Sunday, February 16, 2020



Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Ernest Tidyman based on the book by Robin Moore

“The French Connection,” won five Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director in 1971, making William Friedkin, at age 32, making him far and away the youngest Best Director Oscar Winner in over forty years, officially noting the changing of the guard of Hollywood, igniting the Film School Generation of filmmakers that others might now deem Hollywood New Wave. It earned him a carte blanche for his next movie, which he used the full effect of with “The Exorcist.” His work since however has been ehh, moderate to mediocre.

Actually that's been the typical snob cinephile line, but that's not fair at all; the thing is that Friedkin's hard director to really get ahold of. I think it fair to say that he only has a couple absolute great essential classics, with "The French Connection" and "The Exorcist" but he's had several other good and even important films throughout his filmography, like "The Boys in the Band", "The Birthday Party", "To Live and Die in L.A." and "Cruisin'" and I'd probably defend some underrated gems like "Killer Joe", or even "Blue Chips" and I even liked his TV movie adaptation of "12 Angry Men" quite a lot. That said though, his filmography is dwarfed by "The Exorcist", and to a lesser degree, his best film, "The French Connection".

In my mind, the director most similar to compare to him too is Peter Bogdanovich, another filmmaker from the first generation of Film School American New Wave Directors whose filmography is dwarfed by a couple of his early masterpieces, in his case, the biggest one is "The Last Picture Show" but even the really good work among his deep cuts like "Paper Moon" gets overlooked or forgotten. They're both also equally fascinated by the past of Old Hollywood also, paradoxically. as much as they were and are groundbreakers of today, if not moreso. (I guess that's true of most of the big Hollywood New Wave guys of that era, but I'd definitely say moreso with them.) If there is a really big different between them, and is als the  thing that throws off people with Friedkin is that when you do dive into his other films, you realize he's much more of a theater director who makes some movies then an auteur filmmaker, at least in the traditional sense. 

There's a lot of theater adaptations in his filmography, and it seems like he does his best to stay within those four walls most of the time, and many of his films seem more focused on the dialogue interplay between characters then you'd think watching his biggest hit. As Aaron Sorkin would often say that he writes people talking in rooms, Friedkin seems to direct people talking in rooms, which is really weird 'cause his biggest hits are not representative of that, not on the surface anyway. One of his more recent films, "Bug", another film of his that's developed a cult following over the years, was promoted as being a horror film from the director of "The Exorcist". While it is an intense thriller, it's not horror and it was actually an adaptation of a stage play and the movie feels like it. So much so, that I've seen people try to decipher more from it, like how a post-credits scene might mean something more then, the producers wanted a post-credits scene to add mystery to the film, which there isn't. I've gone online and seen stage production of "Bug", trying to pretend there's more to that movie is kinda ludicrous. 

That said, he probably has the same problem with action movies now. Based on an actual case involving policeman Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, who play minor characters in the film, "The French Connection" has since become more infamous for having one of the most famous car chase scenes in film history, which it is. I'd argue that it might be my favorite car chase scene; it’s a famous sequence after there’s a shot taken at Popeye Doyle’s life (Gene Hackman, in an Oscar-winning performance) and he soon chases a suspect, who’s escaping on a runaway L-train. What makes the sequence incredible is that it’s shown mostly through a strange point of view angle of the car, so we see, not the train he’s chasing, but all of the obstacles right in front of the car, presumably done by a camera attached to a car, of course, which was kinda new at the time; that's an easy effect in a green screened room, but this doesn't look that easy. and there were also establishing shots from a POV inside the car as well, making this seem more intense as Popeye's car keep manuevering and banging his way through the streets of New York. 

The film is more thrilling then just that sequence though. It's technically an investigative detective story, but the entire movie feels like a chase sequence, with both Popeye and his partner Cloudy (Roy Scheider), working undercover, following, spying on numerous people. The movie begins with a chase scene, one with Hackman undercover as a Santa Claus for an extra level of absurdist comedy. The film is kinetically active, yet the film does in fact stay fairly true to the typical police procedural, but what Friedkin does is use action and procedural in the foreground for an analysis of Popeye’s character. He’s a racist, he’s sexist, and absolutely obsessed with getting his man, and getting the bad guys locked up. 

The case in the film for instance, was not a case they were assigned to, but simply something they happen to stumble upon off duty, when they noticed a couple gangsters in a bar being treated by a local deli shop owner they didn’t know, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco). The actual case involves $32million in heroine being snuck into America by a French drug dealer (Fernando Rey) and the set-up and eventual selling of it. There's one other great train sequence, it proceeds the chase and involves a cat-and-mouse-type scene between Rey and Hackman as both of them watch each other, knowing that one is trying to escape on the train and the other is trying to capture the other, and the back and forth is brilliant tension as they try to outwit and outsmart the other so precisely is simply brilliant. The timing and editing much been just blown peoples' minds at the time.

Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, along with Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and with some other numerous exploitation and blaxploitation characters of the time rang in a new breed of anti-hero to cinema, usually policeman or some kind of vigilante character who decides to take the bad guys into his own hands, often irrelevant of what or who they take out in his path. “The French Connection,” is far and away the best of these films, particularly because it’s the beginning of such clichés of similar films it started, like the cop and his partner, the good cop-bad cop routine, the opening irrelevant action sequence, the comparisons and similarities between cop and criminal, it’s basically a blueprint for most cop movies and especially cop buddy movies that came afterwards. 

It also most exquisitely shows the messiness of police work and investigation tactics, and how the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The ending results revealed at the end of the film makes one take a second look at everything that happened before, although not necessarily because we’ll find a new angle on things, but on how one’s pursuit could turn into one’s obsession. 

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