“The French Connection” (1971)
(Originally posted on April 9, 2012)
Being a narc is assuming the role of a soldier in a never-ending war with the urban streets as the battleground; the debris littered alleys and dark, smoky dive bars being the jungle in which only the criminally depraved thrive and the determined soldier enters with both eyes open and one hand on the trigger. This is the world of Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy “Cloudy” Russo as portrayed by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider in William Friedkin’s seminal cop drama “The French Connection”.
Never before or since have the streets of New York City been rendered so effectively to elicit the disparity between the privileged criminal and the wasteland of scarred victims of their illegal enterprises, brought to the screen in spectacular pseudo documentary fashion by director Friedkin, who himself had years of non-fiction filmmaking expertise and spent valuable time following real-life counterparts of the fictionalized detectives, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grosso, on the beat to soak up the grimier details of police work. In this case, the homework has paid off handsomely, the film achieving a ideal pseudodocumentary visual scheme which immerses the viewer into the gritty minutiae of procedural verisimilitude. The viewer is entrenched in the genuine feel of the investigative nuances, each imparting an intensifying textural density in which the natural tensions of the vicissitudes of detective surveillance work are in a constant state of hypervigilance. So submersive is the attention to gritty detail, that the later emergence of what can be codified as elements of Hollywood hokum may not seem apparent, until upon later reflection of the film. However, in this case, the hokum is entirely acceptable in consideration of Friedkin’s intentions in following the character Detective Doyle as consumed by a growing obsession that borders on madness; a favorite theme of Friedkin’s which commonly finds expression in his films over the years, most perfectly realized in his overlooked 1977 masterwork “Sorcerer”, a stunning rethinking of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “La Salaire de la Peur” but also impressively conceptualized in such disparate films as “To Live and Die in L.A.” and “Bug”.
This was the second of producer Philip D’Antoni’s crime thrillers produced between 1968 and 1973, the first being the Peter Yates directed “Bullitt” and the latter being “The Seven-Ups”, also starring Roy Scheider and finding D’Antoni assuming the additional role of director. The three are known as D’Antoni’s “chase trilogy” as each is highlighted by a spectacularly staged chase sequence and each, despite their immediate differences in style, find attributable characteristics of their protagonist’s evolving from one film to the next. In the Yates film, Steve McQueen’s Frank Bullitt clearly saw himself as an outsider who found it necessary to stretch the boundaries of his authority to get the job done. his “infractions”, however, were aimed at a police hierarchy that nestled in the safety of oily political expediency whenever it suited to advance their career ambitions.
This was a significant advance in how police had been portrayed throughout the preceding three decades due to the Production Code, where there were strictly enforced standards as to the portrayal of authority figures, most prominently clergy and law enforcement. That police may have occasionally been portrayed as corruptible, but that was usually in the context of the film noir where nihilistic power grabs were a matter of basic genre construction. It wasn’t until William Wyler’s 1951 “Detective Story” where a cop was portrayed as creating his own set of inflexible moral standards which actually supplanted his almost vigilante-like fury for justice; but this was portrayed as a product of obsessive psychological aberration and not any signpost of a new kind of abusive police authority in the cinema. At least until the year 1968 (the year after the final disbanding of the Production Code) which also featured several other interesting changes in the portrayal of the law enforcement hierarchy as portrayed in Don Siegel’s “Madigan” and “The Detective” (and “Bullitt”) where departmental corruption and weak concessions to expedient political interests conspired to hinder the police in their sworn pursuit of the lawless elements. That this rise in public apprehension toward traditionally respected authoritative bureaucracies surfaced (no doubts this negativity was always existent, simply more concealed in public forums) at the same time as the general social and political unrest of the late 60′s gave way to open rebellion against anything connected to “the Establishment” was not exactly coincidental, but residual of long festering antagonisms waiting for the right circumstances to ignite the fuse exploding the decades long curse of Hollywood studio artifice.
Enter into this societal maelstrom Gene Hackman’s portrayal of Popeye Doyle, with which we have entered into completely uncharted waters. As depicted in the film, Doyle is a bottom feeder by way of practical necessity, a scavenger through the fervent application of due diligence toward his profession; one senses that beneath his scruffy exterior beats not the heart of a well meaning humanist, but the fiery zealotry of a transfixed crusader. It is mentioned several times during the film that Doyle’s detective instinct has “backfired” in past cases, with referenced fatal consequences- another cop was killed -the mention of which seems to have but one effect on him and that is to exacerbate already strained tensions with his fellow detectives, causing him to further alienate himself from his peers. Except for a fetishistic preoccupation with women in boots, Doyle seems to have very little in the way of a private life, spending his late hours in dim bars, catching a few moments of sleep hanging over a beckoning shot glass. His life seems to find purpose only is his compulsion: to get the bad guys and put them away before going out and starting the entire process all over again; a modern day Sisyphus in heavy overcoat and porkpie hat.
