' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The French Connection (1971)

Friday, June 07, 2024

Friday's Old Fashioned: The French Connection (1971)

This coming Monday, June 10th, the city of Chicago will rename 5855 to 5920 North Ridge Avenue in the Edgewater neighborhood, near Senn High School, as Honorary William Friedkin Way

Neil deGrasse Tyson would have been 13 years old when “The French Connection” was released in 1971, and living in the Bronx, not the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn where William Friedkin filmed his movie’s legendary car chase. Yet, I was tickled to recently learn that critics of the faux deGrasse Tyson style of film criticism pledging fealty to reality above else already existed. In April 1972, Friedkin received a letter from Bensonhurt resident Dr. Pearl Wiesen regarding “the contrivances in the name of dramatic license…apparent to us who knew the area.” Friedkin politely responded via his own letter:

“If I was making the film just for Bensonhurst, I would, perhaps, have erred on the side of the accuracy, but the film was made for a worldwide audience, most of which has never even heard of Bensonhurst. The key to a successful sequence like the chase is allusion. In this respect, it is not unlike magic. The lady doesn’t really get sawed in half, the rabbit doesn’t really appear out of thin air, and two trains on the Transit System seldom have such a collision. But what a dull chase it would have been had I stuck to what was probable....If the picture had been intended or presented as a documentary, an audience would have every right to feel cheated.” 

It’s amusing, of course, if not noble, at least from a certain point-of-view, but that last line ultimately feels even a little revealing. As Friedkin himself once noted, the key to “The French Connection” was realizing he could marry documentary techniques not just with a work of fiction but with a fictive action-thriller. In other words, the magic to which Friedkin refers is in “The French Connection” is frighteningly real. The esteemed Roger Ebert once proffered a variation on Friedkin’s observation, noting that if you want a movie to “all be plausible in hindsight, you’re probably disappointed when a magician doesn’t saw a real person in half and leave a severed corpse on the stage.” Considering Friedkin shot his chase scene without permits and on uncontrolled streets, it was maybe as close as we’ll come to that severed corpse. 

The 1971 Academy Award winner for Best Picture was based on a real-life heroin smuggling ring, though Friedkin and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman are not hung up on the details, preferring to reduce the movie down to its very essence: cops versus drug dealers. If it’s not a 104-minute movie entirely as a chase, it comes as close as might be possible, beginning with a chase and ending with a chase and crafting almost everything in-between as a game of cat and mouse between NYPD narcotics detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) and their wily target Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), referred to as a frog, merely one of several derogatory terms deployed by the cops marking them as decided anti-heroes. Friedkin utilized a whopping 89 locations, turning the accompanying portrait of early 70s NYC urban blight into something like an urban jungle, evincing an innate feeling of lawlessness underlining the borderline lawless methods of the detectives. Yet as out of control as the characters get, Friedkin’s filmmaking never does, demonstrating a crucial sense of space with his shots so that nothing ever becomes confusing, utilizing all manner of zooms to show where the perps and their pursuers are in relation to one another, a virtual ballet under grey skies on cement.  

Though the relentless forward momentum of the chase suggests there is little time for character to emerge, it is noteworthy just how effectively Friedkin combines character details with the procedural elements, like a zoom from a French restaurant where the villains eat to a staked-out Popeye across the street, taking one sip of coffee and then dumping it on the ground, his liquid swill juxtaposed against their lavish feast. And Freidkin sets a familiar scene of Popeye’s superior seeking to shut down his investigation alongside the Henry Hudson Parkway where a violent crash has occurred. Brief images of bloody bodies crossed with Popeye’s almost bloodthirsty selfishness lays it all bare.

His renegade nature, though, is never harsher than the car chase in which Popeye tracks his would-be assassin on a runaway elevated train by car just below the train track. It has to be the greatest car chase in movie history, all personal predilections aside, for how it is not in any way about effects or thrills but existing as a virtual extension of Popeye. Scheider does not have as much to work with in terms of character yet deftly creates an indelible one, nonetheless, assuming an almost zombie-eyed state for some scenes, pulled along in the fanatical wake of his partner, brought to vivid life by Hackman, making the most of every single available moment. In one small but indelible scene where Cloudy finds Popeye handcuffed to his bed, Hackman modifies his famed chuckle to unlock unexpected depth, or lack thereof, more accurately, rendering his character as dumb as a box of rocks. Popeye subsumes his partner, the police force, and in the car chase, even the city. When he commandeers a vehicle to go after the train, a Neil deGrasse Tyson, or a Dr. Pearl Weisen might wonder what happened to that vehicle’s owner, bleakly if comically left twisting in the wind. But that doesn’t matter because Popeye doesn’t care.

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