Movie review: ‘The French Connection’

fcI am especially fond of a film that takes its time to build suspense. Long before “Alien” had to work its way to a cataclysmic ending, you could find one of the best-ever pacing efforts with “The French Connection.” The film would win five Oscars and be nominated for three others, but at the end of the day it was how director William Friedkin built up the drama with details and pacing until you were on an unstoppable ride to the end. It also brought us (after “Bullitt” with Steve McQueen) one of the best car chase scenes in cinema. So, you can check this one out on Netflix and sit back for 104 minutes of enjoyment.

‘The French Connection’
(1971; 104 minutes; rated R; directed by William Friedkin and starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider and Fernando Rey)

DO YOU PICK YOUR FEET IN POUGHKEEPSIE?

The pace and tension builds in “The French Connection” just as it had for the real-life cops in the real-life investigation of heroin smuggling that is the basis for the film. It goes from the drab initial bits and pieces that become enough to investigate to the drudgery of surveillance to finally it kicks into high gear and roars to its unexpected conclusion. Real cops might scoff about the realism, but I’m glad director William Friedkin took his time and made this one right.

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Of course you don’t need me to tell you how good this one is – after all, it earned five Oscars (including for best film, director and actor and a nomination for best supporting actor). Still, it’s fascinating in this day and age of “The Fast and the Furious” or other similar movies that you can just expect that the rush to the next action scene is merely a moment and that the details or segue doesn’t matter.

It’s completely different for “The French Connection,” which will have its 44th anniversary this year. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play detective partners “Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle” and “Buddy ‘Cloudy’ Russo.” After establishing themselves as maverick cops, they pick up on a minor-league mob guy (Tony Lo Bianco as “Sal Boca”) out on the town and apparently coming up in style. They begin surveillance with the hunch they might be on the track of interrupting a big scheme.

The film builds through following them and the parallel story of a French heroin smuggler who is bringing 60 kilograms of the drug (which should have been 132 pounds, but instead is called 120 pounds in the film) into the U.S. through New York for deal with the American mob (who is represented by Lo Bianco). The gathering of intelligence shows the drudgery of the work but the suspense begins to build when they deduce Lo Bianco’s up to something and finally catch him meeting with the Frenchman.

As I already noted, Friedkin spends the time necessary to tell the story without it becoming hampered by too many details. You actually believe that Hackman and Scheider, who would go on to play a similar kind of cop in “The Seven-Ups” (click here for my review), are undercover cops. Further Hackman’s having trouble with a federal agent brought onto the case and the interdepartmental brouhaha continues to the chilling end between the two men.

The Frenchman, played superbly by the suave and sophisticated Fernando Rey as “Alain Charnier,” manages to humiliate Hackman by managing to escape from his surveillance (with a neat little wave to Gene as he gets away on a subway train) and the film then begins to pick up its tempo. Pretty soon the car chase happens when Hackman begins pursing Rey’s enforcer and finally spins out as police bust the drug transaction between Rey and the mob.

At the end, Hackman accidentally kills the federal agent; all the mob guys go to jail but get out in shorter time than you’d like; and Rey disappears without a trace and the real-life smuggler was never prosecuted for the “French Connection” heroin deal.

Friedkin, who won his only Oscar here (he was also nominated two years later for “The Exorcist”), give a truly special effort here. He knows just what to do to make the story tight and suspenseful and energetic without sacrificing quality. Friedkin also directed “To Live and Die in L.A.” (click here for my review) as well as the college hoops film “Blue Chips” (click here for my review).

Just like his director, Hackman easily earned his Oscar statuette here. He does a sensational job as the over-the-top undercover detective with a chip on his shoulder and the instincts of a street fighter. Hackman can go from boozy to a bedroom scene to chasing a would-be killer with aplomb. He was just as terrific in “Hoosiers” and was also in “Target” with Matt Dillon (click here for my review) and “Runaway Jury” (click here for my review).

Scheider, who got his first Oscar nod here, is calm but strong as Hackman’s partner. He knows he’s a bit in his more volatile friend’s shadow, but it doesn’t matter. He does a wonderful job as an almost straight man to Hackman’s enthusiastic energy. Scheider would get another Oscar nod for Bob Fosse’s “All That Jazz” (click here for my review) and is most recognized for his work in the first two “Jaws” films. He was also a maverick cop in “Blue Thunder.”

Rey, one of Spain’s most accomplished actors, was simply perfectly cast as the suspect first called “Frog One” by the U.S. police. He calmly sails through police surveillance to deliver his massive load of heroin and never loses his cool. Rey, who died in 1994 at the age of 76, had a most prolific career – he notched 242 credits over seven decades.

Bill Hickman plays doomed FBI Agent “Bill Mulderig” and is actually better known as a stunt driver and responsible for the classic chase in “Bullitt.” He was hired for “The French Connection” by Friendkin to do the film’s primary chase scene and also worked in the supporting role of a regimented fed who dislikes Hackman.

Befitting its Oscar haul the next year, “The French Connection” was the No. 3 film at the U.S. box office in 1971 with $51.7 million in ticket sales, according to Wiki. It would add another estimated $75 million in rentals, also according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Billy Jack” with $98 million and No. 2 was “Fiddler on the Roof” with $75.6 million. The next two films were great by my standards: “Diamonds are Forever” (No. 4 with $43.8 million – click here for my review) and “Dirty Harry” (No. 5 with $35.9 million – click here for my review).

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • The real-life “French Connection” cops both have roles in the film. Eddie Egan (the real “Popeye”) plays “Simonsen” and Sonny Grosso (the real “Cloudy”) plays “Klein.” Both would go on with careers in film, but Grosso had a bigger one (mostly as a producer of mainly crime-oriented productions) and worked on Scheider’s “The Seven-Ups.”
  • Maureen Mooney plays the character aptly named “Bicycle Girl,” who is a pick-up by Hackman (and handcuffs him to his bed). She worked primarly in soap operas and had only one other film credit (“Hell High,” which was 18 years after “The French Connection”). She was absent from Hollywood for 24 years before being in a TV movie in 2014.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “According to William Friedkin, the significance of the straw hat being tossed onto the shelf of the rear window in Doyle and Russo’s car was that at that time it was a universal signal in New York City that the undercover cops in the car were on duty.”
  • Click here for IMDb.com’s extensive trivia page about “The French Connection.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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