Sunday, May 2, 2010

The French Connection

Year: 1971
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 93
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Director: William Friedkin
Star: Gene Hackman, Roy Schneider, Alain Charnier

Watching “The French Connection” is the cinematic equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to the chest. No other thriller, modern or otherwise, has struck such a fantastic balance between the bombastic and the painstakingly precise. Because of this, the tension in the film becomes almost unbearable for the viewer, to the point where you look down and realize you’ve fisted your hands so tightly that you have dug your nails deep into your palm.

The film opens in France with a man buying some bread and mounting an obscene amount of stone steps (shades of director William Friedkin’s at-the-time-yet-to-be-filmed “The Exorcist”) and being shot in the head by an assassin. Gradually we learn that this was all part of a intricate conspiracy to smuggle huge amounts of almost-pure heroin to New York City. The action shifts to America, where a narcotics detective named Doyle (Gene Hackman) and his partner Russo (Roy Schneider) become involved.

Friedkin, as he often does in his best work, turns the film’s setting into a character in the movie. Here New York a decaying, gray corpse of a city. The sky is always cloudy, the streets are nearly deserted (though the subway system is packed) and when Doyle’s obsession begins the noises of the city gradually dissipate until the echo of his shoes on the pavement is all that we hear. Friedkin shoots France and Washington D.C. in stark contrast to this, further underlining that Doyle’s actions might be futile because the city is too far gone already.

Writer Ernest Tidyman and Friedkin focus all of their characterization efforts on Hackman’s Doyle, and even then they don’t try to turn him into a three-dimensional character; they create a blunt object that you fully believe will stop at nothing to achieve his goals. You are terrified of what would happen if you crossed him, and by the time he gets in that car to begin the landmark chase after an elevated train, you aren’t as worried for him as you are for the bystanders. Schneider’s sidekick has virtually no depth and doesn’t question Doyle’s insanity, making you wonder which one has more mental problems.

While the last paragraph might read as something of a criticism, I don’t mean it to be one. The creative team absolutely made the right decision to make “The French Connection” into a series of moments, large and small, rather than a character study. As interesting a guy as Doyle is, if the movie would have stopped for even a scene to attempt to understand him or empathize with him, then it would have imploded. After his classic introduction in his Santa suit, you might begin asking yourself questions about Hackman’s character, but by the time Schneider shows up at his apartment to find him handcuffed by his ankle to a bedpost, you stop asking and just go with it.

Newer movies have forgotten how to build tension. “The French Connection” reminded me just how explosive a film can be if paced with delicate precision. There is an almost-Hitchcockian sequence of calculated suspense where Hackman has pursued a villain down to an underground subway stop. The villain boards a train, and Doyle follows. But just before the doors close, the villain gets off the train, causing Doyle to follow suit. Back and forth the duo go, wandering about the platform pretending the other does not exist and getting on and off of subway cars until Doyle finally misses the train by a fraction of a second. It’s a beautifully choreographed sequence filmed with as little dialogue as possible (there are wonderfully eerie, lengthy patches of the movie with no dialogue whatsoever) that ends in frustration and powerlessness for both the viewer and Doyle.

A little later, a woman pushing a baby carriage is savagely murdered by a sniper’s bullet meant for Doyle. The “hero” gives chase, and by this time both he and the viewer are so frustrated and angry that we want Doyle to get the bad guy by any means necessary.

Those means turn into one of the greatest sequences ever filmed. Comparisons are often made to “Bullitt,” but for me it has more in common with the climax of “Strangers on a Train,” with a runaway subway car substituted for the gone-awry merry-go-round. The sniper gets onto an elevated train and takes the driver hostage. Hackman’s character stops the first car he can and pursues the train at obscene speeds through the crowded Brooklyn streets. The driver soon dies of a heart attack and the subway train continues to barrel down its line toward another stopped train. Both parallel sequences, the subway train and Hackman’s pursuit of it, are fantastic in and of themselves, but when intercut with one another makes it almost unwatchably suspenseful. All of this is made even more impressive in that you know for a fact that you are watching a real car weave through actual Brooklyn streets in pursuit of a real subway car…not some shit CGI replication on a computer. Put it all together and by the time a woman pushing a baby carriage got in the way of Hackman’s car I found myself gasping at a film for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long.

Friedkin plays a nasty (and by “nasty” I mean “fucking amazing”) trick on the audience in the moments following the chase by implying that another large-scale car chase is about to begin. The audience is so worn out by the last set-piece that we cannot fathom going through it again, but then Friedkin pulls back at the last moment. Again, this is how tension is built properly over the course of a motion picture, otherwise this little diversion would be nothing but wheel spinning.

Despite these big moments, some of the most memorable things about “The French Connection” are the little throwaway bits. In our introduction to New York City, Schneider’s character nonchalantly traps a possible drug lord by putting him in a phone booth and then shoving a desk against it. Then there’s the shot that contrasts Doyle eating shitty pizza and drinking coffee in the biting cold while the man he is following eats like a king inside a restaurant. Or how about Doyle mixing all of the narcotics he finds in a bar together with beer in a martini shaker while asking “Anyone want a milkshake?”

“The French Connection” is a near-perfect example of a movie knowing exactly what it is and what it needs to accomplish, then doing so without adding unnecessary dimension. It’s real, it’s terrifying and pretty damn brilliant as well.

My Score (out of 5): *****

1 comment:

Unknown said...

That was a nice analysis. Thanks.
I should mention that the actor who plays Charnier is named Fernando Rey, who was featured in 3 films by Luis Bunuel:
The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie
That Obscure Object Of Desire