William Friedkin's top-notch policier The French Connection set the bar eternally high for both the cop film and the action film. With its deathless car chase, Friedkin's film became an instant American classic (and Academy-awarded Best Picture), but the scene is only the first of two climaxes arising from over an hour of investigatory tension. The finale is likewise memorable, a simultaneously realistic and surrealistic, objective and subjective depiction of the frustration of the career detective.
Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidyman from Robin Moore's 1969 non-fiction book The French Connection: A True Account of Cops, Narcotics, and International Conspiracy, Friedkin's film is surprisingly accurate to the real-life investigation, if not in every detail (the invented car chase, in particular), then certainly in spirit. Friedkin cast several real NYPD employees (including the real cops who broke the case, Eddie Egan and Sonny Grasso), vitally shot on location (in Marseilles and Washington D.C. as well as Brooklyn), and hewed closely to his research and the advice of ever-present consultants Egan and Grasso. Gene Hackman won the Best Actor Oscar for his uncompromising portrayal of Egan surrogate Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle; Roy Scheider proves equally good as Grasso stand-in Buddy Russo. Doyle and Russo of the New York Narcotics Bureau follow one of Doyle's much-maligned hunches and uncover "the French connection" piping drugs into New York: the elusive Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey).
Only a few years after the end of the Hays Production Code, The French Connection was part of a new wave in American cinema. Gritty, sexy, violent, and profane, Oscar-winning Friedkin's take-no-prisoners style subverted the politeness of preceding decades. We first see Popeye, on the streets of Brooklyn, wearing a Santa suit and breaking out into a full-bore run after a perp. Friedkin drew out of Hackman a wholly original character, a cop who is outwardly flippant but ultimately dead serious, obsessively so, about getting his man. The police partners trash-talk to each other in authentic dialect (that includes casual racial slurs) and demonstrate advanced surveillance and tailing techniques in lengthy passages that accurately convey the long-haul work of real detectives. With the line "You ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" Hackman immortalized Egan's intentionally confusing interrogation technique. The only detail not 100% convincing is the red, red kroovy of '70s cinema.
The whole film is, of course, a chase, wearing down shoe leather and tire treads. The foot chases are thrilling, but the pulse-pounding car chase (designed to top the San Francisco car chase from producer Phil D'Antoni's Bullitt), as Popeye races an el train, remains downright amazing, including as it does at least one actual accident owing to Friedkin's reckless run-and-gun style of shooting. Director of photography Owen Roizman, Oscar-winning editor Jerry Greenberg, and composer Don Ellis (with his innovative jazz score) make invaluable contributions to the film's effect. Friedkin's genius extends all the way into the film's closing moments, when an off-camera gunshot lends an enigmatic aspect underscoring the obsession and frustration of unfulfilled detection.
The French Connection, a catalog perennial for Fox, created something of a public relations snafu in 2009, when director William Friedkin supervised its initial Blu-ray release. The color timing was widely decried by film purists and also (whoops) by cinematographer Owen Roizman, who shot the picture in the first place. That initial hi-def release also had some color bleeding and halo effects that blotted the otherwise sharp and film-like image, but it was the color that presented the biggest problem, despite Friedkin's own approval of the new image. Now re-released as a part of Fox's Filmmakers Signature Series, The French Connection gets a new transfer jointly approved by Friedkin and Roizman. While the telecine scan appears to be the same as the previous release (which is fine, as it is excellent, with film grain happily preserved), the color timing of the new release has swung dramatically back in the direction of the original release prints. Deep black level and improved contrast underpin a more clear, less "blown-out" image, and while the color scheme has been pushed into a bluish-green area, there's nothing egregious here: it's a handsome picture that should mollify purists. Sound remains definitive, with DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital surround and original mono options.
The below descriptions refer to the bonus features on the original two-disc Blu-ray set. The new one-disc Filmmakers Signature Series release maintains most of them on the single platter. Lost are the excellent hour-long doc "Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection" and, for obvious reasons, the "William Friedkin Introduction" and the "Color Timing The French Connection" segment that refer to the previous transfer.
In the first of several brand-new Blu-ray exclusives, we get a "William Friedkin Introduction" (1:16, HD).
There's a commentary by Friedkin, always a fascinating listen, and a non-screen-specific commentary by Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. The latter offers twenty-five minutes of warm recollections from Hackman, an odd half an hour of silence, then another 25 minutes with Scheider, an enthuiastic storyteller. Also included one disc one are a pop-up trivia track and isolated score track.
Disc two begins with a historically important collection of "Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by William Friedkin" (11:37, HD). They come with a new introduction by Friedkin, in which he explains the grainy, washed out 16mm reel was created from a 35mm source. Getting more of Hackman as Popeye Doyle is a great gift, I'm sure you'll agree, and there's some brilliant material here.
In "Anatomy of a Chase" (20:20, HD), Friedkin gregariously shows us around the locations on which the famous chase sequence was shot. Early on, Friedkin joins his producer Phil D'Antoni, interviews him, and then takes him on the rest of the tour, including a ride in a brown 1970 Pontiac with Detective Randy Jurgensen.
"Hackman on Doyle" (10:49, HD) and "Friedkin and Grosso Remember the Real French Connection" (19:12, HD) are terrific interviews revealing details and impressions from the major players behind the finished film; in the latter, Friedkin interviews Grosso, keeping the focus on the retired detective.
In "Scene of the Crime" (5:14, HD) Friedkin and Jurgensen discuss, with the Brooklyn Bridge as a backdrop, shooting on the New York monument.
"Color Timing The French Connection" (13:15, HD) finds Friedkin at Post Logic, discussing the Blu-ray transfer with color timer Bryan McMahan.
In "Cop Jazz: The Music of Don Ellis" (10:04, HD), film music historian Jon Burlingame deconstructs Ellis' score and its effect.
"Rogue Cop: The Noir Connection" (13:47, HD) film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini provide critical analysis comparing The French Connection to the "rogue cop" genre within the noir tradition.
The great 2000 BBC documentary "Poughkeepsie Shuffle: Tracing The French Connection" (53:37, SD) recaps the criminal case and the creation of the film, getting frank responses from its subjects. Interviewees include Grosso, Friedkin, Jurgensen, Scheider, Hackman, sound recordist Chris Newman, DP Owen Roizman, assistant director Terry Donnelly, D'Antoni, former heads of production for Fox Richard Zanuck and David Brown, Tony Lo Bianco, and editor Gerald B. Greenberg.
The 2001 Fox Movie Channel doc "Making the Connection: The French Connection 30th Anniversary Special" (56:33, SD) is hosted by Sonny Grosso, who interviews Friedkin, N.Y. Supreme Court Judge Torres, Lo Bianco, actress Lora Mitchell, Hackman, Scheider, D'Antoni, Zanuck, author Robin Moore, Roizman, Brown, Greenberg. Eddie Egan appears in vintage clips.
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