The French Connection (US, 1971)

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin's febrile direction

Hackman brilliantly matches Friedkin’s febrile direction

In the posting about The Sugarland Express I mentioned how, in the early ’70s, the Hollywood studios were not afraid to back innovative films (though this was more through desperation than a love of art); The French Connection is another example of what happens when talented directors get to call the shots. In this case, William Friedkin, who won a Oscar (not necessarily a sign of brilliance) for this film which was a box office hit. He followed up, two years later, with The Exorcist; he was on a roll.

I hadn’t seen the film for some time and am delighted to report it stands up well 44 years after its release. It’s justly famous chase sequence is still absolutely gripping. The use of sound is very striking, there’s no music and although we can see Hackman’s Popeye Doyle screaming ‘Get out of the way!’, or some such, through the windscreen we can only hear the car’s horn and squealing tyres. The tension of the chase, intercut with the train on which his quarry is seeking to escape, does not need music to boost the audience’s feelings.

The use of locations also stands out: a wintry and grotty New York. Clearly they’d chosen the shittiest places to film: these certainly weren’t ‘good old days’. I suspect the TV series Kojak (1973-8) took its cue from the film; at the time it seemed the epitome of realism.

The cast is excellent but the film is driven by Gene Hackman, possibly his greatest role in a great career (also awarded an Oscar). He is a total scumbag but wedded to getting the ‘bad guy’.  I hope I can catch the sequel again; a film that, when I saw it in the early ’80s, I thought to be even better than the original.

It’s dangerous to say that Hollywood doesn’t make films like this anymore because fogeyism is never a good form of criticism but I suspect it’s true. I recently saw the well regarded (independently produced) Nightcrawler (US, 2014), where Jake Gyllenhaal puts in a great performance as an ambulance chasing cameraman, but I was unimpressed. Maybe it is my cynicism, I wasn’t surprised by the film’s satire as it’s obvious ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is the tabloid TV philosophy, as I didn’t think the film was showing me anything I didn’t know (Riz Ahmed’s also great in it by the way). I’m not knocking it, at least it was trying to say something and it is worth seeing.

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3 Responses

  1. It’s funny to me that the most interesting contemporary American films are being made in the spirit of those 70s movies. I liked Nightcrawler a lot more than you, particularly because I thought it was a really bold, really nihilistic piece that basically allows the scumbag to win. Also think it had interesting things to say about today’s job market, Gyllenhaal’s character basically representing the perfect CV – I have these skills, narrowed down and I can tell you where they fit, and how his whole persona extends from that goal driven, box-ticking, conformist nightmare. I also think that owes MASSIVELY to The King of Comedy and the Rupert Pupkin character (it’s plot is near enough identical) but I didn’t mind that, even though Scorsese’s film is clearly the better. I realise this has nothing to do with The French Connection…

    • Well indirectly – ‘Nightcrawler’ in spirit of ’70s cinema – it did relate to ‘French Connection’. ‘Nightcrawler’ ‘s dark critique of contemporary America does hark back to films like Alan J Pakula’s thrillers. You’re right about the satire on skill sets for work too.

  2. […] The French Connection (US, 1971) […]

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