The French Connection-- a six-minute car chase scene, anchored by the cross-cutting of a pursuer and his prey as reason leaves them both; in the end, only unrelenting passion can go 80 miles per hour. While this spell of constant anticipation and adrenaline, routinely released with shots fired and collisions, is upheld as one of the greatest chase scenes of all time and serves as the face of the whole movie itself, it is in truth only a sampling of a film made as a symphony of movement with clear-cut investigation, immoral rescue and emotional abandonment-- all in the name of “getting the job done.”
Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) seeks justice by any means necessary (regardless of morality), be it the state’s or his. Partnered with Cloudy (Roy Scheider), the two are henceforth constantly moving and searching: from bar to store to ally to bridge, looking for Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), head of the largest narcotics smuggling syndicate in the world. So the film progresses, steered by Doyle’s single goal of catching Charnier, who constantly outwits him in escape and is ultimately never captured. The great thing about The French Connection is never getting lost in the complexity; if details are too overwhelming, just remember the umbrella goal of catching Charnier, and you’ll figure it all out, too.
Yet what stands the test of time is not necessarily the clean-cut goals and straight action; that’s all history-- literally. What has given the film tremendous influence and recognition, whether in social media or the film classroom, is two things: the actors-- Gene Hackman especially-- and the cinematography. Together, remaining with the audience is a cop’s animalistic dedication, marked by window glare, pole obstructions, and a blue Brooklyn winter.
Hackman’s character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, needs a heroic moment to rescue his failing career; yet his means of getting it are strikingly anti-heroic. Take the celebrated, while controversial, film poster: a man is transposed between life and death, having just been shot in the back; his arms are raised in a “V” for victory, or villain. In the background is Doyle, holding the gun that had just been fired, a new murderer-- or is he, given it was for “justice?” Only the audience can see the tragic irony in his duality, though, as Doyle remains irrevocably enwrapped in seeking Charnier; as a result Hackman’s portrayal of him involves transcending social boundaries, whether by appearing animalistic and savage, or treating others as so by lacking regard for their welfare. In fact, one of the most striking aspects of the film is the relative attitude of Doyle towards African-Americans, which holds significant 1970s racism. Given early scenes including a back-alley interrogation of an African-American drug dealer, and a bar hold-up, Doyle is shown to have a high degree of prejudice which involves speaking derogatorily and making fast accusations. In other words, The French Connection and him wouldn’t have lasted two seconds premiering in today’s legally diversified world. Overall, Popeye Doyle requires a serious attitude to solve his case, and for fair reasons; yet his methods of coping with that and approaching his job grow more all-consuming as time goes on, until he reaches a ferocity which lacks reason and care. This, however, only adds all the more complexity and specialty to his person, and proves exactly why Hackman won that Academy Award and The French Connection is well known as a “Hackman” film above anything else.
Beyond Hackman’s cutting-edge portrayal, what took this film beyond its contemporaries is its mise-en-scene, and particularly its social cinematography and the transformation of New York City into a cold and blue crime manifestation. Men, Doyle and Cloudy included, appear no longer as individuals but as dark-suited, brooding silhouettes against the glare of a gray sun. Women are hardly captured, and those who are pose as either distractions or deceptions. The streets are bleak, the stores corrupted, the buildings gritty and the sky polluted. All this pierced as well with shocks of humor: Santa chasing a Brooklyn dealer, Doyle telling kids to be “bueno.” With that it is shown how the characters, whether en masse or independently, develop the film and its atmosphere; if the men were brighter and dressed more flamboyantly or more impoverished, the questions and themes would be greatly altered: the center would no longer be a middle-class man consumed by his job, but the amoral money-breeding of the rich, or the desperation of the poor. A take-away of humor would take the film from a thriller into a solemn drama or monotonous documentary, as would a change in a women’s vitality alter our interest and focus in them. Similarly, the cinematography is consistently marked with utility obstructions and glare: telephone poles, walkway handlebars, subway columns, window reflections. By including these, the film provides the audience a perspective equal to if they were inside the scene; no longer is the meticulousness of the 50s and 60s, epitomized by directors Kubrick and Hitchcock-- William Friedkin takes a movie and makes it into a thriller by placing the audience inside the action. Coupled with recurring point-of-view shots, most noticeably from the front of the train during the chase scene, viewers no longer fear for the characters, but for themselves too. With the 1970s came a transition in film from being clean to being nasty, from respecting the viewers to demanding them; The French Connection, among others, emphasizes this evolution with perspective-influencing tone and technique.
The French Connection is a fast-paced film of movement; every development takes the story outside its boundaries, both physically and emotionally. There’s no time for thinking when every installment demands an immediate response on both the part of Doyle and Cloudy, and us as well. As a result we see the characters moved from once somewhat thoughtful to progressively more animalistic and even savage; simultaneously we as an audience grow more accustomed to the excitement of crime-thrillers, and adapt a lessening patience for long discussions and slow revelations. It is easy to examine our own watching habits in today’s times and notice that we tend towards superhero action and horror films much more than was once common. Our evolution as watchers also explains the one problem I have with The French Connection, which is the quiet conversation scenes; I appreciate the cinematography and the moving scenes, but once they settle in to talk, it’s too much to bear. Yet while today’s standards of capturing an audience may leave The French Connection unsatisfying, it nevertheless remains the godfather of thrilling entertainment, the first in a long line of no thought, all movement films.