'French' Cuisine

'French' Cuisine

by Vadim Rizov

The French Connection

Upon release, The French Connection was advertised as "an out and out thriller" just right for its time. "I guess that you are supposed to think that a good old kind of movie has none too soon come around again," wrote Roger Greenspun in The New York Times before concluding it was "in fact a very good new kind of movie." That "new kind of movie" being an action movie rather than a thriller: the difference between the two is valuing motion for its own sake, rather than as part of a dramatic plot that has to stop for dialogue breathers and human emotions. The film's most often reduced to its precedent-setting, breakneck car chase, but director William Friedkin's innovation is in making the whole film just as kinetic.

The first and last action flick to win the Best Picture Oscar (war film The Hurt Locker and bloated epic-plus-sporadic-dismemberments Gladiator not quite the same thing), The French Connection presents a number of future genre tropes in embryo. Irritable cop Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) has a patient partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), who puts up with his late nights and ego-driven hunches; naturally, they're constantly sniping at each other and arguing with their supervising officer Walt Simonson (Eddie Egan), who inevitably warns Popeye that the case he's getting too involved in is a hopeless cause anyway.

The French Connection

Popeye and Buddy's target is French drug kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey). In a nod to Hollywood convention of the '30s and '40s?when stopping the narrative dead for a nightclub number was a common occurrence?suspicions point to a low-level operative drinking in a bar that strains for respectable nightclub status: the gaudy stage show features The Three Degrees performing the incongruously optimistic "Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon" (spoken word break: "We are the people who will populate the moon"). But Connection's law enforcement is amoral in a new-fashioned way: when before had a film wondered whether cop and criminal aren't simply two sides of the same coin? The point is driven home most often by comparing the two men's meals: Charnier fussily inspects the wine bottle for his lunch, while outside, Popeye angrily chomps into a slice of pizza and deli coffee. (Smaller parallel: both toss aside their last bite while waiting for someone to arrive.) The movie's obsession with food?a husband-and-wife ensnared in the plot operate a greasy-spoon diner as a front?is an odd but forceful way of underlining class distinctions: what you eat is who you are.

Charnier has a sinister, glowering assassin as his right-hand man (Marcel Bozzuffi), while Popeye revels in the role of vigilante bad cop, threatening to punch a bartender who makes them chase after him and slashes Buddy with his knife. Popeye smacks suspects around, straight-up shoots one guy in the back when he's too tired to chase after him, takes a civilian's car and proceeds to endanger the life of anyone on the streets of NYC, and suffers zero disciplinary action. The final title cards imply that the reassigned officers were victimized by a bureaucracy that favors tidy arrests and won't support cops in trouble, while the fates of all the (living) criminals are reduced sentences or suggestively unknown and off-the-map; considering how many people wind up dead because of Popeye (whose presence is as dangerous to friends, family and surrounding strangers as Charles Bronson's), it's hard to feel too aggrieved on his behalf. The biggest future-clich� in The French Connection is the vague, hard-to-justify suggestion powering the Death Wish films and all other pro-vigilante movies: that the law ultimately favors criminals and secretly we can all agree it'd be better to just go around shooting troublemakers on sight.

Like several other Friedkin films, The French Connection works best as a chase without meaningful context or much dialogue. As in more flawed films, the best moments are wordless (see also: Al Pacino silently floating among New York gays in Cruising, Tommy Lee Jones running after Benicio Del Toro for half the running time in The Hunted). Eliminating the language on the page and upping the adrenaline-kick ante allows Friedkin to express nearly every important conflict visually: the drama changes direction when the people being pursued do. The brisk tempo of that race through city streets is applied to nearly every scene, so that like Popeye, it doesn't stop to think when shooting: it just embraces the thrill of non-stop motion and violence.

[A new 35mm print of The French Connection screens at NYC's Film Forum from September 14 ? 22.]

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Posted by ahillis at September 13, 2011 1:51 PM

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