Combustible Celluloid
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With: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey, Tony Lo Bianco
Written by: Ernest Tidyman, based on the book by Robin Moore
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 104
Date: 10/06/1971

The French Connection (1971)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Crime Wave

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of my favorite movie trivia games consists of trying to find a modern-day actor who has never played a cop. Try it -- it's hard. Robert De Niro? Sorry. He played a cop in Cop Land. Al Pacino? No dice. He was a cop on De Niro's trail in Heat. What this means is that we as a people love our cop movies. The cop movie, like any other genre, has traveled through cycles. Up through the 1960s, cop movies were slow and thoughtful with a little action thrown in for good measure, as in Madigan, Coogan's Bluff, and Bullitt (all 1968). But in 1971, cop movies took a drastic turn, becoming grittier and faster and more violent. The French Connection was the first and most notable of these.

William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) was one of three gritty, street-smart cop movies in 1971 that sent all other cop movies packing. Shaft told the story of a black detective hired by "the man" to find his daughter, while Dirty Harry sent one cop sick of the system in search of vengeance. But The French Connection was more calculated and closer to the ground; it made the other two films seem like B-movies cut from a lesser cloth.

The French Connection tells the true story of a couple of cops in New York City who busted a worldwide drug ring. Gene Hackman plays Popeye Doyle (based on real-life cop Eddie Egan) and Roy Scheider plays his long-suffering partner "Cloudy" Russo (based on Sonny Grasso). Fernando Rey (star of many Luis Bunuel films) plays the Frenchman who smuggles heroin to the U.S. in the rocker panels of his car.

Friedkin came from documentary and television filmmaking and knew how to capture life on the street. He never rehearsed a shot with his cinematographer, and he often used "stolen" footage of people on the street and locations.

Astonishingly, most of the film is made up of characters simply watching each other through secret surveillance. Friedkin plays up the elegance of Rey and the slovenliness of Doyle, especially during one scene showing them both eating (Rey in a fancy restaurant and Doyle outside eating cold pizza). But when Friedkin revs up the action, as in the celebrated chase scene, the film feels like it's been moving at that speed the whole time. This chase, with Doyle driving a car below and the baddie riding on an elevated train above, works because it has more at stake than any of today's comic book chase scenes.

Fox's fantastic two-disc DVD set contains a great commentary track by Friedkin, and brief ones by Scheider and Hackman, plus endless documentaries and a few priceless deleted scenes, featuring more of Hackman's Oscar-winning performance. It's a must.

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