Greetings all and sundry! I am going to take a well deserved respite from Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck and take a few moments to wax poetic and nostalgic about a film that solidly grabbed my attention more than forty years ago. One that firmly anchored the concept of the ‘Partner Film’. Which is very different than a ‘Cop’ or ‘Buddy’ film. The basis for a delightfully suspenseful Procedural. Which also that puts front and center, superb on location shooting in and around Manhattan and its seven boroughs. To these ends, allow me to introduce or re-introduce you to:
The French Connection (1971)
A film that begins not in the city that never sleeps, but in the narrow, rain damped side streets of Marseilles and its many cubby hole hostels and boarding houses. We see a man amble down a cobbled sidewalk to enter a hostel. Check his mail and enter his room. Where someone in the shadows shoots him and walks off with a hunk of his target’s bagged Baguette.
Cut to the snowy, cold, pre Christmas streets of New York’s Bedford-Stuyvesant. Where a team of undercover Narcotics cops; Gene Hackman’s ‘Popeye’ Doyle in Santa Claus mufti and Roy Scheider’s ‘Cloudy’ Russo, in dock worker drag watch a buy for heroin happen. Cloudy announces himself. The junkie runs and Popeye gives chase across streets and through alleys. To catch the buyer and shake him down hard after Cloudy has his coat and arm slashed by the junkie’s switch blade. Questions precede ignorance. The junk is booked as evidence and another drug arrest is made by the team that leads all boroughs in arrests, but very few convictions.
Paperwork follows. Also a talking to by Captain Simonson. Well played by Eddie Egan, the hero of Robin Moore’s original book. Who wants Popeye and Cloudy to bring in something that could go before a Grand Jury and get convictions. To that end Popeye and Cloudy decide to do some after hour bar-hopping. That leads to them spotting a relatively small time local thief sharing drinks with three of the biggest drug connections through the boroughs. Curious and curiouser, Popeye and Cloudy tail the local hood, Sal Boca, hungrily played by a loud and boorish Tony Lo Bianco. He and his wife, Angie run a Brooklyn luncheonette and really have no business rubbing elbows with such heavy hitters.
More information is needed. So Popeye and Cloudy show in great detail the proper way to take down an after hours Brooklyn bar. The undercover cop they seek is taken aside and relays that a large shipment of heroin is due in and a lot of people are going to get well. Warrants for wiretaps are sought. Popeye and Cloudy stake out Sal and Angie’s luncheonette and shake down their snitches for more to go on. While at a Staten Island junkyard cars are being auctioned. And a big, black Lincoln is bought by one of Sal’s cousins. Then sent off to Marseilles.
Enter Charnier. The smooth, suave, sophisticated Puppet Master and Mastermind who loads said Lincoln with sixty kilos of 89% pure heroin. To be trans-shipped to New York under the protective entourage of a french celebrity whose gambling markers Charnier has bought up. A pretty slick operation that starts to show signs of cracking as wire taps bring in the Feds. Who want nothing to do with Doyle or Russo as stake outs continue and a test is made of the incoming product. Sal’s higher ups are leery and want to take their time. Sal pushes on as Charnier and his crew arrive in Manhattan. Jacking up the overall pressure to get things done by about five fold. First Cloudy, then Popeye notice Charnier’s new face and start nosing around in earnest. Watching their new prey enjoy a sumptuous meal while Popeye noshes on pizza and lousy coffee in sub zero temperatures.
The game is afoot as Charnier leaves and Popeye and Cloudy try to give chase as ‘The Frog’ slips away on a subway car under Grand Central Station. But not before Popeye and Charnier get a good long look at each other. Pressure builds up as the Frog’s celebrity flunky starts to get cold feet. A contract is put out on Doyle and is not quite carried out the next day by one of Charnier’s henchmen. Who misses with a scoped rifle from just over 100 yards and starts what is considered to be the second greatest chase in cinematic history. With a commandeered Pontiac LeMans versus a speeding elevated train. And ends with the shooter being back shot on the train’s stairs by Popeye before he passes out.
What to do? What to do? Popeye, Cloudy and the Feds stake out Charnier’s Lincoln and scoop it up as it is about to be stripped on a Bed~Stuy side street. The Lincoln is impounded and stripped from bumper to bumper. Invoices are checked and weights compared and the Lincoln is heavier than it should be by over 150 pounds. The extra weight is found in its rocker panels below the sedan’s door. The car is quickly reassembled and fluids topped off before being returned to Charnier and company.’
I’ll leave the story right here. So as not to tip my hand too much and violate Spoiler Territory.
Now, what Makes This Film Good?
William Friedkin at the controls of an at its time, history making and record breaking story focused in and all around Manhattan and filmed during one of coldest, most miserable winters on record. Which only adds to the atmosphere and slowly building tension and suspense as a less than fabulous looking city plays a supporting character. Backing up a cast of relative unknowns who were given large, meaty parts and pursued them with gusto and confidence.
Especially Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider who were allowed to hang out with Eddie Egan and his partner, Sonny Grosso to learns the ins and outs of police work. Taking down bars and criminals and understanding the bond between two people who may not like, but understand and will back each other up. Watching them on the screen is what makes the film more than the sum of its parts.
The same can be said of the ensemble of bad guys and girls. Tony Lo Bianco rocks out loud as the small timer with enormous dreams beyond his reach. Urged on somewhat annoyingly by Arlene Farber as Sal’s wife, Angie. And Sal’s faceless fat, quiet and content higher ups in organized crime. The tension between them is palpable. While Fernando Rey’s smugly arrogant and elegant Charnier moves blissfully along. Until things start going from annoying to bad to very near fatal.
Kudos to Owen Roizman for finding countless corners, both busy and deserted, alley ways and abandoned sites of construction and destruction that add authenticity to a time of the city’s faded splendor. Also camera man Enrique Bravo for coming up with a new and unique use of a wheelchair to use in place of a rolling dolly shot early on when the Christmas junkie is taken down.
Editing is superb throughout. Handled by Gerald B. Greenberg who took the extra time to cut the snippets of the elevated train chase and Hackman in pursuit to a heart stopping fare thee well. As is the bass and cello heavy soundtrack masterfully handled by Don Ellis.
What Makes This Film Great?
Friedkin, Hackman and Scheider swinging for the fences and connecting. The latter, completely comfortable in their own skins portraying cops with no outside friends or social lives. Following leads that appear thin at first, yet slowly bearing fruit later on. Working from a screenplay from Ernest Tidyman after Shaft and before Report To The Commissioner that rings true. Especially between Popeye, Cloudy and the Feds. And when Scheider takes his time to un-cuff Hackman’s ankle from the head board of an abandoned one night stand before another day of work.
Bill Hickman has not gotten enough love for his hair raising chase with the elevated train. Even if it was done after weeks of timing a string of stop lights in Bensonhurst and having police with sirens chasing him. A flawless piece of action that still stands the test of time and comes in just under his stunt driven chase in Bullitt.
The Film’s Mystique:
Friedkin working with a relatively small budget and spending it well and frugally. Rejecting original ideas of using Paul Newman or Jackie Gleason for the lead. Which would have wreaked havoc financially and opting for young and hungry talent. Hackman wisely jumped on the role after Peter Boyle, much to later chagrin, turned it down.
The French Connection was nominated to the National Film Registry in 1971 and accepted in 2005.
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