Today I watched William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971)
This film opens with a rich French drug kingpin planning his next big score, smuggling a few million dollars worth of heroin into New York City. In his way stand two narcotics detectives, Jimmy Doyle and Buddy Russo, a pair of hard boiled bastards if ever there was one. It is Doyle’s hunch that launches the investigation that forms the body of this film, and the film follows the job with a procedural attention to detail. Doyle has a good deal of baggage though and one can imagine that an international drug lord is going to have some help and some dirty tricks to help him avoid the law, will our heroic gumshoes be able to break the case in time?
Doyle, played by Gene Hackman, falls into the old school hard man action archetype that would go on to dominate the Seventies. This character is drawn from Film Noir, the battered alcoholic with skeletons in his closet who might be redeemed if he can solve this one more case. But the hard man is different, because he is unchained from the Hays Code; this code was a form of censorship that erected moral guidelines and is the reason why so many film noir protagonists met an untimely end, can’t reward them for doing bad things. Doyle, as a typical hard man, is not a good person, a good cop maybe, but not a good person thus there is a tragic element to the film as the only man in the right position to do the right thing is this husk of a man.
This is a very quickly paced film, missing no time with extraneous exposition and getting into the case immediately. There is little time for anyone to relax or slow down and so it does all the character development through details, affectations, and of course a stellar cast’s performances. Friedkin goes for a very realistic style but it serves to amplify those moments with more style. When the heavy jazz orchestration kicks in, it creates so much more suspense and impact because of how much of the film passes in ominous quiet.
The French Connection takes the labyrinthine mysteries and conspiracies of noir and fuses it with the emergent violence of a post Hays act Hollywood in a way that will define the decade in Western action cinema. It is a morally dark and ambiguous film and serves a moody precursor for many films to come. As a standalone film it is pitch perfect police drama that really cuts to the emotional heart of the situation with a subdued but powerful style. 5/5