Thursday, August 27, 2020

The French Connection


I suppose it’s telling that, facing a rare free weekday afternoon and looking for a feel-good movie, I chose The French Connection.

Regular readers know I am a devotee of Seventies crime movies. I rarely pontificate on the “importance” of films, but I do believe The French Connection is a seminal event in the genre. Crime movies were different after this. They had to be.

A problem with seeing anything as often as I’ve seen The French Connection is that little flaws become more obvious and TFC has its share.

·         Cloudy (Roy Scheider) asks Popeye (Gene Hackman) how he was supposed to know a guy they busted had a knife when it was he who hollered, “Watch out, Jimmy! He’s got a knife—” when the action went down.

·         Why do the smugglers leave the Lincoln with the drugs at the waterfront? I’m willing to say the plan was to have it picked up to transfer the drugs, reported as stolen, and returned intact, but there are far easier ways.

·         Why do they buy the junker car to store the money? Why not just put it back in the Lincoln?

·         Why take Doyle and Russo to the site of a horrible car crash to take them off the case? They’re Brooklyn narcotics detectives. Why are any of them even there?

·         How does the conductor (or whatever he is) of the subway train not know the Transit cop has been shot? What happened to all the people who fled toward the front of the train?

·         Why doesn’t the dead man’s switch engage when the motorman passes out? (Yes, I read The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three.)


None of that matters.

There are lots of movies where any of the above would take me out of the story. Not here. I saw The French Connection for the first time in a theater (a double-feature* with M*A*S*H, no less) and noticed none of those things. The film engrossed me from the opening credits. Martians could have delivered the drugs and I wouldn’t have cared.

 It’s the attitude. It sweeps you into Popeye’s world to see things through his perspective, even when he’s not ion camera. As great as the chase is—and it still has to be in the top five ever—the scene I remember best is the two cops walking into the bar and Popeye says, “All right, Popeye's here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!” Every line in that scene shows Popeye controls the situation less because he has the badge than because he has the will.

 The original heroin test. (“Blast off: one-eight-oh. Two hundred: Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”) Picking up the initial thread while out for an after work drink. (“He’s spending money like the Russians are in Jersey.”) Tearing apart Devereaux’s car. Stalking Frog One through the abandoned crematorium with Russo darting from cover to cover while Popeye walks right up the middle. Popeye and Frog One getting on and off the subway train and Frog One’s little finger wave goodbye. Popeye mimicking that wave when the cops come for the arrests. The continuation of Popeye’s obsession even after he learns it’s Mulderig he shot. (“That son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I'm gonna get him.”) The film keeps you in the moment, and in the moment it all makes sense.

 And Don Ellis’s soundtrack. So far ahead of its time we’ll never catch up. Never intrusive, always uneasy, propulsive when necessary. There are less than 25 minutes of music in the movie and every second has a purpose. Ellis was an innovator throughout his career but his soundtrack for The French Connection may be his masterpiece. (Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 44. I’ll always be sorry I never saw his band in person.)

The French Connection and the first two Godfather films hold positions in the cinematic pantheon of crime stories not unlike the relationship of Beethoven symphonies to Mozart’s. The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2 perfect the conventions that have come before. The French Connection throws open the door of what is to come. There is a little overlap, but once that genie is out of the bottle there’s no going back.

 (* - Note to readers not of a certain age: There was a time when a person could pay for one movie and legitimately see two.)


Elgin Bleecker said...

FRENCH CONNECTION is one of my all time favorites, too, Dana. When I first saw it, I thought it the fastest paced movie I’d ever watched. I just saw it again last month, and it is still fast paced. Your notes are good ones – and they don’t spoil the movie. But parking the car in a crummy part of town was always a head scratcher. But more than that, how about the cops getting the car back together again and returning in a matter of hours? Popeye and Cloudy spotting the “wrong” table at the nightclub, then following Sal and Angie to their luncheonette hooks me in every time. And how about The Three Degrees singing at the nightclub? So much more to say – I’ll have to do my own post.

Dana King said...

You should do a post. I'd love to see it.

I forgive the bit about re-assembling the car because i read the book and know what they did was replace it with an identical Lincoln, right down to the drugs inside. The Frenchman never noticed it was a different car, I suppose because it wasn't his car in the first place.

Another cool anecdote from that scene: Irv, the guy who helps Popeye tear the car apart, was played by Irv, the guy who actually tore the car apart.