Similar to how Chinese food in China is just “food,” in France The French Connection is just The Connection. (and a ménage à trois is just “brunch with people.”) A few weeks ago we shared the rather arresting new trailer for The Connection and marked the new thriller from France as an inevitable must see, even if early festival reviews are less than stellar. It occurred to me since then that before I start recommending people see the new, parallel sequel, they should check out the original. Fortunately The French Connection is available to view on Netflix right now.
The French Connection has a legendary status and Award-winning pedigree; it pulled in Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and Actor, among others, while also getting nominations for Supporting Actor and Cinematography. Based on a book that was in turn based on a true story, The French Connection is ripe, true crime material concerning two New York cops–Gene Hackman as “Popeye” Doyle and Roy Scheider as “Cloudy” Russo–going undercover to investigate what turns out to be an international drug smuggling operation. While this sounds lofty, almost larger than life, the film falls squarely into the unofficial “gritty” sub-category of cop thrillers. There isn’t any glitz or glamour to Doyle and Russo’s tactics or increasingly obsessive determination to take down the near-mythical figure behind the narcotics trade, Charnier.
A couple of early scenes set in France look gorgeous, but the most of the rest of the film deliberately looks like a hard day waiting to get worse. William Friedkin’s direction helps ground what could initially seem like a fantastical story with incredible verisimilitude. While many current films are overly reliant on “shaky cam” to try to inject a kinetic liveliness into every second of screen time, Friedkin is far more shrewd in his occasional use of an unsteady, handheld camera. These moments aren’t jarring, but perceptible and magnetic, giving a few scenes the feel of a documentary. This allows an almost voyeuristic element to persist, even through more openly cinematic moments, or the excellent, fast-moving action sequences; at times it feels like you’re part of a ride-along.
The movie has also confidence in itself and the viewer, enough to effectively drop us into the action without offering much set up, and any exposition that might be present is expertly disguised in realistic, energetic conversation. The French Connection doesn’t deign to clumsily moralize, but it also doesn’t give any easy answers or resolutions, and presents its characters as more than merely “flawed,” but outright questionable. The poster above may declare that Doyle is a good cop, but the movie itself isn’t nearly so black-and-white about this. Even if you come away definitively thinking that Doyle is a good cop, the question still remains as to whether he’s an effective cop.
The French Connection is the best kind of throwback. Sure, it comes from an era when movie gunshots still sounded like the echo of a slammed door, but also from a relatively brief time in film history when a director could break through with a blockbuster (3rd-highest grossing film of the year–ahead of even the somewhat similarly themed Dirty Harry), award-winning, thoughtful police thriller that clocks in at a swift 104 minutes. You’ve got that much time. Add it to your Netflix watchlist and treat yourself.