Like a lot of other pretentious hipster movie nerds that you want to punch in the face, I love the cinema of the 1970s, that creatively dynamic period when Baby Boomers took over Hollywood, made some brilliant films, and then snorted everything up their noses and got in trouble. So it's with particular shame that I confess I'd never seen The French Connection, the Best Picture winner of 1971 and generally considered one of the decade's must-see titles. It's on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best movies ever made; it won Oscars for star Gene Hackman and director William Friedkin, and established the careers of both men; it is readily available on home video. I have no excuse.
But now, at last, my shame has ended!
My Shame List #2: The French Connection (1971)
(This week's guest scolder: Jordan Raup, of The Film Stage!)
"For shame, Eric. You're so old I bet you even had the chance to see The French Connection in theaters. William Friedkin's slick, frantic cop drama features Gene-freaking-Hackman in one of the best performances of his storied career, for which he won an Oscar. It also packs the single best car chase put to screen, which is just a portion of the fast-paced thrills. And it isn't like that other highly-praised 1971 cop movie, Dirty Harry. This one actually holds up and it's so good they even made a sequel! (Note: I have not seen the sequel.)"
Why hadn't I seen it before?
Mr. Raup's impertinent allegations notwithstanding, I actually am not old enough to have seen it in theaters, having been born a good three years after its release. The greater question is why I never saw it as an adult, especially after I became a hardcore movie buff. (I mean to say that I'm hardcore when it comes to being a movie buff, not that I am a buff of hardcore movies.) And there's no particular reason. I wasn't avoiding it -- I figured I'd probably enjoy it when I did see it -- and I'm a fan of the people involved. It just sort of fell through the cracks. I throw myself on the mercy of the court.
How much of it had I seen?
Pretty sure I'd seen at least clips from the car chase, maybe the whole sequence. Images of guys driving like maniacs through city streets occupy a significant part of my memory, and they start to run together.
What did I already know about it before I watched it?
- Growing up in the 1980s, most of my knowledge of '60s and '70s cinema came from the satires I read in old issues of MAD Magazine. Their French Connection parody was called What's the Connection?, making fun of how the film's storyline was filled with events that didn't seem to have anything to do with each other.
- From MAD I knew that Hackman's character evidently goes around asking people, "Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" I seem to recall that the parody gave him several variations of this, too. At one point a perp responds, "No, but I pick my nose in Harlem." Oh, MAD. You know the way to my heart.
- It stars Gene Hackman, who, contrary to what my young mind had imagined, had actually appeared in movies before he played Lex Luthor.
- It has a car chase that's supposed to be awesome.
- Despite the title, it is not a French movie.
- The main character's name is Popeye, only instead of thriving on spinach he thrives on racial slurs.
Oh, heavens, I do love me some gritty '70s crime drama, especially when it's set in New York -- then at the height of its seediness -- and features foul-mouthed cops who beat the hell out of perps. When did we start seeing cops like that in movies? It can't have been much earlier than this. Protagonists with ambiguous moral compasses, not to mention outright "antiheroes," weren't common in Hollywood before the 1960s, and instances where they were police officers were fewer still. Between this and Dirty Harry, released the same year, there must have been a lot of hand-wringing within the Establishment over the way law enforcement was being portrayed.
It has that downbeat New Hollywood kind of ending, too. (Spoilers ahead, if you're some kind of loser who's never seen The French Connection.) Hackman's character, Popeye Doyle, shoots what he thinks is the bad guy (in the back!), but it turns out to be a federal agent -- one he'd had fights with before, who blamed Doyle for a cop's death in a previous incident. The actual villain gets away. Again, that's not the kind of thing you saw a lot of in American films until the '60s.
The first thing that happens in The French Connection is a French guy gets shot in the face. Why don't more movies start this way?
You know what there's a lot of in this movie? Men looking at other men without the other men knowing they're being looked at. The cops stalk the criminals. The criminals keep an eye on the cops. Guys follow each other from discreet distances. It never felt repetitive for me. On the contrary, I felt like I was part of the case. My dreams of being a hard-headed New York City police officer are almost fulfilled!
And that car chase is pretty spectacular, even more so in context: it's part of a side plot in which the bad guy's henchman asks for permission to kill Doyle, attempts to do so, and is then pursued and killed by Doyle ... putting the story right back where it was before the sequence started. There's no narrative reason for it be here. There's a character reason, though. It tells us more about Doyle's drive, obsession, and ego. Yes, he's chasing a guy who took a shot at him and hit an innocent bystander, a villain who needs to be apprehended. But by himself? With a civilian's car? Endangering so many other lives in the process? That's pride, that is. Stand down, Doyle. STAND DOWN!
A friend asked me later if the car chase lives up to the hype. I said, "What's the hype?" He said, "That it's the greatest car chase ever filmed." I don't know about that. I haven't seen every car chase ever filmed. But this one is fantastically executed. If you put a gun to my head and made me choose, I guess I'd waver between this one, and the one in Bullitt, and maybe the one in Bourne Identity, and, I don't know, the one in Date Night? With the taxi going backwards? Look, I'm not good at choosing. Why is this so important to you that you'd actually put a gun to my head?? That's insane.