The French Connection (1971, William Friedkin)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

This is the perfect thriller, a real-life film noir of grit, tension, honesty, and a sinking unresolved feeling; if you want the true story, read Robin Moore’s excellent book of the same title. William Friedkin’s film is farther removed from reality but still captures something rarely expressed about the character and nature of its denizens, police and drug pushers both, all couched in the nail-biting parlance of the classic caper, a tradition harking back to The Great Train Robbery and beyond. It’s everything you want out of a crime drama or police procedural, and so much more; there’s so much to thrill and gasp at, but you also won’t stop thinking about the implications for months.

Friedkin has never made any claims that his films approached us with neutrality, as anyone who spent hours groaning at the silly religious subtext of The Exorcist knows well. Somewhere in all the volatility of New York cops Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider)’s routine busts and stings and undercover surveillance procedures is the hint of wondering if this is all really worth it. Doyle’s working on a hunch that he’s found one of the major sources bringing heroin into the U.S. in the early ’60s. The discovery brings death, obsession, and torment, while on the other side waste and murder and greed persist; everything has an unmistakable air of futility, but this only adds to the tension and gives the ambiguous conclusion all of its power. Is Popeye, a morally muddy and even racist antihero, really the culmination of our Hollywood hero fantasies? He’s a live wire cowboy full of confused bluster and hate; we’re with him most of the way, sure, but at what cost?

The French Connection is a brilliant, really nearly perfectly structured film because it poses questions rather than answering them, all while delivering one blow to the jugular after another. Its reputation as a rapid-fire joyride is well deserved; it’s impossible to detect all of the plot threads being juggled the first time through, and the film is hardly interested in stopping to let you catch up (which lends it a splendid economy at an incredibly dense 104 minutes) but as you familiarize yourself with the intricacies of the rather ingenious deal being plotted — involving hidden compartments in a car and a French TV star being used as a stand-in dummy — there’s a sense that the parallels will crash together in almost sickeningly rapturous fashion, and they do.

After a sequence of sleight-of-hand slips, there is the car chase that follows an attempted murder of Doyle, and if you’ve never seen the film, just know that it’s everything you ever hoped a scene like this could be. Second only to Ben-Hur‘s chariot race, it’s the most balletic, relentless, and magnificent action scene ever shot for a narrative film, and it was nearly achieved at unbelievable cost — shot without fakery and with no permission from the city of New York, the thing offers palpable danger and nearly unbearable intensity. Friedkin operated the camera from the back seat of Hackman’s stunt-driven car himself, and you’ll never guess why — because all his camera operators had families. It was that dangerous, and you can feel it. The heat of it, the danger of near-misses in busy afternoon traffic — it’s all there, and it mounts the viewer’s temperature as much today as it ever did.

Friedkin knows movie rhythm, though, and he has plenty of galvanizing setpieces, some quiet and some teeming with life — all of the stings and chases are handled with revealing finesse, displaying the mundane nature of much detective work, but the tortuous sequence in which Hackman is positive heroin is hidden somewhere inside a confiscated vehicle but none can be found, the clock ticking while he sweats with the knowledge that this is his last chance to justify his hunch, is as bracing and frantic as any of the many fiery climaxes we get. Doyle’s bad behavior — shooting suspects in the back, for instance — will culminate in a breathless, morally suspect finale. Who will truly stop at nothing, the heroes or the villains?

Pointing out the absence of moral high ground in a police officer might now seem a quaint function of the times, except that it all seems so real — Hackman’s gutsy and powerfully angst-ridden performance is a genuine portrait of a three-dimensional, heroic and sometimes abhorrent creature. Scheider is equally realistic, as is the musty open-air grit of NYC, but Popeye’s heart is the film’s. When he bursts through that door at the finale out into a dark abyss and shots ring out, we’re there along with him even though the camera wisely hangs back. We’ve left the world of G-men and baddies, who here are really just capitalists doing their best to make a buck and, okay, kill whoever gets in their way, and we’re in something like the most confused possible moral terrain, where we can no longer be sure how we should feel about the stakes or the consequences. It leaves us giddy, fatalistic, haunted. It’s the hefty, long-term effect one wishes more of our popular films could have. But here it is, that once-in-a-generation instance when critics, audiences, and the Academy all got it right: this movie really is a masterpiece.

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