Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The French Connection

It’s safe to say The French Connection is a seminal film. Not just among the all-time greats, but as influential a movie as one can think of. All subsequent crime films had to take The French Connection into consideration when making artistic decisions. (The Godfather is not a crime film. It’s an epic soap opera about criminals. One of a handful of the greatest films ever made, but it’s just proof that no genre is irredeemable when done properly.) I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen The French Connection, and I can reliably be counted on to watch the chase scene anytime some Facebook reference gets me to looking at car chases in general. (The Seven Ups will also get a chunk of my time in those circumstances.)

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about the greatest screen adaptations of all time, particularly those where the film exceeded the book. Jaws. The Godfather. L.A. Confidential. I mentioned The French Connection, too, but it had been years since I read the book. I decided it was time to renew acquaintance. I was 15 years old and had never read such a documentary account of the innards of a detail police investigation when I read it the first time. I wondered how it would hold up to my more experienced eyes.

I needn’t have wondered. In fact, I wish I hadn’t. To be fair, the book is dated. Tastes, even
in reportage, have changed dramatically. Robin Moore’s The French Connection came years before Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Still, it’s been a long time since I read such a deadly dull recitation of events that are themselves not inherently interesting.

Legend has it that much of the movie was improvised, even though Ernest Tidyman won an Oscar for his screenplay. He earned it, if only for getting people to realize Moore’s examination of every goddamn tree in the forest could be turned into an entertaining and still realistic film. Where Tidyman and William Friedkin use Popeye Doyle’s obsessive investigational techniques to hold together what is, when viewed closely and critically, a pretty flimsy plot, they never let you forget what’s at stake. Sure, Popeye’s an asshole—so was Eddie Egan, the cop that character is based on—but we’re fascinated to watch how he relentlessly pursues an investigation no one else has much confidence in. (When Doyle’s boss, Samuelson—played by the real Eddie Egan—asks Popeye’s partner if he agrees with Doyle’s wild claims, the best Buddy Russo can come up with is, “I go with my partner.”)

Granted, the film has the luxury of making the entire investigation seem as if two cops and two feds handled it all; in fact there were over a hundred investigators. The film also has the advantage of being able to gloss over things the book pretty much has to explain. The problem is that those are often the best parts of the book. How they figure out who Patsy Fuca (Sal Boca in the movie) really is. How they get the name of Jean Jehan (Alain Charnier in the film) after following him to his hotel. That was fascinating. Unfortunately it’s only about 20% of the book. The rest is spent describing, in detail, which streets the cops followed Patsy down as he tried to lose them. Then which streets they travelled trying to find him after he gave them the slip. Gruesome detail of the most tedious events until it’s hard for a reader who knows what’s going on to figure out where they are. Maybe a native New Yorker would bask in the intimacy. I’m a country boy and it just got tedious.

The French Connection is a wonderful example of how fiction can tell a better truth than facts. The filmmakers made up almost everything about the main story except for its inciting event—Egan and Grosso actually did stop by the Copa for a drink when they stumbled across Fuca and his friends throwing money around “Like the Russians were in Jersey,” to use a line from the movie. Little throwaway lines characterize the cops and provide backstory better than twenty pages of minutiae.

I already considered The French Connection a film that exceeded its source material; I
underestimated how much. No need to read the book. Watch the movie, understanding it’s a fictionalized account and what really happened took a lot longer and was a lot harder than what you see. (Not that the real cops weren’t extraordinarily lucky a few times.) Keep all that in the back of your mind and enjoy one of the best examples ever of not letting facts get in the way of the truth.

(Someday I’ll get around to breaking down Don Ellis’s superb soundtrack.)

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