Friday, December 10, 2010

THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971): War Against Opulence

No character in The French Connection is satisfied with his life.  The drug users loiter on their barstools and resent any intrusion by the police.  The patrolmen resent having to walk their beat without receiving any gratitude.  The petty felons wanting out on their dead end jobs and marriages turn to dealing drugs in hopes of becoming rich.  Even the rich French millionaire leaves his Mediterranean estate in order to come to New York City to make even more millions by selling heroin.  Least satisfied of all is “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman), the crusading and obsessed police detective, who is beset with class envy for anyone trying to make it rich through crime in the Bronx neighborhoods.  That The French Connection will forever be labeled an action movie (chiefly due to one of the greatest car chase scenes ever filmed) belittles the fact that there is more unspoken tension in this movie than almost any that I’ve ever seen.
The French kingpin, Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey), comes to America from Marseilles to oversee the shipment of the world’s purest heroin.  Alain enlists a married couple, Sal Boca (Tony Lo Blanco) and Angie Boca (Arlene Faber), both whom have spent some time in prison for petty crimes, to put him into contact with a New York mobster, Joe Weinstock (Harold Gray).  Alain also persuades a French movie star and friend, Henri Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale), to assist in driving the valuable shipment that is hidden away in a fancy Lincoln Continental.  Sal and Angie, the happy couple, can’t help showing off their new found wealth, but while throwing around lots of dollar bills at a night club they come to the attention of “Popeye” and his partner, Buddy Russo (Roy Scheider), who happen to be off duty and drinking at the bar.   The two police detectives can’t help noticing what is going on.  Popeye watches the married couple with obvious contempt.  He knows that the money being spent is not legitimate.  He also knows that someone else must be paying the couple’s way.  Popeye convinces his partner to tail the couple, and he also convinces his superiors to put a wire on the Boca’ residence.  The partners have other good reasons to be convinced that something else is going on.  As experienced cops, they’ve raided the bars and arrested the junkies.  In recent days, they’ve come up dry.  From their informants they’ve heard that a big deal is somewhere going on.  And eventually, through listening to Sal on the telephone, they figure out that a big drug deal is on its way into New York City.
Now Popeye doesn’t get along with most of his superiors, or even his fellow cops.  Most particularly, he doesn’t get along with a fed by the name of Mulderig (Bill Hickman), who blames Popeye for the death of a cop.  Popeye is reckless (the type of recklessness that at one time probably did get the cop killed), abrasive and driven.  Eventually, he offends enough people that he’s pulled off of the case.  However, his aggressiveness did scare the bad guys enough for them to make an attempt on his life.  A French hit man and friend of Alain by the name of Pierre (Marcel Bozzuffi) is assigned the task of taking Popeye out and he almost succeeds.  But because Pierre fails, the attempt on Popeye’s life ends up in the remarkable chase scene where Popeye drives under the subway tracks in pursuit of the would-be killer.  The train crashes, Popeye arrives, and shoots the hit man dead.  The attempt on his life also allows Popeye to reopen the investigation.  He and Buddy then seize the Lincoln that’s parked on the street on a technicality, tear it apart, find the heroin, and put it back together again.  They then tail the Lincoln, wait for the $32 million dollar heroin deal to go down, and they break it up. 
Things do not end up happily, however.  In the process of arresting everyone else of significance, Popeye also pursues of Charnier.  But rather than capture the brain behind the drug deal, he instead ends up shooting Mulderig.  And rather than be taken aback by what he has just done, Popeye continues his pursuit of Charnier as if nothing else of importance had just occurred.  Charnier is never caught by the end of the movie.  Though Charnier lost out on the drug deal, he is still alive and free to do business again.
The French Connection, released in 1971 and directed by William Friedkin, is a taut film that is only 104 minutes in length.  Most of the movie is filmed in the poorer Manhattan neighborhoods.  The movie’s pace is quick, even during scenes when not much seems to be happening.  We know the moods of Popeye Doyle quite well throughout the film, and his disposition is almost never rosy.  While watching the petty crooks play out their scheme to become rich or while seeing the mobster and millionaire foreigner engaged in multi-million deals, Popeye generally is stuck standing out in the cold or sitting in the back of his old Ford eating a hotdog or cold piece of pizza.  In contrast to Popeye, Charnier, who has made his fortune in the shipping industry, attempts to advance his career by involving himself in murder and drugs.  He stays at the Roosevelt in New York, drives the fanciest of cars, and eats steak and lobster at the best restaurants.  It is only fitting he comes from Marseilles, the second biggest city in France, with a history of great culture.  Charnier, the outlaw, is an aristocrat while Popeye, the protector of laws, is a plebian.  It is this discrepancy that occupies Popeye’s every sober moment and he resents it to such a degree that he takes great chances.  Popeye also takes chances with everyone around him almost killing a mother and a baby during the chase scene and actually killing a federal agent while in pursuit of the villains.
Gene Hackman is always good, even in the worst of movies.  Fortunately, this is one of the better ones.  Hackman plays “Popeye” Doyle in such a manner that his faults and virtues are blatant.  Roy Scheider, as his loyal and suffering partner, is almost as good.  And Tony Lo Blanco and Arlene Faber, as the sleazy couple, may be the greatest surprises in the entire cast.  There are some unbelievable moments in this film (in particular, the reassembly of the Lincoln Continental), which only indicate that the movie was never intended strictly as social realism – despite the constant claims that the movie was based upon a true story.  What the movie does extremely well is set a mood.  It castigates the rich who take advantage of the misery of the poor, but it also does not let the poor off of the hook.  The poor, with their envy of wealth, are as much responsible for their own problems as the conspicuous consumption of those controlling all of the dollars.  The French Connection is not a simple or merely entertaining film.  The complexities of the characters in the movie are only amplified by poor and dreary neighborhoods that they hang out in.  The Academy Award winning films for 1970 (Patton), 1971 (The French Connection) and 1972 (The Godfather) may have been the only time in film history when three worthy films in a row actually won the award.  The French Connection is the most humble of the three films with its short length and lack of melodramatics, but it is also almost as good as the other two movies.

November 1, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

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