The French Connection (Friedkin, USA, 1971) opens with an unconventional establishing shot: A kind of reverse-bird’s-eye that looks as though someone hit rewind on the beginning of a Hitchcock movie. As the opening sequences unfold, it becomes clear that the characters so far introduced are at the centre of criminal activity. Tension is high. Eyes are darting around. Gene Hackman is in the streets of New York in an unconvincing Santa suit asking a pair of adorable little children if they’ve been good this year. The next couple of scenes hint at what’s to come: There will be violence. There will be cop chases. There will be high-stakes stratagems. And, unfortunately, there will be outdated jibes and awkwardly problematic racial stereotypes.
Based on a true story, Popeye (Gene Hackman) and Cloudy (Roy Scheider) are narcotics officers who are trying to catch a lead on a drug ring that is funnelling heroin into the United States. They chase down their first suspect and from him, gather pertinent information. In the following scenes, Popeye and Cloudy begin to suspect the involvement of one particular couple who they decide to follow and spy on to see if they can pinch them for suspicious activity. Throughout the movie, they encounter new characters that arouse their suspicions- encounters which eventually culminate into classic crime-thriller confrontations, including foot chases and a hilariously cliché scene in which Popeye does a somersault on a public lawn to avoid a bullet’s trajectory, and then hides behind a tree just as a bullet grazes the bark, just narrowly missing his face. Let me note that the climactic scenes are especially funny; Gene Hackman is no suave and swift James Bond. Watching Gene Hackman evade danger in the New York subway system is like watching a high school Chemistry teacher attempt parkour on his commute home from work. Don’t get me wrong: I love Gene Hackman. The Conversation (Coppola, USA, 1974) is easily in my top five favourite movies. But there’s something hilariously ironic about watching such a kind-faced, coltish man as Gene Hackman play tough-guy investigator roles easily imagined for an actor like Clint Eastwood.
Visually, The French Connection is captivating. It isn’t the campy candy-coloured spectacle that is last week’s screening, The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, FRA, 1967), but it is, for lack of a more appropriate term: Stylish. The palettes are monochromatic with little pops of colour, intentionally placed. Even the plainest of locations are shot from vantage points that provide texture and detail to the background. Shots have this grainy, rich, hand-held-yet-steady feeling to them, but the movie also has moments of deep-focus and craftily disorienting edits that demonstrate character psychology as well as directorial forethought.
Here’s another cool thought about the movie: There are moments within it that will provoke a sense of unanimous déjà vu in modern audiences. There’s this sense of: “I’ve seen something like this before,” or “I’ve heard something like this before.” There’s this definite feeling that The French Connection might be paying homage to other movies. In fact, chronologically, the homage is actually the other way around. Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian that The French Connection reminded him of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver (both directed by Martin Scorsese in 1973 and 1976, respectively). It’s perceptive of Bradshaw to remark this, because there are discrete moments within The French Connection that, the first time I watched it, I too thought were “very Scorsese”: The scene in the Copacabana has the same vibe as an early bar scene in Mean Streets, with its red tones and smooth tracking shots. There’s even a scene in The French Connection where Popeye angrily antagonizes a patron, screaming: “Are you talking to me?! You talking to ME?!” which, for today’s viewer, immediately recalls Travis Bickle’s famous mirror scene in Taxi Driver. Though Scorsese’s New York City crime movies were bigger than Friedkin’s, there’s quite a bit of evidence to suggest that Scorsese’s pioneering work in New Hollywood was inspired by The French Connection- evidence to look out for when you watch it.
By Nathalie McClintock