3/09/2009

Blu-ray Review: The French Connection (1971) & French Connection II (1975)


Hands Up; Popeye's Here!
Now on Blu-ray





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"Just before Dick Zanuck left Fox, he said, 'I got an extra two million dollars in a drawer here, if you guys can do the picture for that, I'll make the thing.' He also warned them: 'If you muck it up, it'll just be another episode on Naked City.' 'Zanuck was right,' said [French Connection Director William] Friedkin. He thought to himself, I gotta put a cop up there like they've never seen before, a cop who's good and evil, as much as victim as victimizer. You don't see that on Naked City.'"

-- Peter Biskind;
Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (p. 204)




The French Connection
(1971)
Director: William Friedkin

Nobody had ever seen a cop quite like Popeye Doyle. Even Gene Hackman-- the man playing him-- had reservations during the first week of shooting. As he reveals on the brand-new Blu-Ray edition of the five-time Academy Award winning French Connection, prior to the film he was a self-confessed "second banana," having appeared in important but smaller roles in work such as Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde.

Calling Doyle "totally different than anything" he'd ever done before, the actor who ended up winning an Academy Award for his amazing portrayal had understandable reservations about taking on the role of such a tough character who had to beat up people, use ethnic slurs, and deliver his own obsessive brand of justice as the quintessential "bad cop" in the good cop/bad cop scenario.

Although he confessed to director William Friedkin that he didn't think he could do it—Friedkin, whom as Hackman noted was probably in a bit of a bind as the movie had been passed over by eight or nine major studio sometimes twice in its several year journey to the screen didn't let his lead actor walk off set. And for that Gene Hackman will be eternally grateful as-- although he says he had never been pushed that much by a director in his life-- one can argue that The French Connection is the film that launched his incredible career that's still going strong today.

Witnessing the film on the Blu-ray edition was an overwhelmingly impressive experience for me. In fact, in his introduction to the disc, director William Friedkin even proclaimed that the Blu-ray marks the best version of the film ever presented in his belief that it surpasses any theatrical prints in the history of the critically lauded picture that in addition to Oscars was also selected in 2005 "for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being 'culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.'"

While 20th Century Fox's Blu-Rays have always been uniformly excellent-- I couldn't believe the clarity, urgency, and pure visceral thrill I received from watching The French Connection today. Although it's often correctly argued that watching films made prior to the '90s that weren't period pieces originally seem dated by today's standards-- however, The French Connection has only improvde with time. Now witnessing it again, it only takes a few moments to realize what a major impact it's had on not only the police dramas and neo-noirs but any film that has incorporated a chase that's followed (e.g. Fox's Speed from director Jan De Bont).



I hadn't seen the work for roughly a decade and caught it around the same time originally that I explored Bullitt (also produced by Connection's Philip D'Antoni) which my film professors kept telling me contained the best car chases ever captured on film. Yet, while at the time, I was impressed by director William Friedkin's work and especially the performance of not just Gene Hackman but also the man whom Hackman also considered to have been incredibly underrated, the late, great Roy Scheider-- there was just something so abrasive about Popeye Doyle that made the young teenage idealist in me cringe throughout.



However, watching it again today as time and life experience have caused a shifting in my world-view, I realize just how brilliant the film was and the way that Friedkin's work in my mind set the stage for the post noir films that followed as well as the same docudrama style employed in police procedural television series ever since. Moreover, I guess now what resonated with this viewing was a deep admiration for Friedkin's audacity in everything from providing filmgoers with a genuine antihero and also for taking the static blocking and camera set-ups of most polished works of that era and starting from scratch by shooting in the streets in a near "filmmaker as jazz artist" approach.

There are countless moments in the film that feel as frenetic and improvised as that mesmerizing, pulse-pounding, and addictive score by Don Ellis that plays over the opening credits. And indeed, as the Blu-ray's entire special features devoted second disc reveals, Friedkin discusses just how much of the film was improvised in that kind of a-- "let's shoot over there; what if?" -- technique.

One of those films that must be studied by anyone going into the medium of filmmaking and especially one that is all the more heightened by Friedkin's background as a documentarian-- The French Connection along with Citizen Kane and a few others-- seem as though they should be wrapped along with the textbook and software for all pursuing a career in editing.



And although it is based on true events as well as the subsequent book that chronicled the drug smuggling ring in New York City that led to a French connection and much bigger case than police officers ever imagined-- the movie plays at an incredibly fast pace and in doing so, brings us along as though we were assigned on the case. In fact, it's because Friedkin, screenwriter Ernest Tidyman (working from Robin Moore's novel), Owen Roizman's cinematography, Gerald B. Greenberg's editing, and the unwavering adherence to authenticity throughout in making viewers feel implicit in the case and part of the investigation that makes the movie as effective as it is.

And by not giving us the chance to look away as it careens to its extraordinary conclusion and that bravura chase sequence that-- for my money seems even more impressively cut than Hitch's shower murder in Psycho as it incorporates a ridiculous amount of external chaos-- it's a breathtaking experience that still grabs you right from the start. It's the chase that everyone remembers after all and sure enough particular attention is paid to it on the Blu-ray in one of the second disc's best features as Friedkin, D'Antoni, and one of the original police officer consultants walk us through the entire thing and its original inception from the sniper shot to Doyle's own bullet hitting one villain in the back.

Taking the concept of "film school in a box" to heart, the first disc is loaded with commentary tracks including older ones with Hackman and Scheider and another one with Friedkin along with tracks for the score and trivia as well as enhancing the Blu-ray with Fox's unique D-Box Motion Control System to give you the chance to get deeper inside each scene. And while fans of the film will probably be more than content with its stunning transfer to the Blu-ray format-- enthusiasts will definitely want to pour over the countless extras on the second disc that includes the aforementioned Anatomy of a Chase and candid Hackman interview and many others including two terrific standouts dissecting the noir aspects of the film as well as a mini-documentary on the wondrous score by Don Ellis who used specially made quarter tone instruments to set audiences off balance from the start.

