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The French Connection

USA 1971
Directed by
William Friedkin
104 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The French Connection

Although suffering from a couple of shortcomings such as the anti-climactic train crash and the problem of how NYPD mechanics managed to completely rebuild a demolished car in a couple of hours, this remains a classic of the crime/action genre and a benchmark for its time, Friedkin’s trademark down-and-dirty realism taking audiences to the underbelly of New York the way Hollywood had not before. Based on a real events recorded in a book by Robin Moore and with a screenplay by Ernest Tidyman who wrote the novel, Shaft (it was one of multiple scripts, the first being by Alex Jacobs who scripted Point Blank, 1967, along with the original author, Donald Westlake) it is an exciting cat-and-mouse story told with commendable economy.

Gene Hackman plays “Popeye” Doyle (his real life equivalent, Edie Egan appears as Popeye’s boss, Simonson) and Roy Schieder “Cloudy” Russo (whose real life equivalent, Sonny Grosso, appears as Bill Klein), two off-duty narcotics cops who stumble into what was to become the New York’s biggest ever drug bust. Although Hackman is for my money a little too soft (apparently an accurate intuition, Friedkin having to goad Hackman in order to get anywhere close to his real equivalent’s aggressive personality) he nevertheless won a Best Actor Oscar for his efforts.

If characterisation is thin, what really sustains the film is Friedkin’s commitment to authenticity with the locations, performances and production values working seamlessly together to achieve a level of realism that is now taken for granted but was eye-popping in its day. Much the same goes for its much-touted car chase. Although long-since superseded in terms of thrills and spills what is remarkable is that it was all done for real and without any kind of street control. Hackman’s car was driven by Bill Hickman (also appearing here as Det. Muldering who Popeye shoots at the end of the film) who was the driver of the car that Steve McQueen was pursing in the famous car chase in Bullitt (1968), the two films sharing the same producer, Philip D’Antoni who consciously wanted to top the earlier effort. Although touted in its day, most people would still say that he did not succeed. The film, which won the Best Picture Oscar, was a monster hit in its day and it remains a strong genre film.

BTW: Fernando Rey was cast by mistake after Friedkin asked for “that guy in Belle De Jour (presumably referring to Francisco Rabal) and casting director, Rob Weiner, hired Rey who been in Bunuel’s Tristana the previous year.

 

 

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