(Contains one use of very strong language)
The films starts with the blaring of dissonant horns, thumping percussion and woodwinds seemingly spluttering out a warning in Morse code as though trying to tell us we’re entering dangerous territory and we should really be nervous as hell.
I love ‘The French Connection’; it might be my favourite film. It contains what I consider the best chase sequence in movie history: it’s the one that starts ten minutes into the picture and doesn’t let up till the closing credits, leaving us a shivering yet exalted mess on the floor. It all starts when New York cops “Popeye” Doyle and “Cloudy” Russo are sitting in a downtown bar trying to wash the grime of the day from their throats when they spot small-time crook ’Sal’ Boco living it up big time. Almost immediately “Popeye” knows something fishy is going on with Sal with Popeye’s radar for trouble being almost as acute as his antenna for women in boots. That’s when they decide to follow him. That’s when everything changes.
What happens next is the best example of pursuit, cat-and-mouse, evasion, elusion and obsession put to film and once we enter into it we can’t get out, even at the end when we are left still flailing in the darkness.
Like most of Friedkin’s best films it starts with an almost dialogue free prologue where we’re not quite sure what’s going on. Everything is set up precisely so when the pieces need to click into place we hardly notice they’ve done so. We only know as much as Doyle and Russo so we get to admire their detective work and doggedness, those long nights in cars paying off. It’s not until we’re just over twenty minutes into the movie that we start getting some concrete information about what is going on. We know drug smuggling is involved and we know who is carrying it out but just how, when and where is a complete mystery. That’s how the film weds us totally to Doyle, that’s how we accept his behaviour and immorality.
And we need to accept Doyle because he is a racist, violent, nasty piece of work. In short, he is a cunt and that’s not an exaggeration. How do we jump on board with him? It can’t be under-estimated how much Gene Hackman brings to this role as, without him, it just wouldn’t work. Hackman, somehow, humanises Doyle enough for us to cheer him on, to pound that steering wheel in rhythm with him as he blasts after the bad guys. That is no small feat for an actor.
William Friedkin’s use of “induced documentary” also helps as, sure, Doyle is a piece of work but compared to the social havoc “Frog 1”’s junk will have on the streets it is nothing. That approach also ramps up to almost insane levels the tension and the almost unbearable pressure we experience. Everything feels so real. Friedkin admitted he was inspired by the documentary style of Pontecorvo’s excellent ‘The Battle Algiers’ (1966) and it shows as this film is European verite spliced with the hard-boiled thrill of Jules Dassin. This approach that inspired directors such as Paul Greengrass but even Greengrass at his best with the Bourne franchise still doesn’t come close to matching this degree of unstoppable force. The effect is overwhelming.
And the film works as a total whole. Despite the various set-pieces it’s almost impossible to isolate them and separate them out. This is why even though the film has a chase sequence it isn’t a chase sequence — it’s just the film firing a shit-load of rocket fuel into what is already going on and shooting off into the stratosphere and all the air is forced from our lungs.
But some words do need to be said about that chase sequence. A minute before the chase starts we see the after-effects of a car-crash reminding us, as if we need it, of the bloody consequences of metal smashing into flesh. And when the chase does happen, between car and train, it is the best car-chase put to film, not just because of the sheer exhilaration of speed and momentum (Friedkin nails the camera-work by keeping the camera as low to the ground as possible making everything feel MUCH faster than it is) but the context in which it is place as well as Hackman’s screaming, almost sexual, desire to get that motherfucker. And when the chase is over we’re thrown, almost without time to catch our breath, back into the thrust of the larger pursuit. “Don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet, I’ve not done with you” we can almost hear Friedkin telling us with that sly grin you can always hear in his voice.
Then there’s the psyche-out in the subway station. Has there ever been a scene so beautifully staged and executed for tension, infuriation and humour? The influence of that sequence on the cinema of thrillers and police films should not be overlooked in the slightest. That would not be good detective work after all on our part, after all.
Something should also be said about Don Ellis’ excellent score where his typical use of micro-tones and quarter tones, which are usually used for humour in his music but are here applied to signify obsession, mental collapse and the fragmentation of the (our?) mind. It is seamlessly blended into the world of the movie feeling almost like a foley track: is that the grinding metal of heavy machinery lifting a car or is it the actual soundtrack? Turns out it’s both and it just amplifies the already blistering feel of it all.
‘The French Connection’ is a masterpiece. It is, in my opinion, the best cop movie of the 20th Century and easily one of the greatest films ever made. There is, still to this day, nothing else like it and I’m not sure there ever will be again.
The film led to a very good sequel where we get to see a more human side to Doyle, very much insisted for by Hackman himself. Yet, great though ‘The French Connection II’ (1975) is for me it isn’t the same Doyle that is appearing in it. It is a more sympathetic “Popeye” and while that makes for a nice contrast and variation the Doyle from ‘The French Connection’ is still out there, in his own darkness, shooting FBI officers without remorse or any form of humanity, disappearing forever into his own darkness and, most frighteningly of all, taking us with him.