Doyle and his partner Cloudy (Scheider’s portrayal, in comparison to Hackman’s, is low-keyed and realistically dogged, as if he’s heard and seen all of this from his partner so many times before) spend their waking hours tending to the phantom society perpetuated by the finely garbed criminals- who in a famously ironic scene enjoy a fine five star meal while Doyle freezes on the street with a repulsive pizza slice and an undrinkable cup of coffee -waiting for the big break in interrupting the drug supply chain. The partners are even reprimanded by their Captain (played by the real Eddie Egan) that their efforts are at a stalemate. It is only through a provident combination of blind chance and professional intuition that they uncover a scent of something “dirty” about a table of fellow nightclub revelers that will eventually snowball into an intensive investigation leading to the largest narcotics bust in New York City history, up to that time.
The film is actually one extended chase, not in the sense of a high impact motor pursuit, though the film famously features one of the classically executed examples of these later in the story -but of pursuit of a more extended nature: through the more ponderously (for the detectives) exacting techniques of hidden surveillance, wiretapping and ingeniously triangulated tracking by foot through the crowded downtown streets. The details to the verisimilitude of narcotics investigation gives a new meaning to the term “police procedural” as Friedkin’s relentlessly active cameras break with the traditional polished camera set ups, instead employing a point-of-view approximating a cinéma vérité sense of spontaneity. Though not as overtly apparent as its descendant contemporary films in which a fashionable overly jittery “nervous camera” style has distracting taken root, replacing the old-fashioned values of clearly delineated narrative storytelling and intelligently designed editing with spastic jolts of blurred actions representing a child’s version of action and forward motion,- the most obvious beneficiary from Friedkin’s visual blueprint is the later Dick Wolf television series “Law and Order”, especially in its early seasons –cinematographer Owen Roizman’s camera is forever on the move, insinuating itself around columns, over shoulders, through streaked windows, truly engaging the viewer as a participant in the hunt- the “fourth wall” as active bystander -building a palpable immediacy that brings to the commercial American cinema reminiscent threads of such landmark exercises in “faux” documentary fiction such as Peter Watkins’ “The War Game” and Gillo Pontecorvo’s “The Battle of Algiers”.
Equally of interest are Doyle’s antagonists: the drug smugglers, though not in the usual Hollywood role as the more “colorful” characters of the piece, but as a more refined class of international criminal who treat their dealings as an extension of multinational commerce (albeit one concealed from the eyes of the law) instead of the bearers of a societal poison that will damage and destroy thousands. The fascination with this criminal element is not one of personality, (as was the case in the days when a Cagney or a Bogart would portray a bootlegger) but again of verisimilitude, though of the opposing side. Ernest Tidyman’s efficient script (based on “The Green Berets” scribe Robin Moore’s eminently readable non-fiction book) provides a luxury of opportunities to understand the various stratagems which make a major drug shipment possible, especially when the police are noticeably alerted to the incoming contraband. The chief importer of the heroin, Alain Charnier, (a dapper though typically shifty Fernando Rey who sidesteps the more odious aspects of his character by an effortless effusion of what might best be described as Gallic charm) nicknamed “Frog One” by Doyle, is a richly successful businessman of indeterminate background (though there is mention of a past on the cranes of the Marseilles docks, there is nothing suggested as to his specific role in industry) who ingeniously plants a shipment of heroin in a Lincoln Continental which he imports into New York, finding the cover of legitimacy behind a television artist who is visiting the city for a documentary. Charnier is accompanied by a sinister compatriot Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who demonstrates his cold-blooded capabilities in the film’s opening scenes, and will later precipitate action that results in the film’s famous chase sequence. The New York toughs, headlined by the always interesting Tony LoBianco, are a mixture of established gangland big shots and eager wannabes out to make their first big score. The business dynamic of upper echelon crime explored- the conversations could just as easily be about a shipment of party dresses -is fascinating in its casualness as opposed to the lower level junkies who are the ultimate targets of this camouflage of respectability; a far more palpable depiction than the similarly applauded “crime as big business” image of the overrated “The Godfather”, where the workings of criminality are saturated and celebrated in the golden glow of a very “Hollywood” vision of the mobster life, in sacrifice of genuine insight, and a curiously unacknowledged reticence (by both critical and audience factions) to blithely ignore the existence of the victims of their criminal enterprises.
Though Doyle and Russo attempt to maintain a covert status, the criminals- especially “Frog One” -seem keenly aware of the police surveillance almost from the moment of their arrival; as if it were an expected deadly pas de deux in which only one dancer will be left standing. This awareness increases the tension of the film and accounts for a particularly witty game of cat-and-mouse between Doyle and Charnier in a subway station (The probable high point of the film, even surmounting the stunning chase.) that escalates with nervous energy until exploding with a visual gag that is later replicated in a most satisfying twist of irony.
