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Great Movies Roundtable: The French Connection

#93 on AFI’s 100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is the 1971 cop flick “The French Connection.”

There’s not much story to outline in”The French Connection.”  Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is a cop with a reputation for bending the rules.  He sniffs out a drug deal about to go down, and relentlessly pursues flimsy leads until he ends up in a shootout with the French smuggler.

General thoughts: 

CRH: The thing that I noticed about the French Connection is that it definitely has a focus on style opposed to story. The plot almost seems to have a Unsolved Mysteries kind of vibe. It feels like the story was written as if we’re watching a reenactment. Apparently this is the story of a fantastic heroin bust. The movie is the kind of fictionalization of these events which makes it a little weirder. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider play Detectives Popeye Doyle and cloudy Russo respectively. The film covers their investigation and their ultimate success.

WK: It’s odd to me that, the month after reviewing a film by Quentin Tarantino, who is famous for valuing style over substance, we get this movie, which is all style and no substance.  When it comes to story and character, “Pulp Fiction” has ten times as much as “The French Connection.”

The “French Connection” feels like a two-hour-long chase scene.  It’s not exactly, but it so ruthlessly does away with any investment in story, characters, even stakes that all that is left is an atmosphere  (a very dirty, depressing, rundown New York) and pace. And the pace is relentless.

What Works? 

CRH: The action scenes are by far the things that give this movie staying power. The car chase was fantastic. It was quite exciting and I see why it is so influential and still referred to by other filmmakers. The film elements can be quite exciting.

The film shows in a New York that no longer exists anymore. The the city was old, decaying and filled with crime. Even if people stop watching it for entertainment I think it’ll still be a valuable historical document to show some of the racial, social, and political dynamics of the city in that era.

WK: Yeah, but if I want a document of New York in the early ’70s, surely there’s a documentary out there that covers the subject with greater depth and a commitment to honesty you’re not going to find in a cop flick.   I agree that its mise en scene is a strength of this film, though.  Basically, I agree with what you said: the action scenes and mise en scene are what make this good, if not great.

What Doesn’t Work? 

CRH: The biggest problem with the film is the lack of characterization. We just start right into the middle of the action and it takes a little bit to catch on to what is going on. The film has a strange, eerie vibe to it, almost as if you know what we’re watching is futile and ultimately makes the film nihilistic. Which fits with the mood of the 1970s.

WK: One of the things that I expect from classic films is that they continue to be rewarding and enjoyable, watch after watch.  That’s where “The French Connection” really falls short, in my book. I think that its pace really makes it fun the first time through, but at the end, what do you have?  On subsequent watches, it gets more troublesome.  I don’t know who Popeye is, or why I should root for him. Assuming he’s the good guy just because he’s a cop seems awfully naive, especially now, in our times. He does a number of really despicable things throughout the movie, including shooting an FBI agent – are those not supposed to matter?  I don’t have any sense of what’s at stake. Why does it matter that he stop this particular heroin smuggler?  Is he particularly bad, or important? Won’t he just be replaced by others?  And when it ends so suddenly, and completely unresolved, these questions feel highlighted.  What did I just watch?  In the end, “The French Connection” feels like the predecessor of so many big, empty action flicks that, like popcorn, are all flavor and no substance.

Buying or selling?

CRH: I’m definitely selling. I’m surprised it survived the second AFI list. It remains as a historical document and an interesting movie but I feel that its staying power is limited. It’s not a thriller; rather a proto-action movie

WK: Dang, we don’t have much to say about this movie.  We agree on almost every point. I feel like this is a movie that doesn’t come anywhere near to living up to its reputation. Maybe it’s important because there was nothing else like it at the time, but 45 years later, any number of movies have taken its innovations and improved on them.  It doesn’t hold up anymore. I hope it doesn’t make the next version of the list.

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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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