The Oscars Project: Week 14 — The French Connection

For 82 years, the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year, with the help of the fine folks at Casablanca Video and the Calgary Public Library, I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week, starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others, decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot, and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is, and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

The French Connection (Best Picture, Best Director and three others)

“The son of a bitch is here. I saw him. I’m gonna get him.” — “Popeye” Doyle

Despite its well-earned place in the classic cinema cannon, The French Connection is guilty of most of the same sins as modern blockbusters. The characters are completely one-dimensional. The dialogue is often utilitarian (as the above quote ably illustrates), and even at its best, it’s 100 per cent pure hard-nosed cop cliché. Director William Friedkin is aiming for realism and grit, which leaves no room for stylized dialogue. He also essentially structures the film as one giant chase sequence, which leaves no room for character development, emotional drama or climactic speeches, all of which are usually the hallmarks of “Oscar-worthy” productions. It’s a genre flick through and through, hinged around one of cinema’s most famous car chase and composed mostly of stake-outs and stings.

And yet, somehow, it managed to pick up not just the Best Editing award (which may as well have been given to the car chase alone), but Picture, Director, Actor and, most surprising of all, Adapted Screenplay. This was no slouch of a year, either — French Connection managed to beat Stanley Kubrik’s A Clockwork Orange in every one of those categories.

The screenplay nod isn’t just surprising, though — it’s also telling. The French Connection is a supremely efficient film. It opens with Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) in a Santa costume, and Buddy Russo (Roy Schneider, who would help launch the summer blockbuster with 1975’s Jaws), posing as a hot dog vendor, waiting for a signal. Doyle rings his bell, Russo springs into action, and by the end of the sequence, they’re both shit-kicking an afro-sporting drug dealer who had the gal to stick Russo with a knife. None of this is given any set-up; Ernest Tidyman’s script just assumes that the action will speak loudly enough.

The script takes the same tack throughout. While there are a few memorable snatches of dialogue (Russo: “How’d I know he had a knife?” Doyle: “Never trust a n*gger.” Russo: “He coulda been white.” Doyle: “Never trust anybody.”), they’re overshadowed by sequences of Doyle following criminals on the street or onto subway cars, listening in on wiretaps and shaking down his informants.

Even with the minimal amount of talking in those sequences, though, there’s a hell of a lot of communication. The crooks always know that they’re being trailed, and the cops know that the crooks know it.  They still put perfunctory effort into pretending to be innocent bystanders, but everyone’s aware that they’re engaged in what The Venture Bros. calls “a game of cat-and-also-cat.”

That reliance on action over dialogue leads to one of the film’s best sequences, an exchange in the New York subway system. Doyle has been following a Frenchman that he suspects of smuggling heroin into the U.S., though he doesn’t know how it’s happening. The Frenchman gets onto a subway car. Doyle follows him. The Frenchman gets off before the car starts moving, so Doyle has to do the same, which is next to impossible to do inconspicuously. Especially after the Frenchman gets back on the car, and off again, and so on. I’ve seen the sequence described as a dance, but in a lot of ways, it reminds me more of three-card monte, or the “battle of wits” in The Princess Bride. The entire relationship between the two men boils down to predator and prey, but it isn’t clear until the very last moment which one of them is the victim.

Easily the best example of the movie’s physicality, though, is the infamous car chase — which is actually a chase between a car Doyle has commandeered and a runaway elevated train. By modern standards, the actual incidents in the chase are pretty tame. There are a few collisions, but no explosions — not even so much as a flip. It’s still remarkably effective, though, at least partly because of Doyle’s character. He’s relentlessly driven, with what seems like as close to a one-track mind as a guy can get. It’s easy to imagine him plowing through a civilian or two if it means staying on top of his suspect, which adds some genuine tension to the sequence.

Maybe most importantly, Friedman directs the sequence so that you can actually tell what’s going on at any given moment. Granted, that’s easier when you only have one car involved in the actual chase — not nearly as much effort has to be put into establishing the cars’ relative positions — but there’s something to be said for how easy the action is to follow.

But efficiency and action don’t usually translate into a Best Picture. If they did, Taken would have brought home a trophy last year (which, for the record, would have been awesome). So, how did The French Connection manage to win? As much of a cop-out as it is, the best answer I can give is, “Hey, it was the ’70s.” The studio system had dissolved, and the blockbuster system hadn’t quite come around to replace it. Maybe the voters were just more receptive to a movie that shunned any previous tropes — French Connection’s “realism’ is certainly a far cry from the heightened realities of noir and other gangster pictures. It’s easy to imagine Academy voters wanting to make a statement, but not necessarily so strong a statement as to reward Kubrik for making a movie about an unrepentant rapist and murderer. As French Connection’s trailer says, to paraphrase, Doyle may be a hard-nosed, racist thug at times, but he’s still a good cop. Behind the swearing and copious squibs of blood, French Connection still represents pretty typical morality, which makes it easier to get behind.

One last note: Variety’s review of The French Connection says that “While, ideally, the story calls for the oldtime Louis De Rochemont documentary handling, the flashy treatment it gets, a la D’Antoni’s Bullitt, may be more attractive to today’s less critically demanding market.” The idea that movies like Bullitt, The French Connection and Dirty Harry were tailored to a “less critically demanding market” to me just seems like proof that everyone will always assume they are living in the worst of times, intellectually. People today are still talking about the dumbing down of films, television, music and literature. Video games are still supposedly rotting our brains. A year after The French Connection, Variety’s “less critically demanding market” led to The Godfather. The (presumably) more demanding market a little over a decade earlier led to Gigi. Isn’t it about time to drop this argument?

Coming up:
1972: The Godfather
1973: The Sting
1974: The Godfather Part II

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