie is not based on an original screenplay, just like so many other Best Picture winners. But this one is different as it’s based on the 1968 nonfiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. The actual adapted screenplay was written by Ernest Tidyman, and it won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this award-winning screenplay is how much dialogue there actually is within the film. It takes a page from 2001: A Space Odyssey here. This is a total departure from the last two films I reviewed in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus which both featured almost constant dialogue. Rather, the characters tend to shut the heck up and let the audience’s emotions take over the scene.
Adding to this, interestingly enough, is how much speaking is going on in the film that you simply cannot hear. This is what I call “phantom dialogue” and it features two characters speaking but the audience, just like the main characters, can’t actually hear the conversation. This only increases the mystery and the suspense in the film. 1.
Just like the dialogue, there was very little score in the film. I’ll go ahead and make another comparison to modern day action movies here. Today, there is PLENTY of score to underline every single shot. The French Connection, similar to No Country for Old Men and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had little score. When there was score, it was the stereotypical detective music from the 1970s, heavy on the jazz trumpet. What it did have plenty of were the sound effects. Yes, gunshots and car brakes were the cheesy pre-recorded ones from yesteryear, but that’s okay. They don’t need to be anything fancy. 1.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this movie was shot almost exclusively on location in New York City. The only exceptions to this is literally one scene in Washington, D.C. and a couple of scenes in France. In fact, The French Connection is almost an ode to New York, even if it does deal with the seedier side of life in that city.
The set helps to establish the movie as being very chaotic and also very authentic. The largest city in the United States is itself busy and bananas, and this film did probably the best job of showing that than any other film I’m seen. Many of the cat and mouse sequences take place on the street, normally during rush hour. Therefore, there are A LOT of people that the characters have to contend with. There is simply so much action happening in the background and in the “fringes” of the frame that makes this movie one in which you feel like you’re definitely in New York City. 1.
Owen Roizman was The French Connection’s Director of Photography and he was nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar.
Just as the set demonstrates the chaotic nature of this movie, the cinematography captures that chaos with a number of shots on dollies as well as the camera being on the shoulder. Shoulder shots are terrific for showing confusion because of the camera’s shakiness off tripod.
But perhaps the most interesting camera and editing technique for the film is how it plays with the narrative. Usually, a movie tells a story to the camera and the editor, not the other way around. The French Connection is edited so it’s almost like the editor is telling the story where to go from each scene to the next. The film makes massive jump cuts in time and I got the feeling that the movie was leaving out significant details as the story unfolded. This was okay, though as, just like I’d mentioned above, the movie does an excellent job of letting you fill in the gaps.
Finally, I wouldn’t be doing my job in this section if I didn’t mention the amazing pacing and shot selection during the movie’s climax, a dramatic car chase. This gave me the impression that the cinematography actually got better as the film wore on. 1.
Even though this movie centers around both Popeye and Cloudy, it’s really all about Popeye Doyle, who’s played by Gene Hackman. Cloudy is more of the Robin to the Batman and isn’t all the dynamic.
Hackman won his only Best Actor for his portrayal of Jimmy Doyle, a full 15 years before he was leading a basketball team of no-names in Hoosiers.
Doyle is the gritty narcotics guy who has seen it all over the course of his years with the NYPD. He’s wily and has a good head on his shoulders, for sure. But, he’s not perfect. Not by a mile. He’s quite a bit of a jerk and he’s pretty damned racist, too. He flexes his jerk muscle on the city’s African American population, paying special care to each of them. And the film helps him out with this too, making all but one of the African Americans in the movie drug users.
Popeye tries to embody the traditional role of hero in this movie by trying to be noble. But can’t be. He’s a jerk and he’s got a temper. He often gets hunches wrong and, based on the limited backstory we get on his character throughout the movie, he’s been wrong on a hunch well before these events, even costing lives because he had the wrong idea. He’s a philanderer of women, terrorizes the African American population, and loses his temper exceptionally quickly, making himself the center of attention, and the jackwagon who makes a bad situation worse.
