1971 Oscars: The time was just right for an out and out Best Picture Winner like this
The French Connection is directed by William Friedkin and is based on the 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy by Robin Moore. The film stars Gene Hackman, Fernando Rey, Roy Scheider, Tony Lo Bianco, and Marcel Bozzuffi and won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Film Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was also the first R-rated movie to win Best Picture.
As of this review, there are ninety movies that have been graced with the Academy's most prestigious Oscar: Best Picture. Of those ninety movies, not a single one of them can be appropriately labeled as an action film, one in which characters settle their differences with fists, bullets, and pretty much any other form of violence one could concoct. On one hand, the inability of an action film to win Best Picture suggests that the Oscars have a historical dislike for action films, not considering them "artsy" in the way that the Oscars would consider a romantic drama or a lengthy biopic to be "artsy." But on the other hand, it could simply be a matter of the fact that action films have a harder time trying to do everything right: acting, story, editing, etc., and though several action films like Mad Max: Fury Road have been nominated over the years, one has yet to win Best Picture.
The one and only Best Picture winner that resembles the closest an action film has ever gotten to holding up that lovely golden trophy is 1971's The French Connection, which is a gritty, urban crime thriller more than a straight-up action movie. It has elements of an action movie, but it is, in and of itself, not a pure action movie. And while we're on the topic of action movies, it's worth mentioning that about ninety percent of all action movies released during the 21st century couldn't hold a candle to The French Connection, a movie whose visceral thrills have not dated in the slightest.
From start to finish, The French Connection is a fast-paced roller coaster ride that never lets you catch your breath, and even with all of the excitement to be had, there's never a slip up with the writing or the characters or anything else worth noting. Even having seen the film three separate times, I still have a difficult time wrapping my head around the masterful way the movie is able to incorporate high-energy thrills with such a smart and pragmatic story. Filmmakers frequently have it one way: You sacrifice story smarts for the sake of entertaining action, because general audiences mostly love to watch stuff go boom and watch human bodies get blasted to smithereens. And for something like the Mad Max films, you may not have the most layered story of all time, but god damn if those action scenes aren't the coolest things you'll ever see! The French Connection, meanwhile, should serve as an early example of how it is entirely possible to craft an intelligent story while also keeping your film super exciting. The only trouble is, you're not going to do it as well as The French Connection does it.
The plot appears to be basic stuff: New York police detectives Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman) and Buddy "Cloudy" Russo (Roy Scheider) are attempting to locate a narcotics ring they believe is running throughout New York, and the two go through a lot of undercover work in order to do so. However, there's much more going on than just Popeye and Cloudy attempting to uncover some secret drug deals and catch a few junkies: In Marseilles, wealthy French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is looking to smuggle $32 million worth of heroin into the United States, doing so by hiding bags containing the heroin inside the car of his unsuspecting friend, Henry Devereaux (Frederic de Pasquale). Meanwhile, Popeye and Cloudy begin to tail the young couple Sal (Tony Lo Bianco) and Angie (Arlene Farber) Boca, believing the two are involved in some kind of criminal operation.
Describing further plot details would be entering spoiler territory, and details are something that matter a lot in The French Connection. There are so many names and faces to keep track of, that on a first viewing, I am not sure how anyone could walk away fully understanding every nut and bolt of the plot, especially because of how swiftly the movie moves along. Someone playing devil's advocate might ask how can the story be so good if the movie is going at such a fast pace? To that question I answer: the screenplay by Ernest Tidyman has no gimmicks and doesn't leave anything to chance. Every little plot point and every minor character is accounted for, the movie providing closure to everything by the end. And the way the characters go about their business, there's no time to slow down and take a break. Charnier and his men want to get their operation completed as soon as possible, hoping to be back in France before the police ever realize they were there. Popeye and his team, meanwhile, know that if they don't expose the drug operation in time, all of their efforts will be in vain. Also, Charnier and his mean are no slouches. They are organized professionals and it doesn't take long for them to realize that police are on their tails. Because the characters need to work so quickly, the movie is going to be fast.
- Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, who I'll just call Popeye from here on out, is a massive force on screen, being portrayed brilliantly by Gene Hackman. As the poster says, "Doyle is bad news- but a good cop" and that sums up perfectly the kind of character that Popeye is. At his core, Popeye wants to do the right thing just like any other cop would: stop a gigantic drug smuggling operation and catch the crooks who are running the whole damn thing. But as we see several times throughout the movie, Popeye is a nasty and hot-headed individual, having no desire to wait around and think up a plan for chasing Charnier and his men. At the same time, however, Popeye doesn't make knee-jerk decisions or boast outrageous claims that would land him in hot water. When he believes something in his gut to be true, he sticks with it, no matter what anyone else tells him.
Let's be clear on one thing, though: Popeye is not a protagonist worth cheering for. There's a scene early on in which he and Cloudy go into a bar and force all the people there up on a wall. Popeye claims he's there to make sure the bar is "cleaned up" and in the process, he makes everyone empty their pockets, harassing some of the bar-goers (all of whom were real-life police officers), calling one of them a fat man, and making a "milkshake" out of some of the cigarettes and other crap he finds there. If The French Connection was released sometime within the past few years, there would hardcore, left-wingers and Black Lives Matter activists calling for William Friedkin's head. Anyway, Popeye is as ruthless as they come, Gene Hackman, without question, deserving that Best Actor Oscar.
- Of course we have to talk about that car chase. Considered by many to be one of the finest car chases in cinematic history, the car chase is something of the movie's thesis statement. Roger Ebert put it best in his review of this movie: The French Connection, as a whole, is like a chase, going beyond just its one chase scene. The chase itself concerns Hackman pursuing Charnier's hit man, Pierre Nicoli (Marcel Bozzuffi), who boards an elevated train after failing to kill Popeye moments beforehand. The flawless editing of the chase is one thing, but the absolute best part is how during the chase, there's always something of note happening outside of watching Popeye drive a car at breakneck speed. Popeye rams his car into a wall and narrowly avoids running over a lady walking with her child. Meanwhile, Nicoli makes his way to the front of the train, holding the conductor at gunpoint when he gets there. Nicoli shoots and kills a police officer on the train and forces the conductor to drive through a station. There's no time for chatter and no time for thinking up a plan. There's not even time to play exciting music, because the movie, like the car chase, is going so fast and doing so at such a heightened intensity.
- If there was any kind of low point in The French Connection, the ferocity of the entire movie would make it completely irrelevant. The movie masterfully executes everything that goes into its thrilling action and fast-paced story, that anything else isn't worth griping about. Sure, characters like Cloudy and Nicoli aren't going to be the most developed characters you'll ever meet, but they function the way they need to, and again, the movie simply doesn't have the time to do something extra like explore its characters deeply.
My most common complaints with the first forty three films to win Best Picture is that too many of those films are boring, overly long, and horribly dated. The vast majority of those forty three films I pray and hope to never ever have to watch again. The French Connection, meanwhile, is the polar opposite of the likes of How Green Was My Valley and A Man For All Seasons. It's a film with heated excitement from start to finish and a type of fast pacing that too many of the older Best Picture winners could only dream of.
I am still to this day completely awestruck by The French Connection. It's not every day you find a movie that can be so fast, and yet be so thrilling and still pack tons of wallop with its acting and writing. It's far from a nice-looking movie: being shot during a cold, depressing New York winter without any set ever being built. The movie is also shot with high levels of film grain, though I admit the Blu-ray version I watched had coloring changes that Friedkin did himself, much to the chagrin of cinematographer Owen Roizman. I don't think it mattered too much, because a movie like this needs to look unpleasant.
I can't praise The French Connection enough: it's a masterpiece of a crime thriller and is still to this day one of the finest films to ever win Best Picture. It won't be any less thrilling fifty years from now, and I could watch it time and time again and never get the least bit bored with it. The French Connection is a must for action movie lovers. In fact, I dare say it's a movie everyone should see at least once in their lifetime.
Recommend? Read that previous sentence again.
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