POPEYE — Plenty of People Enhance Your Evening
In the early 1960s, NYPD detectives Eddy Egan and Sonny Grosso successfully broke up one of the largest drug smuggling conspiracies known to that time — a conspiracy that had a major connection to elements of the French underworld. These events were later documented in a book by Robin Moore entitled “The French Connection.” In 1971, the story was successfully brought to the screen by producer Philip D’Antoni, previously responsible for another fine detective thriller — Bullitt. The French Connection went on to win five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Gene Hackman), and Best Director (William Friedkin).
Fox has now released an excellent DVD of The French Connection as part of its Five Star Collection.
Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and partner Buddy “Cloudy” Russo are NYPD narcotics cops who stumble on a potentially large drug smuggling operation. The first inkling comes from observing a party of known drug dealers who are being courted by small-time crook Sal Boca at a local nightclub. Routine surveillance eventually makes a connection between Boca and visiting Frenchmen Alain Charnier, but the surveillance is soon compromised. Doyle is marked by Charnier as a possible stumbling block to successful completion of his deal, brokered by Boca, to sell the drugs to a New York dealer named Weinstock. Charnier orders his associate Pierre Nicoli to kill Doyle, but he is unsuccessful. In the ensuing chase, during which the escaping Nicoli hijacks an elevated train while Doyle pursues him in a car below, Nicoli is injured and finally shot by Doyle. The focus of the case then shifts to the car brought into the country from France on Charnier’s behalf by a French entertainer. It is this car that allows the police to make a concrete drug connection between Charnier and the New York drug dealers, thus bringing the case to a head.
We’ve had several titles from Fox released so far under its Five Star Collection banner, but it’s safe to say that, with The French Connection, for the first time we really have a film that merits being part of such a collection.
The 1970s is rightly recognized as a second golden era of American filmmaking. (There hasn’t been a third so far.) Near the forefront of that era was The French Connection. I can remember being at an advance showing of the film and just being amazed at what was on the screen. The gritty realism of the setting (the film was entirely shot on location in New York, plus some shots in Marseilles), the ambiguity in the actions of the main characters, the documentary feel of the story, the excitement of the elevated/car chase, even the frank language (although that had already and would soon again be far surpassed) all combined to set the film apart from anything that had come before. The shooting of the sniper in the back by the film’s protagonist also provided a jolt and gave the film the indelible image that identifies it to this day. It’s a tribute to the excellence of this film that despite its obvious 1970s look and feel, The French Connection remains a benchmark for detective thrillers.
The success of The French Connection is due to a perfect confluence of the key people — director William Friedkin, actors Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, producer Phil D’Antoni, and screenwriter Ernest Tidyman. D’Antoni’s previous success with Bullitt drew him to the material and in addition to wanting to dramatize realistically the basics of the story, he provide an impetus to go Bullitt‘s car chase one better. Tidyman’s script is a model for this type of film. It builds the story slowly, but clearly and concisely, and does not sacrifice believability for the sake of unnecessary action sequences or special effects. The dialogue has the feel of the real thing. The choice of William Friedkin as director may at first have seemed a curious choice, for his feature film experience was not extensive, certainly not for this type of film. Friedkin did, however, have a background in documentary film and it is that capability that is crucial to the look and feel of the final film. If there’s any one thing that makes you feel that the events on the screen are real and actually occurred, it’s that sense of immediacy and documentation of detail (such as in the time-consuming and often tedious business of tailing people or manning stake-outs) that puts you right on the street with the characters.
In the end, though, it all comes down to the lead actors. As Popeye Doyle (counterpart of the real-life Eddie Egan), Gene Hackman does a standout job of making us, if not cheer for, at least side with a man who is basically a bully and a profane loudmouth with no life beyond being a cop. Hackman was not the first and certainly not the obvious choice for the role. Friedkin wanted an unknown actor, while the studio wanted a star to play the role. When a compromise was reached, Hackman turned out to be the man, as he fit neither category. Hackman later admitted that he had a lot of difficulty with the role, particularly at the beginning of shooting. He just couldn’t deliver the force and ruthlessness needed and when the first few days of shooting the film’s opening Brooklyn sequence proved to be unsatisfactory to both Friedkin and Hackman, Hackman questioned whether he could in fact do the part at all. As shooting went on, however, he gradually worked his way into the part, gaining confidence through accompanying Egan and his associates during the course of their duties. By the end, when they returned to shooting the opening sequence, he had no difficulty at all and the sequence was completed in half a day.
