Half-Century: 50 years of The French Connection and the recall value of William Friedkin’s finest work
 
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Half-Century: 50 years of The French Connection and recall value of William Friedkin’s finest work

Hailed as a work of art, 1971’s The French Connection was everything a classic ought to be. Here’s a throwback on the film, its social relevance today, and how it still packs a punch.

Avinash Subramaniam
Sep 27, 2021
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In this column, we look back at classic movies that complete 50 years to examine why they were considered to be iconic when they released, and if they are still relevant today.

I am a compulsive time traveller. Movies and books are the modes of transport I use, mostly, to go back and ahead in time. Recently, I re-visited the year 1971 and realised it had a lot of wonderful things to offer. One among them was violent, racist, and thrilling. You, too, should visit (and revisit) it whenever you get a chance to. You will not be disappointed. Let me tell you why, and what I'm alluding to.

It's 50 years old. It's iconic. It's one of the greatest action, crime, cop, chase movies ever made. But those are only a few of the reasons why one should acquaint oneself with The French Connection, available on Google Play. And on that short introduction, let's get into it.

The French Connection is one of director William Friedkin's best movies. It might, however, not be his most popular movie in India (that, I suspect, would be the profane, shocking, and chilling The Exorcist). But The French Connection is, in my opinion, definitely his apex mountain - a term for summit I've borrowed from one of my favourite movie podcasts, The Rewatchables, which, as the name suggests, is about revisiting films that are eminently re-watchable. You should check it out. It is a pretty cool time machine!

So yeah, I think The French Connection is better than The Exorcist (1973). Also, in 1972, The French Connection was nominated for eight and won five more Oscars than The Exorcist ever did (it won none). The French Connection won Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), Best Director (Friedkin), Best Adapted Screenplay (the film was based upon a book), and Best Film Editing. What's more, it was up against some terrific films. Here is an incomplete list of great films released in 1971 - Fiddler on the Roof, Klute, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Play Misty for Me, Harold and Maude, Straw Dogs, The Last Picture Show, and Shaft. They all deserve to be watched and rewatched once, at least.

The French Connection’s Oscar haul is not the only thing that makes it a better film than The Exorcist. After all, the number of Oscars is not always an accurate marker of how good a film is. For example, did Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby deserve Best Picture in 2005? I don't think it did. I thought one of the other nominees that year, Sideways, was a better film. Is Slumdog Millionaire better than one of the other films (Milk) it beat to the Best Picture award in 2009? I'm not certain it is. And there are other, even better, examples of great movies that didn't win Oscars.

But while The French Connection may well be the better of the two most famous Friedkin films, The Exorcist is probably a more rewatchable film. Why? What makes a film more rewatchable than its counterparts? Well, that's a contest, conversation, and debate we will keep for another time. For now, let's get into more reasons why The French Connection is very re-watchable.

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Apart from the unadulterated acclaim The French Connection garnered from critics and cinéastes, another reason I think it's worth revisiting is its shock value. And shocking oneself is, I believe, something we must all subject ourselves to every once in a while. For if we don't, we run the risk of becoming too settled in our comfort zones. The French Connection will unsettle you with its insensitive, unapologetically combative, and overtly racist ways. The kind of things Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle says in the film would not pass muster in this day and age. The French Connection will remind you of the intolerant times we used to live in and how different things are today. It will also make you question, are things really very different today? Have we evolved? Have we come a long way from the days of The French Connection? Are we less racist now? Do we really feel differently or do we just talk differently? These are the questions re-watching The French Connection made me ask myself. If a film can make you question yourself in more ways than one, it certainly deserves a re-watch.

Now you may have watched The French Connection, but you may not have heard of New Hollywood, also referred to as the American New Wave or Hollywood Renaissance. Revisiting this film helmed by a director of the New Hollywood era is a good way to introduce yourself to this important period in the history of western cinema. Re-watch The French Connection and then revisit some of the great works of other great directors who were associated with this cinematic period in history.

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Here are a few films, along with their makers, from that period that you could give a watch: Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn), The Graduate (Mike Nichols), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero), The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah), and Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper). While I've watched all these films - some several times - it's only now that I found out they are seen as part of the American New Wave. That's why it's so great to revisit classics. They almost always have something new to offer. As does The French Connection.

You will agree that all such great films have more than a few new things to offer and wow viewers with. One of these innovations The French Connection gifted us is 'The Chemist'. The drug dealers use The Chemist to check the purity of the stash. It is a small, but extremely significant role that makes an indelible impression. In some ways, it is comparable to the role of Doc Badger played by Barkhad Abdi in Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, a film I re-watched very recently in order to prepare for his Dune, which has just had a global release and is awaiting its Indian premiere. Barkhad Abdi's Doc Badger is in Blade Runner 2049 for not more than seven minutes. But in those few minutes, he makes a lasting impression. The role of The Chemist in The French Connection has a similar impact. The Chemist uses a complex chemical kit, including a thermometer, in which the mercury rises with the purity of the stash. (Is this kit for real? I wouldn't know for sure. But it sure looks ‘legit’, and that's what makes it such an engrossing watch). 

