As my Facebook friends can attest, I’m been on a French Connection jag for a couple of weeks. Started on the way to Bouchercon, when I toyed with the idea of stopping by a “Welcome to Poughkeepsie” sign to get a picture of me running my fingers between my toes. (If you don’t get it, look it up. I’m not your mother.) My clean living paid off when HDNET movies put it on the air a few weeks ago. I’ve watched it twice, and still have it on the DVR. At least one more viewing is in order before I’m sated.
Why? It’s a good movie and all, but what has driven me to obsess over it?
First, it’s not a good movie; it’s a great movie, on multiple levels. It’s one of those films that stands up to compressed, repeated viewings because there’s more to see each time. The more familiar I become, the more things I notice anew. How the Marseilles scenes tie into what’s to come. Roy Scheider’s amused reaction when Gene Hackman presses the junkie on whether he’s ever picked his feet in Poughkeepsie. (You’re welcome.) How they work in the young woman with Charnier is his girlfriend and not his daughter. A hundred other things.
The writing. The willingness to let actors walk the streets of New York, not speaking, for extended periods of time. Actors who can pull that off. Don Ellis’s soundtrack is sparse and edgy; unsettling, not scary. The atmosphere is dingy, everywhere, pretty much all the time.
My friends Doug and Eric are far more knowledgeable about movies than I am; I suspect this is something you could get away with in the 70s. Maybe auteurs trusted their audiences more; maybe the suits gave them more leeway. The budget was small, which meant nothing could be snazzed up, even if they wanted to. Every cent they spend went into the story and the characters. Even the famous car chase scene—maybe the best ever filmed, though The Seven-Ups is right there with it—shows Popeye for what he is: a man obsessed. His actions at the end seem inevitable after the chase.
We have to be told everything today. Well, maybe we don’t; those in charge of entertainment think we do. I can’t imagine an American studio making The French Connection today. Or Dog Day Afternoon. They took a shot at The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 a few years ago, “updated” it. I have yet to hear of anyone who liked the new one better.
The Brits and Irish still pull these off. Harry Brown, The Guard, In Bruges have “production values” that probably wouldn’t pass muster here. Too dim. Likely done on the cheap, and they look it in many ways. The emphasis on storytelling—from the writers, the director, the actors, the editors, the set designers, everyone involved—showing an almost pathological aversion to anything flashy. These films don’t try to be gritty; they are. The stakes are far more personal than apocalyptic, which is where all true drama lives: inside the people.
I promise not to bitch about movies not being as good as they used to be for a while. Right now I have to chase some kids off my lawn.