There is an equally festering schism between Doyle and the federal agents- especially one agent Mulderig, portrayed by famed stunt driver Bill Hickman, who provided the chase stunt driving in all three D’Antoni “chase” productions -assigned to accompany the detectives in their investigation, the underlying reason for their being there, explains Russo, is that they have unlimited financial resources in which to set up drug buys; an odd assertion since no such transactions are ever in evidence. Facing the problematic distractions of a police hierarchy increasingly unconvinced of the value of Doyles’ hunches and an interdepartmental friction that challenges his very competence, Doyle’s obsessiveness in nabbing his prey is doubly intensified, emerging as not simply a case of cop vs. criminal, but righteousness versus an appropriately opposite evil. It’s at this point that the film casually diverts into a territory peppered with incidents that veer away from the pointedly realistic to conceits more consistent with a film “going Hollywood”.
Reaching an impasse in which the New York buyers become apprehensive over the amount of police surveillance and advise patience and caution, unexplainably Charnier and Nicoli attempt an assassination of Doyle (who unbeknownst to them has just been taken off the case) by sniper thus leading into the chase sequence, an inventive and witty variation of the film’s pas de deux motif, in which a rapidly deteriorating automobile battles for survival against an out-of-control el train. In this sequence, Doyle crosses the line from societal protector to pseudo-vigilante by demonstrating that even the safety of the public is a sacrificial concern in his goal to capture “Frog One”. This escalation of personal emotional intensity reaches such a fever pitch it begins to obscure the reasonable boundaries of the documentary approach to the character and begins to extend into the range of a tragic literary persona. (Hugo’s Jauvert is not a stretch.) If some of the later events in the narrative simultaneously begin to blur the prior pseudo-documentary approach toward more commercially fictionalized implausibilities (the chase, the car reconstruction, the decision to shoot a suspect in the back instead of apprehending him) with the intense character modifications to Doyle, this serves to turn the detective into more than an ordinary policeman and something approaching the modern urban mythic. (Film and literature share the common tendency to enable a character of modest dimensions to become extraordinary through the permutations of fate and the character’s purposefully audacious attitude to the “perceived” hostility of that same environment around them.) Doyle is fated to become (within the confines of this story) the singular protectorate of a society too weak to assert its own foundations of laws and morality against a more determined criminal element, and which requires (though significantly- and this will be an important element in serious cop films to the present day -will not acknowledge, especially to the chosen protector, its need) the man of action (thus the film casts it’s shadow into the primal conceits of that most American of cinematic moral arenas: the western) who is outside of the functions of normal society but is necessary to do the dirty work, invaluably useful by way of his innate disregard for those same rules which the society employs him to defend. Doyle becomes a modern extension of that greatest of cinema western enigmas, Ethan Edwards from “The Searchers”; the outsider essential to a society that reviles him for the very strengths that make him necessary.
Friedkin may be criticized for abandoning his fastidious adherence to the pseudo-documentary due to the vagaries of the introduction of the commercially acceptable/realistically implausible elements, (though only in matters of narrative vicissitudes and not diverting from his neorealistic directorial scheme) yet such a late hour concession to more insensible elements within the context of the increased mania of Doyle’s obsession actually facilitates a fixed emotional balance to the film that prepares the audience for the otherwise dispiriting twist of the finale. Were the audience not privy to the manipulated excitements and momentary victories inherent in both the chase sequence and the car deconstruction sequence (not to mention Doyle’s deliberate shooting of Nicole in the back as he turns to flee, a moment of both emotional exhaustion- coming directly after the thrills of the chase sequence -and after Nicole’s callous assassination of a flic in the opening sequence; the act becoming a much needed moment of visceral release where a modicum of retribution finally eclipses the successes of the criminal’s actions) the ending might be unrelievedly disconsolate, with concluding title cards (clearly inspired by the similar ending of Costa-Gavras’ “Z”, which also upended audiences expectations for justice) revealing that the entirety of the preceding efforts were for naught. With this, the memory of judicial retribution insisted upon by decades of The Production Code was not merely wiped clean, but kicked down the stairs and thrown into the street; while the protective bubble of the Hays Office perpetuated the illusion of American justice triumphant, real-life was not always as accommodating. Police dramas, whether on film or television would never be the same after “The French Connection”. Rarely, if ever again, would there exist a morally sanitized universe in which there would be a clearly delineated boundary between the cop and the criminal, each now fated to exist in their own moral purgatory bookended between the increasingly savage criminal activity of multinational crime organizations and the increased publicly exposed layers of interdepartmental law enforcement corruptions; with few if any on the side of good emerging completely triumphant, and certainly none “clean”.