THRILLER: The French Connection (1971)

The French Connection (USA, 1971)
Directed by William Friedkin
Starring Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco

Saying that a film is "a product of its time" usually means one of two things. Either we are trying to excuse some aspect of it which is dated or unjustifiable on modern grounds - usually the special effects or the way in which women or non-whites are depicted - or else we are making a comment about the film-making climate which produced such a work and using it to criticise the modern approach. Saying that "you couldn't make this today" is often just as much a criticism of Hollywood's risk aversion and franchise obsession as it is a care-free means of dismissing flack.
In whichever sense, The French Connection is a film which is a product of its time, and while you could make it today, the chances are that it wouldn't work anything like as well. A career-maker for both director William Friedkin and star Gene Hackman, it represents a fascinating intersection of American and European film-making styles, with a plot which still holds water and an approach to its subject which remains highly influential. While not perfect, it remains one of Friedkin's finest films, and a lynchpin of the crime thriller genre.
The French Connection belongs to a small group of films released in 1971 which blew away what was left of the air-headed optimism of the late-1960s and set the tone for the decade. Together with A Clockwork Orange, Get Carter and Straw Dogs, it presents an uncompromising view of modern crime, pulling no punches in its commentary on the present state of affairs and showing off the decay present in developed Western societies. Friedkin's film may not be as wildly influential as Stanley Kubrick's, but Hackman's performance is as intense and gripping as Michael Caine in his best work, and the violence, while smaller in quantity, is largely as brutal as that in Sam Peckinpah's outing.
The film is very interested in the nature of New York City - specifically in how run-down, scummy and decrepit it is. Everything in the city is beat-up and has seen better days, from the cars and the cigarette machines to the boxes outside the delicatessen and the subway trains. As in David Lynch's Eraserhead, you get the sense of a city groaning under the weight of stalled progress and squandered potential; it's a world in which smiles come at a premium, the hours are long and what pleasure that can be found is largely base. Taxi Driver owes an awful lot to the look of this film; if you don't believe me, imagine Hackman saying any of Robert de Niro's lines during any of his scenes.
Mark Kermode once said that The French Connection was trying to bring a European sensibility to an American story. Friedkin was part of the New Hollywood movement which had been influenced by the French nouvelle vague and the Italian neorealists (Bicycle Thieves and all that), and he wanted to apply that auteurist principle to stories from his own neck of the woods. It isn't just that the film lacks either the highly choreographed glamour of 1950s Hollywood or the hyperactive, commercial approach that came after it. It chooses to tell its story in a way which goes against the expectations of American audiences, and which still seems counter-intuitive today.
Until its landmark car chase (we'll come to that later), The French Connection is a surprisingly slow-burning film. The opening scenes set the tone, playing out like a Michelangelo Antonioni film - in other words, imbued with meaning and intrigue but painstakingly slow, like the beginning of The Passenger. It's so low-key that those of us more used to frenetic editing and more efficient storytelling may begin to wonder whether there is anything going on at all. Friedkin deserves credit for holding his nerve, and it's refreshing to find a Hollywood thriller which is relatively light on exposition, but the opening is ultimately repetitive and doesn't reward our patience quite as much as it should.
These early sections are structured a little like The Vanishing, alternating between our obsessive and unlikeable lead and the seemingly banal villain. At a time when the James Bond series was going all-out camp with Diamonds Are Forever, Le Charnier is refreshingly under-stated as a villain; he's sly, suave and cultured, a businessman with no bombast. Friedkin utilises the language barrier in a similar way that Alfred Hichcock did in The Lady Vanishes, using it to deliberately alienate the audience and create suspicion that something is afoot (which, of course, it is).
While Fernando Rey is very good as Le Charnier, he is capably balanced out by Hackman, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle. He's so charismatic and so on the money for every second he's on screen, that when watching it back you're almost surprised that he's not in it more. The subway scene and the car chase are both powder kegs of tension, with Hackman's intensity and frustration reflecting the tension of the audience as we are slowly reeled in. If there is a fault with it, it is that Hackman is so commanding that Roy Scheider's character (just as earthy but quieter) begins to feel superfluous, and you keep wishing for the film to just focus on Doyle and Le Charnier, a la Michael Mann's Heat.
The car chase in The French Connection is arguably the part of the film which has most stood the test of time. It's a close cousin of the chase from Bullitt three years before, insofar as the roar of engines is the sole soundtrack, but the editing is much sharper. The chase builds every bit as beautifully as the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark ten years later, and as in Spielberg's film it is both integral to the plot and a glorious triumph for physical effects which stands on its own.
This scene is also the most irresponsible part of the film from a production point of view. Friedkin shot the sequence from the back seat of the car, with Bullitt stuntman Phil Hickman doing 90mph in normal traffic, with only a police siren on the car to warn pedestrians; the woman and baby walking into the road were staged, but everything else that happens on screen is real. Friedkin would brag in an AFI interview years later that he only secured the train after the man in charge asked for "$40,000 and a one-way ticket to Jamaica", flying out to the Caribbean after being fired. One might argue that the scene's quality might justify such indulgent skulduggery, of the sort which New Hollywood embodied at its worst; in any event, it is another reason why the film could not be made today in the same fashion.
The French Connection is not a perfect film. Even if you can tolerate the repetition in the opening act, it can feel unfocussed during the times when Hackman is not front and centre. But while not quite achieving the greatness of Get Carter or A Clockwork Orange, it remains a lynchpin of American thrillers and arguably the high water mark of Friedkin's career. For all the bad behaviour that went into it, if you have any interest in thrillers or American culture, it remains a must-see.

For more of my thoughts on A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead or Get Carter, check out The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio here.

NEXT REVIEW: Trainspotting (1996)