Yet, he’s instinctual as a cop, and that’s an invaluable asset to a narcotics cop. His nose is what turned Popeye and Cloudy on to the massive drug deal but he also gets them in trouble during it. He doesn’t give up, almost to a fault. He’s not lovable, but he does relate somewhat to privileged viewer of the film. He keeps trying to be a better cop than he was yesterday, and that makes him a little endearing. To folks in other circumstances watching Hackman, he could be seen as the film’s villain, making it a movie full of them. 1.
William Friedkin directed The French Connection and the effort earned him the first of two Best Director nominations and his only win in the category (the other nomination was for 1973’s The Exorcist).
What was interesting to me about his direction of The French Connection was that this movie was almost the opposite of The Godfather which came out the following year in 1972. Looking at the timeline of movies in the early 1970s, crime and mobsters were obviously a trend with crime or mobster movies winning Best Picture in 1971, 1972, and 1974. In a way, The French Connection helped to pave the way for the crime genre and for The Godfather.
But this film also represents something else: it’s a reflection of the greater cultural shifts taking place following the tumultuous 1960s in America. Just seven year removed from the very good but very sterile My Fair Lady, The French Connection represents a loss of innocence in just a few short years. This film is brutal, gritty, and extraordinarily violent. It seems to set the stage for the departure of the compliant and white-washed 1950s and the slightly less compliant and white-washed 1960s films that would last throughout the rest of the decade. The French Connection seems to be the very pivot upon which America’s tastes in movies change. And it took a visionary like Friedkin to realize it.
So far, out of 10 films from the 1970s, I’ve seen eight of them in this project. The only two that I’m missing are 1970’s Patton and 1973’s The Sting. And other than Annie Hall and Rocky (which is a film I probably nitpicked too much), I’ve loved all the films from this decade. And that’s been a surprise. And, without having seen the other two films from this decade, I have a feeling that The French Connection is what started some kind of Hollywood revolt from the old ways of making movies. Each one of them reflects some kind of differing attitude that is a radical shift from previous Hollywood films. The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, The Deer Hunter, and Rocky all glamorize violence and contributed to a desensitization of the movie-going audience to atrocious violence (although this may have also been due to the non-stop television coverage of Vietnam). One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest represents a tremendous shift in the attitudes of mental health; Annie Hall even reveals a change in attitude and openness about sex, casual sex and love; and, Kramer vs. Kramer demonstrates a change in the views about divorce and the struggles of the modern American family. Each of these themes would have been unthinkable even a decade ago in Hollywood.
The French Connection isn’t the best film I’ve seen in this blog thus far, but it’s still really good. It’s a classic example of expert filmmaking, powerful narration, and great cinematography to boot. I loved it, and this film is certainly worth its salt and it belongs alongside the other influential films of the 1970s. 1.
Final Score: 7/10
The French Connection won the 44th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 10, 1972 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. It beat out A Clockwork Orange, Fiddler on the Roof, The Last Picture Show, and Nicholas and Alexandra for Best Picture. The award was presented by Jack Nicholson and accepted by Philip D’Antoni, producer. In total, The French Connection was nominated, along with Fiddler on the Roof and The Last Picture Show for eight awards, and it won five, the most of the evening.
Other winners that night were Jane Fonda winning Best Actress for Klute, Ben Johnson winning Best Supporting Actor for The Last Picture Show, and Cloris Leachman winning Best Supporting Actress for The Last Picture Show. The television broadcast of the ceremony was significant as it was the first time that nominees were superimposed on the screen while the nominations were announced. The show was hosted by Jack Lemmon, Helen Hayes, Alan King, and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Next week, I move right along with a review of Mel Gibson’s 1995 film, Braveheart. After that, it’s Grand Hotel, Crash, The Artist, The Sting, Rebecca and The King’s Speech.