And finally, I conclude my exploration of the 1971 best picture series with the Academy’s choice, The French Connection, a movie that underwhelmed me the first time I watched it but managed to leave a good impression this time round. What makes The French Connection’s win so unique is that the film is unlike most other choices made previously by the academy; it is not a sweeping epic, not a musical, not a period film but a simple crime thriller. It also has the distinction of having the shortest run time as compared to the other nominees this year.
William Friedkin was a director with a very unique visual style. I’m not an expert at camera angles/colour etc, but I’m sure most people who have watched The Exorcist and this film will know what I mean; there’s something realistic about the way he captures his stories on camera, like how he follows his characters as they walk down the street, and yet it doesn’t veer into the annoying “shaky cam” shtick that I hate (trivia: the cameraman was carted around on a wheelchair because of budget problems. I actually liked the final effect). It’s like a balance of realism and cinematic experience that makes his movies stand out because of the grittiness, even supernatural-themed one like The Exorcist. In a film like this, where the dark corners and alleys of New York are often shot, it certainly helps bring out the mood and tension of the film. In case you do not know, a lot of the scenes, like the traffic jam scenes as well as the famous car chase sequence, were shot on the spot without permission from the authorities. A passer-by even had his car damaged (it’s in the movie because of its realism) because he wasn’t aware that they were shooting the scene where he was driving past.
My issue with the film the first time I watched it was because of how slow the build-up to the action scenes was; this time round, however, I realised how much detail and nuances I missed then. I was intrigued by how the cops slowly pieced the puzzle pieces together through their interrogation and snooping around. I don’t think the story is the most original or creative; two cops follow a hunch that turned out to be a drug-smuggling deal. However, the execution is what makes the film a gripping thriller. To me, the film’s greatest strength can be summed up in one word: realism. I liked how both sides of the story are pieced together before culminating to the final showdown; whenever the cops are undercover, you can never here the dialogue between the drug dealers so as to give you the sense that you are seeing things from their POV. Similarly, whenever the movie focuses on the dealers, you can see the cops lurking in the background and observing them.
Things get more and more intense when they are aware that they are being investigated, and how both sides are brought closer and closer together: the scene in the subway where Doyle (Gene Hackman) was trailing Charnier was such a heart-thumping experience. To me, it was already clear right from the beginning that Charnier knew he was being followed, but that simple act of stepping out then stepping back in the carriage to trick Doyle was such a “WTF” climax to an already suspenseful sequence that I’m pretty sure Friedkin had his directing Oscar sealed here. The famous car chase sequence was equally thrilling because of its aforementioned realism. You don’t see our lead character jumping on top of trains like James Bond, or driving a tank through the roads and smashing everything along the way, but an ordinary car chasing a subway down the streets while dangerously swerving past other cars, and yet this makes it even more believable and exciting to watch.
I think one other aspect that makes The French Connection stand out from other routine thrillers is the amount of depth it added to the characters and stories. Gene Hackman won an Oscar for his portrayal of Doyle. What is amazing is that unlike other Oscar winning performances, he doesn’t get any monologues or “reaction shots” (like Rod Steiger in In The Heat of The Night) to actually help with his characterization, and yet you never once doubt that Doyle is a real person. He is constantly working, investigating, snooping and searching, and yet Hackman’s portrayal spoke volumes about the character to me. He utilizes the screenplay to his own benefit, narrowly avoiding the “rough street cop” portrayal that is too common nowadays. Although that’s what his character is, Hackman’s performance never feels like a cliché. You see how sharp Doyle is and how commanding his presence can be, like when he conducts his raids. In one particularly impressive but brief moment, he catches one of the guys in the pub trying to secretly drop the (presumably) drugs in his hand (“Smartass you drop something. Pick it up”). Yet at the same time, Hackman also shows how the man’s passion for his job can result in his impulsiveness and fiery temper, like how he often gets into altercations. I always felt that Hackman understood this character inside out, as though he invented a backstory for him in his head that was never explored by the movie, hence giving the character this mysterious edge. Roy Scheider also compliments him well as the more cool-headed partner. When you think about it, it’s quite a cliché and typical pairing and yet it never feels so when you watch it (it is based on a true story afterall). Another character that is well-portrayed is Alain Charnier, played by Fernando Rey. He’s not really fully explored by the movie, always remaining a mysterious figure, and yet you always get the feeling that he is someone you do not want to mess with (also thanks to Rey’s great performance). That somewhat iconic smile and wave in the subway scene was really chilling.
As such, The French Connection is probably another pleasant surprise to me after an already great line-up of films for the 1971 best picture nominees. It’s a film that I didn’t care much for the first time I viewed it, but this time round there are a lot of details that intrigued me. 4.5/5. Great watch.