Playing Popeye’s partner, Cloudy (the real-life Sonny Grosso), Roy Scheider really has a thankless task. As Scheider himself notes, Cloudy has no real dramatic opportunities in the film. He is basically a sidekick who has to put up with a man whom many would feel is somewhat of a jerk. Scheider plays the calming influence to Popeye’s bull-in-a-china-shop, and does so by portraying Cloudy as an intelligent, organized, and responsible person. We always feel that Cloudy knows what he’s doing and if Popeye gets into trouble, Cloudy will be there to help. The merit of Scheider’s work can measured by the Academy Award nomination he deservedly received.
Finally, one cannot talk about The French Connection and not mention the car chase. It’s still every bit as exciting as it first was, despite 30 intervening years of car chases and increasingly spectacular special effects in films. If you haven’t seen it and wonder how you can create tension with a car chasing an elevated train, it’ll be worth your while to get the DVD just for that sequence. It’s a superbly edited assemblage of stunt driving work, real-life crashes, reaction shots, and sound effects.
Fox’s DVD for The French Connection consists of two discs. The first contains the film and two commentaries while the second contains the rest of the supplements. The image transfer (1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, 32 chapter selections) is certainly not demonstration quality. The difficulty, however, appears to lie with the source material. As originally shot, the film occasionally had a distinctly grainy look that contributed much to the gritty feel of the story. That grainy look is quite evident on the DVD at times and contributes to a noisy-looking image with distinct loss of detail in shadow and particularly nighttime sequences. Other than in these instances, though, it must be stated that the DVD image is very crisp and clear. Colours are faithfully rendered and edge enhancement is minor at most. Overall, Fox appears to have done the best job possible given the nature of what it had to work with.
The audio features a new Dolby Digital 5.1 English mix to go along with Dolby Digital English stereo surround and French mono tracks. The 5.1 mix is quite pleasing if not particularly aggressive. This is a 30-year old film so only so much is possible. The surrounds are only occasionally used to significant effect and there is little directionality even then. Otherwise, though, there is a fair degree of richness to the sound and gunshot sequences are effectively amplified. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The supplement package is impressive. On the first disc, we get two commentaries. Director William Friedkin provides a feature-length scene-specific commentary that’s a model of its kind. Friedkin elaborates continually on production details, casting, differences between the actual story and the filmed version, and the characterizations delivered by the actors as well as explaining his thinking on many of the scene set-ups and shooting techniques. Friedkin has a pleasant speaking style that’s easy to listen to.
The second commentary is actually composed of separate talks by each of Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider. Hackman’s begins with chapter selection 2 and continues for 25 minutes. Scheider’s begins with chapter selection 18 and last for about 23 minutes. Neither talk is scene specific (as suggested on the back of the DVD case), but rather provides an overview of how each actor got involved with the film, how they prepared for and developed confidence in playing their roles, what sort of interaction there was with the director, and generally what they thought of the whole experience and the film’s success. Both talks are quite informative, with little duplication. Scheider’s talk is the more animated of the two.
Disc Two contains the rest of the supplementary material. There are two documentaries on the making of the film. The first is a 53-minute long BBC production entitled “Poughkeepsie Shuffle” made in 2000 that thoroughly covers the production background, the shooting, and the film’s release with interviews of all the principals. Although this seemed to be a fairly definitive effort, Fox decided to produce its own documentary also. Entitled “Making the Connection: The Untold Stories” and running 56 minutes, it employs a somewhat different approach by focusing on Sonny Grosso, who since leaving the NYPD has become a successful film producer himself. Most of the same filmmakers are interviewed and a lot of the same ground is covered as the BBC documentary, but there are some different perspectives and additional facts and opinions included. Both documentaries are well worth watching and afterwards, you’ll certainly know just about all there is to know about The French Connection. Then there is another documentary that consists of William Friedkin introducing seven deleted scenes and explaining his reasoning in not using them in the final version of the film. These are very interesting to see inasmuch as they are mainly insights into Popeye Doyle’s character, but Friedkin’s decision not to include them seems quite correct. The individual scenes can also be accessed separately. Rounding out the disc is both a fine photo gallery consisting of behind-the-scenes photography, production stills, and a theatrical poster, and trailers for both The French Connection and French Connection II.
While I have already said that the script is one of the film’s chief assets, one part of it has always bothered me. It’s the sequence in which the car is impounded and essentially dismantled in the search for drugs. First of all, they checked everywhere but the rocker panels? That’s one of the first places one would look. Then, given the way it was torn apart, there’s no way the police could have returned the car to its original condition, nor does it seem credible to me that they could have just replaced it with a duplicate identical enough in condition and feel that the criminals wouldn’t have noticed.
Well, this is easy. A superb film, an excellent disc presentation given the nature of the source material, and superb supplements. Highly recommended.