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Speaking of supporting roles, other significant contributions that spring to mind immediately when I think of The Chemist in The French Connection are Soorma Bhopali, Kaalia and the ‘Angrez ke Zamaane ka Jailer’ in Sholay. Evidently, Sholay is one of my favourite movies that I may have watched nearly ten times. What's more, I don't think I'm quite done with it.

Watching Gene Hackman, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, is extremely satisfying and never gets old. The anger, drive, and determination he displays in the pursuit of his targets are very difficult to ignore. And, at times, disturbing, or even, terrifying. Speaking of his win, it's interesting to look back on who Hackman pipped on his way to his Oscar for Best Actor. There was Peter Finch in Sunday Bloody Sunday(Finch went on to win the Oscar for Best Actor in 1977 for the terrific Network, a film about the power of television I have watched at least twice). Then there was Walter Mathau, who was nominated for Kotch, a film I had never heard of until now. Mathau never won an Oscar for Best Actor, but he did bag it for Best Supporting Actor in 1966 for his role in the Billy Wilder comedy Fortune Cookie. Also nominated in 1972 was George C. Scott for The Hospital. Incidentally, George C. Scott did win the Oscar for Best Actor the previous year for Patton. Had he won it again for The Hospital, it would have been a rare occasion where someone takes the Best Actor trophy home for two consecutive years. Only three actors have been able to achieve this feat — Luise Rainer in 1936 and 1937 (Best Actress), Spencer Tracy in 1937 and 1938, and Tom Hanks in 1993 and 1994. Finally, the fifth nominee for Best Actor going up against Hackman was the Israeli actor Chaim Topol, who bagged his first and only Oscar nomination for Fiddler on the Roof. This is to establish Hackman beat some accomplished actors to win the prize that year.

Speaking of time, to watch The French Connection now is to experience a style of filmmaking and image creation alien to us. Take for instance the poster for the film. It captures a climactic moment of the famous car and subway chase sequence. It shows the film's leading man, Doyle, shooting his quarry in the back while trying to escape. The image features him as a minor character at the bottom of the poster. Further, he is shown involved in an anti-heroic, cowardly act — shooting his victim in the back. It is one of the villains that take centre stage in the poster.

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It’s interesting — not many films celebrate their villains on the poster. Let's consider the posters for five terrific heist films made in the last five years - Baby Driver, No Sudden Moves, Lucky Logan, American Animals, and Heroic Losers. None of them sees a minor villain appear on the posters, let alone be the focus.

Another thing we are unlikely to see in newer movies is the opening scene. The French Connection begins with a mysterious man in the French port town of Marseille being shot in the face. After the face-busting scene that kicks off the film, The French Connection cuts to a scene that would draw howls of protests and hordes of outraged rants today - for good reason, mind you.

In this scene, Popeye and Russo storm into a Black bar and abuse, harass, shove and insult the customers, demanding answers. As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, when Popeye gets back to the police station, he drops the N-word. It is a scene that compelled me to do a double-take. And that's not all that's incongruous about it. The police station has no Black cops, even the police chief is not Black. There is nothing in the scene to counterbalance and soften Doyle's offensive behaviour. It is raw, real, in your face, and, probably, a fair reflection of how things were back then. Writing about it reminds me of a similar exchange in the gritty, unvarnished crime show Paatal Lok (on Amazon Prime), in which the young Muslim cop (and Muslims, in general) is belittled in equally callous and shameless words. It too deserves a rewatch, more for its unsparing, brutal, no-holds-barred depictions of life than anything else.

The French Connection’s script is always moving forward, from one location to another, from one dramatic narrative to another, from one twist to another, from one question to another, from one shock to another.

Put simply, there isn’t a dull moment. One of my favourite film critics, the late Roger Ebert, said about The French Connection, “In a sense, the whole movie is a chase." I couldn't agree more. And while the car chase is the most-discussed aspect, the movie itself features the longest chase in cinematic history. Roger Ebert nailed it. As did that other great film critic, Pauline Kael. She wrote about The French Connection in her review of it for The New Yorker, "An extraordinarily well-made new thriller gets the audience sky-high and keeps it up there—The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, is one of the most 'New York' of all the recent New York movies."

Which brings to mind another question, what are some of the other great New York movies I have seen and re-watched? Here is a list of seven I have watched at least twice: Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Rosemary's Baby, Manhattan, King Kong, Wall Street, and Do the Right Thing. But we must be like The French Connection and end this aside about New York movies now. The end, not.

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I love endings. Wait, let me rephrase that. I love great endings. Movies that surprise me with the way they end are movies I cherish. And keep going back. Most Indian movies don't do endings well. In fact, most Indian movies tend to lose the plot (and me) by the time they get to the second half of the movie. The French Connection is not like that.

The French Connection never loses grip over the plot. Even better, it has a great ending. And I think it is a great ending because it remains ambiguous. The French Connectionhas an ending that goes nowhere specific. It makes you want more, which may be why they did a sequel to The French Connection, one I haven't yet watched.

I may or may not watch it as I'm wary of sequels, especially ones to great films. For there aren't many great films with great sequels. Well-made sequels is another fascinating conversation that needs to be had in the near future. For now though, I'd like to terminate this conversation by citing seven films with impactful endings. In no particular order, here they come: My Happy Family, The Sixth Sense, Seven, The Usual Suspects, Chinatown, Before Sunset, and Soni.

(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)

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