Thursday 2 April 2015

Movie Review: The French Connection (1971)

A masterpiece police action thriller, The French Connection sets a new standard in unadulterated grittiness. The story of an international drug deal unfolding on the streets of New York is measured, complex, intense and often explosive.

In Marseille, master drug lord Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is planning his next big drug export deal. His henchman Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi) eliminates an undercover detective, and Charnier meets fading movie star Henri Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) who will help conceal the drug shipment. In New York, drug squad detectives Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo (Roy Scheider) shake down small-time local hoods, and notice a scarcity of product on the street. All the dealers are waiting for the next big shipment.

Doyle and Russo identify store owner Salvatore 'Sal' Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) and his wife Angie (Arlene Faber) as key contacts in the drug trade and place them under surveillance. The Bocas lead the detectives to wealthy lawyer Joel Weinstock (Harold Gary), who may have the resources to buy and distribute the incoming drugs. Soon Charnier, Nicoli and Devereaux arrive in New York by boat and connect with Boca. The detectives have their hands full keeping tabs on Charnier and his crew, waiting for the deal to be made and for the large drug shipment to be found.

Directed by William Friedkin as an adaptation of the Robin Moore book, The French Connection is inspired by real events, and unfolds with a street-level realism that commands immediate attention. There is nothing glamorous, fun or happy about the investigation required to disrupt a major drug deal, and no gadgets or easily available information to crack the case. The French Connection is all about persistent police work, painstaking surveillance, and making sense of the vague connections between poorly defined dots. Friedkin constructs a police procedural with plenty of verve, set against the backdrop of a delapidating New York City.

The French Connection features a prolonged car chase scene that fully earns its legendary status. After Doyle survives an assassination attempt by Nicoli, the hitman tries to make his escape on board an elevated transit train and Doyle gives chase by car at street level. The subsequent tire-burning quest features stunt driving at its finest and expert nose-of-vehicle camera placement by Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman, as Doyle dodges busy urban traffic to keep up with the train. Nicoli plays his part by commandeering the train and bypassing station stops, stretching the chase across numerous blocks. It is a breathless, frantic scene, a punctuation mark in the middle of the cat-and-mouse surveillance game between officers and criminals.

The less than appealing character of Popeye Doyle adds immeasurably to the film. Doyle is no hero, and has no experience busting sophisticated criminals. He is rude, crude, and lives his life chasing low-life drug dealers in run down and dimly lit bars. Other than his partner Cloudy, Doyle does not get along well with others, maybe because a previous hunch cost the life of another officer. Doyle has to work hard to convince his superior that Boca is a criminal worth keeping tabs on, and overall he grabs the threads of the conspiracy through the heroism of sheer doggedness rather than smarts.

And Gene Hackman finds the role of his career in Doyle, in a delicious portrayal that relishes the unkempt aspects of the detective but always hints at a stubborn willingness to dig deeper and outlast the bad guys with pure effort. Hackman happily welcomes the roughness around the edges, and creates a stark contrast with Fernando Rey's smooth, well-dressed suave European criminal. Friedkin perfectly catches the sophistication disparity with a scene featuring Chartier enjoying a multi-course gourmet meal while Doyle is confined to the sidewalk, wolfing down junk pizza.

The French Connection hurtles towards a marvelous mess of showdown, where everything may be resolved to the satisfaction of no one. When the business is the lucrative international drug trade, there are no quick and easy victories, just outcome fragments that prolong the struggle between profit and justice for another day.

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