The French Connection Review
“The French Connection” is a gritty, urban detective movie made in 1971 and is based on the novel by Robin Moore. I must disgracefully admit that this Blu-ray release is the first time I have watched this iconic movie. When I told people that I was reviewing “Connection” many assumed that there was a recent remake of the original. It's a shame that the memories of classic films, such as this one, are being replaced with inferior updates which seem to be the flavour of the month in Hollywood at the moment. I find that the content of these older movies fit the period in time in which they were made and often modernisation simply doesn't work for this reason. It's worth noting that in 1972 this movie picked up five Oscars; Best Actor-Gene Hackman; Best Director-William Friedkin (of “Exorcist” fame); Best Editing, Best Screenplay and Best Picture.
“French Connection” is based on the crusade of two good cops, who work for the New York City Narcotics Bureau, as they struggle to make a major bust and do some serious damage to the drug trafficking trade. Our two detectives are played by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Hackman, who plays James “Popeye” Doyle, gets the majority of screen time and is the focus throughout this movie. This is the first movie I have seen where Hackman is a young man and I have to say that he is really believable as the tough, womanising detective Doyle. Schneider (who was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor) plays his loyal partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo who is the brains to Popeye's brawn.
Doyle and Russo are mavericks desperately in need of a prize catch to boost not only their own reputations but also the reputation of the entire Narcotics Bureau. Doyle has a hunch that a seemingly innocent grocery store owner, Sal Boca (played by Tony Lo Bianco), is in fact kingpin in a massive drug smuggling operation with mafia connections. With a number of poor calls in the past, one of which resulted in the death of an officer, the chief is somewhat sceptical about Doyle's hunch and is reluctant to back him. Doyle and Russo are forced to go undercover and provide some hard evidence that Sal is in fact involved before the chief will lend them the might of the force. Meanwhile, we see that there are bigger fish in the pond, with the appearance of French shipyard tycoon and millionaire Alain Charnier (played by prominent Spanish actor Fernando Rey). Using his shipyard business as a front, Alain is in fact a heroin smuggler, and is in contact with a certain Sal from Brooklyn, NYC. Brooklyn is portrayed as a sleazy borough filled with hooker joints and bars wherein rolling up a fat one is not frowned upon. Alain arrives in Brooklyn to meet with Sal (plus his “business partner” Weinstock) and deliver sixty kilo's of grade A produce. Being the shrewd criminal, Alain is quick to realise that their operation is under surveillance by Doyle and Russo, who are desperately seeking solid evidence on the transaction. What follows is a game of cat and mouse between the wily Alain/Sal as they are unmercifully tracked by our two unrelenting heroes who look to disrupt their illegal operation at every juncture.
“Connection” contains some pretty exciting action sequences which all have that special “rough and ready” feel that only older movies can produce. The legendary car chase sequence is very realistic (especially the impacts, which were all accidental), with the camera seated directly behind Doyle, as he hurtles through downtown Brooklyn in his brown Pontiac, pushing its suspension to the limits and narrowly missing pedestrians and other motorists. All gunfight sequences have a raw violence about them that many modern movies fail to capture. In saying that this movie was made in 1971 and certainly looks that way - check out the high tech chemist who determines the melting point of Sal's junk and airline tickets must be bought in the airport itself as the internet does not exist!
It came as quite a surprise to me that “Connection” is actually based on true events (although the real life case lasted over two years) and at the end of the movie we're treated to a “Goodfellas” style prologue explaining where all the main characters are now. It came as an ever bigger surprise to learn that not only was this one of the biggest drug busts in American history, but almost everyone involved got away scot free - it seems that even after nearly thrity years that some things haven't changed! Many consider that the real life French Connection episode was the point at which law officials started to lose their war on drugs. The gritty, documentary style in which Friedkin chose to shoot this picture only serves to enhance the realism and raw nature of the source material, with a couple of the scenes (such as the traffic jam sequence on the Brooklyn bridge) shot without permission. Proceedings are helped along by the unusual score that was written by visionary composer Bob Ellis. Although unique, the score is wisely not overused by the director and is completely absent in some of the scenes, including the car chase sequence, with Friedkin believing no musical interludes necessary to aid proceedings.
”French Connection” is without doubt a cinematic landmark with the infamous car chase sequence almost stealing the show. Hackman and Scheider really shine through in the dark, seedy back alleys of Friedkin's vision of Manhattan. The fact that they spent over a month on patrol with Eddie Eagan and Sonny Grasso, who are the real life counterparts of the characters they play, really shows in their realistic portrayal of these two heroic cops. My only gripe is that the plot seems a little thin at times with modern movies containing a lot more in terms of character development and engaging storylines. In saying that this movie can still hold its own when compared to recent releases of the same genre, with it's no holds barred, unrelenting onslaught of pure 70's cop action. The release of this movie, in conjunction with “Dirty Harry” in the same year, spurned a revival of the noir style of filmmaking of the 1940's.
Aside from the obvious age factor, “Connection” is a cracking old school detective movie that demonstrates the unwavering trust of a crime fighting partnership that simply would not wash in today's more cynical world. I was pleasantly surprised at the pace of this movie as I was expecting a more stake out orientated movie with long periods of conversation. Hackman and Scheider do plenty of running around; making busts with typical 70's style good cop/bad cop dialogue. Although not containing any special effects wizardry or massive set piece stunts “Connection” contains a clever plot, and is a thoroughly enjoyable and exciting crime thriller that can still deliver the goods today.