In his commentary on ‘The French Connection’, director William Friedkin speaks candidly about his influences, naming in particular two films from the European cinema of the preceding decade: Godard’s ‘Breathless’ and Costa-Gavros’ ‘Z’. Friedkin relished the immediacy and passion of their characters, the unrehearsed feel of the camera’s movements, and the realism of their settings. In ‘The French Connection’, he pursued that cinematic muse with a visionary’s passion, melded it with an actual New York City case study, and made a film too organic to be Hollywood yet too grandly-executed to be anything but. Between a powerful cast helmed by a manic Gene Hackman and some of the most memorable chase scenes in action history, ‘The French Connection’ earns its stripes as a top flight film in the genre and one of the few to be awarded Best Picture honors by the Academy.
Another such award went to Best Actor Gene Hackman, who put aside all his human decency and prudence over public image to portray Jimmy Doyle, an alcoholic, womanizing, pathologically-obsessed cop who alone would have pushed this film into almost irredeemable bleakness. Yet it is a magnificent performance, one that won him his Academy Award, though his Harry Caul in ‘The Conversation’ three years later was perhaps more of a tour-de-force. In either event, between the two roles Hackman established two enduring beacons atop quite separate peaks of acting, the one as Doyle made all the more impressive for how negatively its brutishness could have affected his own personal image. What’s more, all this transpired with the character’s real-life inspiration often on-set at Friedkin’s invitation, as well as playing a small role as his own superintendent. Thus great credit must also go to Hackman’s sidekick, Roy Scheider as the more affable Buddy Russo, for reflecting onto his partner a sympathetic air. His presence not only gives the audience an easier point of entry into this pair’s consuming struggle, but also helps draw into starker relief the contrasts between the heavy-handed cop doing ‘good’ and the debonair drug dealers doing ‘evil’. On that note, Fernando Rey brings a smoothly confidently and pan-European elegance to the hard-knocks streets of New York and in his driving gloves and elegant coats is s a studious foil to the hammy, unkempt Doyle who dogs his footsteps.
And that sledge of a performance from Hackman’s is met head on by the film itself: it is confrontational, sometimes bloody, pulse-pounding but rarely sensationalized (the famous car/train chase is a little far-fetched, but far from glamorous), and packed with the casual grit that can only come from a hardened crew that’s done all its homework and is not pretending, but rather just recreating experiences that might as well be their own. Aside from shooting entirely on location, another coup of Friedkin’s documentarian feel was to avoid telling the camera crew anything about a scene’s blocking, forcing them to follow the action that unfolded before them without foreknowledge. This gives the entire film a feel of following—apropos, given that most of its time is spent on stakeout.
Caught between the slick but sanitized 60s detective shows and the ascendant blacksploitation cinema of the 70s that would recast urban crime as a much less debonair proposition, the subject matter and unflinching realism of ‘The French Connection’ make it a bold and pivotal work, even viewed decades later in a time when gratuitous crime TV is ubiquitous. It final moments are ambiguous, but the moments leading up to it are all too clear for comfort—indeed more confrontational than many films today would deem it safe to attempt. It existed in a precise space of controlled chaos that preceded the pseudo-documentary ‘found footage’ flicks of today, a contrarian form of filmmaking so unmanufactured as to be precisely the opposite. Unfortunate that Friedkin’s day in the sun was not longer; though he won Best Director here and would follow with ‘The Exorcist’, no film since or before has been comparable. Perhaps no subject fascinated him so deeply; ‘The French Connection’ got stuck beneath his fingernails and lodged in the sweaty creases of his neck. With Herzogian dedication (and just as the German was waxing in his own genius), Friedkin sourced original actors to reprise their real-life roles and shot on original locations as if he were an embedded journalist instead of a filmmaker. The saying goes, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story,’ and Friedkin’s film rejoins, ‘Never let the story get in the way of telling a good truth.’