Tuesday, September 2, 2014

AFI Top 100: #93 "The French Connection"

Gene Hackman in The French Connection (1971)

I was so happy to be visiting my family (and high school friends) up in Northern California this past weekend that I figured there was no reason to delay the continuation of our AFI Top 100 movie night—so I invited over [pretty much] everyone I knew from my days in the Bay.

The #93 movie on the AFI Top 100 list is The French Connection, which may not have been what I'd normally pick to pair with such a lively social gathering. Everyone was game to give it a go (most had never seen it before), so between dinner & drinks and late-night/outdoor games of Corn-hole, we popped in the disc and settled in.

The French Connection is the story of two New York City detectives in the Narcotics Bureau, Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), as they fight to prove there is a conspiracy to transport drugs into the city from France. Popeye's reputation as a "leap before you look" (or rather, "shoot before you investigate") kind of detective precedes him, and he has quite the time getting anyone to take that leap of faith with him - other than his patient and trusty partner, of course.

This film takes a nihilistic, gritty-realism approach to the cop story, which in the early 1970's was all the rage in movie-making (not unlike the 1971 coming-of-age film we watched a few weeks ago). Audiences didn't want glossy;  they didn't really even want happy or cathartic. They wanted something real, and The French Connection gave it to them—in some ways, to the film's detriment.

First of all, the movie is really slow to rev up. Popeye and Buddy take their time on the streets, busting up any and everything they suspect might play a role in the city's drug scene. Popeye, especially, is abrasive, abusive, and extremely racist, playing out his "bad cop" role with glee. He doesn't care who he pisses off;  he just wants to get the job done the best way he knows how. And unfortunately for everyone around him, his "best" needs a lot of work.

The majority of the story is spent trailing, watching, or chasing suspects, which varies in excitement from exhilarating to mind-numbingly boring. In some ways, it's hard for me to cite that as a criticism—isn't that really the goal of the film? The life of police officers isn't always exciting, and sometimes it's just downright repetitive. The French Connection is remarkably successful in incorporating the audience into the nitty-gritty of being a city cop, and all the 'dull' that comes with it.

At the same time, this is still a movie. And there is certainly a pacing problem. The pace of the dialogue doesn't mesh well with the pace of the action. Everything seems really fragmented and stilted during the 1st act, and we spend 30 minutes just trying to play catch-up on what actually matters, which doesn't seem to be very much.

I've heard some commentary that cites this as purposeful. That is likely true, so I could say that director William Friedkin is successful in that regard. But personally, it doesn't make for a memorable viewing experience. The all-too-simple plot seems to be over-complicated just so the detectives have something to do.

The movie picks up when the "French connection" to the drug shipment is confirmed, and from then on, we do see a lot more action. The famous "chase scene" through the streets (fun fact: filmed without getting permits from the city) truly is a remarkable feat. And the film's fast-paced, though anti-climactic, ending holds just a little bit of poetry.

Overall, however, an unsympathetic protagonist flanked by awkward pacing and motivation docks a lot of points in my book.  I understand the achievement The French Connection once was. After all, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1971 for a reason. It was different, and gritty, and honest. But I don't believe it will stand the test of time. AFI's (original) Top 100 list in 1997 ranked this film at #70—and its significant drop ten years later might be an indicator of another big dip to come.

Rating:  ★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for #92 on the list, Goodfellas — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. Indeed ... the movie has suffered the test of time. What was a gritty realism with racist overtones - became more clichéd than anything else. Perhaps drilling down into the history of the film as it impacted future filming efforts - especially cop pictures - is worth a look. "Serpico" in 1973 was perhaps influenced by "The F.C." - if not directly - it probably encouraged the studio to go with it as gritty police dramas were popular. Although films like "Dirty Harry", which came out in 1971, and "Bullitt", which came out in 1968 are more engaging films - and the car chase in "The F.C." is actually a commuter train chase. Friedkin did a more stylish, but also gritty and realistic, film in 1985 "To Live and Die in L.A." The action and engagement of the viewer in these other films is better than "The F.C." Oh ... and "The Seven-Ups" made in 1973, starring Popeye's partner, Roy Scheider, has one of the top 3 car chases ever filmed - in my opinion. It is also set in NYC and is gritty and hard hitting. "Across 110th Street" made in 1973 is another NYC / Cop / Crime / Mafia film of some quality. Chuck J.


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