As Friedkin argues in the Chase featurette, "everything cuts," in compiling the ideal feature and this extraordinary Blu-ray is proof that to compliment a film, it's only fitting to include superlative bonus material where everything cuts as well to give us the feeling as though we're watching the movie for the very first time. And this is thanks not only to the high definition picture and sound but the plethora of extras urging us to watch it again with the benefit of insider information and behind-the-scenes knowledge that Popeye Doyle himself would've been sure to chase down.


French Connection II
(1975)
Director: John Frankenheimer


Much like the 2-disc set Blu-ray released in celebration of William Friedkin's Oscar-winning French Connection, the 1975 sequel is of unsurpassed quality in both picture and sound. However, despite the abundance of extras that populated the first two disc set, it's Friedkin's film that's the ultimate draw.

This time around and much more than the extremely disappointing film itself, the only extra we're interested in is the Blu-ray's Conversation with Gene Hackman we go to immediately following the work in the hopes of finding answers to the questions that pervaded throughout. Namely we were consumed with why, what happened, and aside from nostalgia (in Hackman's case) in honoring his Oscar nominated breakthrough role that catapulted him to leading man status, just why on Earth the movie was made in the first place.

Sadly now speaking for John Frankenheimer who has long since passed away, Gene Hackman admits that although the director never said so directly to him, he felt that helming a sequel to wildly successful film was not what John Frankenheimer wanted to do at the time. In this follow-up work-- which took years to develop as there were considerable struggles with the screenplay since unlike the first movie, this one would be completely fictitious-- one of the main problems seems to originate from its complete denial that Popeye Doyle to filmgoers is nearly synonymous with New York City.

While admirably Frankenheimer, who spoke French fluently and had a particular passion for the sophistication of Europe may have wanted to do something completely unexpected-- instead by taking Doyle out of his environment and relocating him to France goes against our perception and of who the man is at his core and the movie begins like an odd joke as he's just the hokey, uncouth American tourist on "holiday."



Although, of course, that's all just a cover. Obsessively driven to get his man or more specifically the illusive drug kingpin Alain Charnier (once again played by the Spanish actor Fernando Rey) who escaped justice in the original film, Popeye Doyle journeys to France under the guise that he is there simply to observe. Obviously, given our familiarity with Doyle, we realize that observation is in the last thing he wants to do and he's not about to go along with the country's law enforcement mandate that he's not allowed to carry a gun or get involved in anything while there. Sure enough, within a few minutes we realize that he's smuggled his own weapon into the country to use in that trademark ankle holster.

Unknowingly being served up as bait for Charnier since he's the only one who can identify the criminal by sight-- while the French officers are less than excited to work alongside Doyle-- he confirms their worst suspicions right off the bat as once again his racism takes the forefront and he gets involved in an undercover investigation. And after chasing and gunning down a perpetrator, Doyle learns that he's just killed one of their own officers figuratively flushing two months of hard work right down the drain.



Just as gritty as Friedkin's original film but with Frankenheimer's trademark of the grand shots for which he was known with a fluid visual sweep-- while initially the French scenery is quite breathtaking -- it's not long until we're led into the most sinister areas of Marseilles. Shortly after the first act, Frankenheimer's work morphs into an unexpectedly ugly, horrific, and no-holds-barred look at the high cost of the drug trade as, along with demystifying Fernando Rey's character, it moves from cops and robbers to the portrait of a junkie when Rey's henchmen abduct Popeye Doyle and force him to become addicted to heroin.



As Gene Hackman states, French Connection II "is more of a psychological thriller” than a traditional cop movie and while he confesses that playing an addict during an unspeakably long and drawn out sequence was great fun for him as an actor, the film ultimately becomes a one-man show. Only, unlike Hackman, for us it becomes unbearable as it holds us hostage along with Doyle but unlike the first film, keeping us at arm's length with its rambling style.

Of course, Frankenheimer mimics the extraordinary chase sequence of the first movie in an excellent foot chase through the streets of Marseilles-- unknowingly causing Hackman who had quite severe knee problems to run in near agony which is apparent to the viewer. And although this terrific chase sequence does feel derivative of the original which is terribly ironic considering that Friedkin states that John Frankenheimer was his idol in one of the Blu-ray's extra features Frankenheimer In Focus, ultimately it helps redeem a film that had been so derailed by the rambling pre and post-addiction scenario that most of us had felt like hitting eject shortly after it began.



For, much like his original costar Roy Scheider's Jaws, it seems inevitable that Hackman's Popeye Doyle would slay his own shark and Frankenheimer does not linger on this fact. Instead, he closes the work with a nice abrupt punctuation to the film save for the sound of a gunshot when Doyle finally takes down Charnier before fading to black just like its predecessor. However unlike Jaws and indeed the original French Connection-- given the sequel's overly long nearly 120 minute running time-- he completely forgot about the patience and/or interest of the audience and what we can tolerate.

Disturbingly Frankenheimer who's crafted some of America's undisputed masterpieces is quoted in the featurette Frankenheimer In Focus as saying that simplicity is the finest thing you can ever achieve on film. And when it came to the French Connection II-- in terms of Doyle-- he did offer simplicity by a letting Hackman roam free and giving him the only plot-line of "get Charnier." However, by filtering it all through an ugly, overly complicated, psychological mess for a majority of its running time, we realize that in the end, the best thing for all would be to take a cue for the belief in simplicity in ignoring this film and watching the original one more time.