Fox Home Video's concurrent Blu-ray release of both French Connection movies, William Friedkin's 1971 original and John Frankenheimer's 1975 sequel, give viewers an opportunity to compare the techniques of two top-rank film directors on similar subject matter. Action movies have become more spectacular, but these on-the-street cop sagas still pack a punch. And the line, "Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" instantly won a place in the cultural lexicon.
Friedkin approached New York's biggest drug bust as he would one of his tough-minded TV documentaries. Bucking the then-current trend for flashy escapism in crime movies, Connection features no name stars. It was filmed on Manhattan and Brooklyn locations in the middle of a freezing winter.
More importantly, Friedkin and his scenarist Ernest Tidyman don't bother with the usual niceties of dramatic exposition. One must pay close attention, as Friedkin's cops don't explain themselves or recap important story points. Much of the movie plays without dialogue, as the narcs track their drug-smuggling prey in cars and on foot through the icy city streets. Don Ellis' jazz score is sparse, atonal, and purposely grating. Original release prints were timed to suppress bright colors and accentuate film grain, giving the film a gritty, grimy look.
With the Production Code abolished, William Friedkin ignored the usual industry practice of presenting authority figures in a positive light. In their pursuit of arrests, detectives Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider) routinely terrorize suspects, conduct illegal searches, and run roughshod over the law. Popeye Doyle lives like a pig; when he wants a date he picks up a bicyclist by first pretending to arrest her. Popeye and Buddy pull all-nighters to chase down their hunches and administer beatings as a routine investigative tool. Friedkin makes the strong case that a dirty job can only breed a dirty kind of crime fighter.
Together with Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, The French Connection celebrated the notion that liberal court decisions gave criminals the edge in the war on crime. But Friedkin's movie also shows that international crime syndicates easily outflank America's pitiful enforcement efforts. The arrogant French drug smuggler Charnier (Spanish actor Fernando Rey) is confident of victory; he mocks Doyle's attempts to arrest him.
The French Connection departs from the basic outline of the real French Connection case only when it comes time to deliver a show-stopping action chase. Frustrated after losing track of Charnier, Popeye Doyle goes berserk when it looks as if a French assassin will escape on an elevated train. To keep up with the train, Popeye commandeers a car and tears down a main Brooklyn thoroughfare at high speed, causing accidents and threatening the lives of innocent pedestrians. The car-train pursuit is still considered one of the two or three best chase scenes in movie history.
Audiences didn't care that Doyle is a greater menace, and they applauded the policeman even when he shot an unarmed man in the back. The French Connection initiated the era of the vigilante cop film, an entire new genre of gritty cop movies centered on big-city corruption and the ruthless new breed of urban criminal.
The French Connection became William Friedkin's breakout success. It clobbered the box office and won Oscars for best picture, director, screenplay, editor and its leading actor, Gene Hackman. Four years later Fox launched a sequel based on the idea that audiences would flock to see Popeye Doyle finally catch up with his nemesis Charnier, "Frog One." Now a major star, Gene Hackman was enticed to return with a script that focused even more intently on the Popeye character. John Frankenheimer, a confirmed pro who hadn't had a solid hit in years, signed on to direct.
French Connection II takes Popeye to Charnier's hometown of Marseilles, where he sticks out like a sore thumb. Unable to speak the language, Doyle blunders about the city streets and predictably screws up the investigations of his French counterpart, Inspector Barthélèmy (Bernard Fresson). Charnier's thugs then snatch Doyle off the streets, lock him in a room, and shoot him up with heroin. A couple of weeks later, the tough cop has become a pitiful addict, willing to tell the crooks anything they want to know. What Popeye doesn't know is that his superiors in New York have cynically set him up to serve as bait to bring Charnier out in the open. This paranoid aspect harmonizes with themes in John Frankenheimer's earlier filmography, especially The Manchurian Candidate.
Frankenheimer delivers a more generic crime thriller packed with action set pieces, the most impressive of which is a spectacular gun battle in the middle of a shipyard, in a dry dock filling with water. So as not to lose the audience, the story stops at one point to allow us to overhear a long distance call in which Inspector Barthélèmy patiently explains the plot. Popeye swaps his raincoat for gaudy Hawaiian shirts but is otherwise the same New York cop with a one-track mind. His forced addiction to and subsequent recovery from heroin provide an acting challenge that Gene Hackman pulls off with honors.
French Connection II gives a nod to the daring and racy tradition of French policier crime films. Yet the story resolves as an old-fashioned Hollywood buddy picture. Inspector Barthélèmy eventually accepts Popeye as a worthy ally, and together they storm a Marseilles drug factory. The resulting machine gun battle racks up the expected body count. Although one of Charnier's cronies is revealed to be a U.S. Army officer, the movie infers that foreign criminals and syndicates are responsible for America's drug problems. Frankenheimer's movie is a crowd-pleaser that doesn't challenge the audience the way Friedkin's movie did.
In keeping with its sunny French setting, French Connection II abandons the original's harsh look and feel. Don Ellis is back but his music score is much more conventional; the cinematography is bright and colorful. Director Frankenheimer does make similar use of telephoto and zoom lenses, often staging his action scenes in the middle of what appears to be ordinary street traffic. 25 years later, The French Connection's docu-drama approach to crime movies still prevails, while French Connection II is a rare sequel that doesn't disgrace the original.
Fox's Blu-ray discs of The French Connection and French Connection II feature sparkling restored film transfers and remixed audio. Never having been satisfied with the look of his original film, William Friedkin has retransferred it with a process that mutes and defocuses color while darkening the image. He discusses the process in one of the disc's many featurettes. Other short docus interview the real French Connection legend Sonny Grosso and examine the film's music and film noir roots. Anatomy of a Chase accompanies Friedkin as he retraces the famous car-train chase on its original Brooklyn locations, even using the correct Pontiac car.
The sequel doesn't carry as many extras. A lengthy docu with film clips and archived interview bites celebrates John Frankenheimer's life and career. Gene Hackman appears in interview featurettes on both discs. Each disc also carries multiple commentaries and an isolated track for Don Ellis' two jazz scores.
reviews online at DVD Savant
February 26, 2009