100 Movie Challenge: #93 The French Connection

C

The French Connection 1971
The French Connection 1971

Woof. Our walk through film history hit a significant bump with William Friedkin’s 1971 thriller, The French ConnectionI was so indifferent about our #93 film that the article is coming a day late. (Actually, I’ve been traveling; but the sentiment is still the same). To be brutally honest, I fell asleep during my first attempt at watching it and had to restart.

The crime-thriller stars Gene Hackman as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, a New York City detective assigned to interrupt a multi-million dollar heroin movement. The case unfolds through a series of investigations, shootouts, and some “riveting” undercover stakeouts. The film is based on the non-fiction book of the same name, that tells the story of real life narcotics officers Sonny Grosso and Eddie Egan. The two NYC cops famously busted a record-setting 112 pounds of heroin in 1961. The subsequent book, and especially the 1971 film, have since been heralded as masterpieces of crime-thriller storytelling. The French Connection enjoyed acclaim from its contemporaries (winning 5 of 8 Oscar nominations) as well as today (being deemed “culturally or aesthetically significant by the Library of Congress and cracking our list at #93).

But to me, it just doesn’t stand up. The hell-bent, loose-cannon, case-obsessed cop story is one that no longer phases audiences. The same conventions have been used and re-used since Cagney and G-MenSo while Doyle’s obsessively driven character is well developed, it fails to jump off the screen as highly original (and I feel as though the case would have been the same in ’71). The plot is difficult to follow, the pacing is a little bi-polar, and the film is mostly lacking when it comes to the great bits of dialogue we’ve come to expect from films on this list (although, admittedly, some of the lines in the office are superb).

 

Gene Hackman in his Oscar-Winning role as Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle
Gene Hackman in his Oscar-Winning role as Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle

 

I felt like I was missing something. Even other films that have received a low score, like The Last Picture Showdemonstrated certain feats that brought credibility to its critical acclaim. For me, those elements were almost no where to be found. There are, however, two saving graces:

  1. The Car Chase – Anyone who talks about The French Connection will talk about the ground-breaking car chase that occupies about 15 minutes near the end of the film. Turner Classic Movies lists the chase as one of the primary reasons for the film’s ability to withstand the test of time, describing it as “breathtakingly innovative.” It’s true. The rest of the film aside, I was on the edge of my seat for the chase. I know it seems strange for an action sequence to be so good that it draws this kind of attention and acclaim, but you have to see it to understand.
  2. “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” by The Three Degrees – I watched an early scene in which Doyle goes to a nightclub over and over, not because I needed to retrace the dialogue or because I was enthralled by the drama, but because the scene includes a great tune by the Supreme-like Three Degrees. The upbeat motown song immediately made it onto one of my spotify playlists and I’ve been listening to it on repeat. A pleasant surprise hidden within this movie, though for some reason, “Everybody Gets to Go to the Moon” was not nominated for Best Song.

However, neither the epic car chase nor The Three Degrees’ nightclub jam could save The French Connection for me, which is why it earned a lowly C. However, any film that has a protagonist this focused on maintaining justice (despite how selfish his motivations may be) ranks high on the Liberty Scale, with The French Connection coming in at 7.5 out of 10. All in all, if you’re looking for a crime thriller about a major narcotics move, ditch on The French Connection and watch The Usual Suspects instead. You get all the action plus more compelling characters and some fantastic dialogue.

Back-to-back-to-back crime thrillers? Yes indeed. Next week its the notable gangster flick Goodfellas.

Who among you thinks I’m tragically misinformed when it comes to The French Connection? Or does everyone share my apathy? Let us know!

To see the rest of the list click here.

Richard Mattox

Richard Mattox is the head editor of Smash Cut Culture and a 2013 alumnus of the Taliesin Nexus Filmmakers Workshop and Internship program. Currently pursuing a Masters in Professional Writing (screenwriting emphasis) from USC, Mattox is an avid film-junkie, a singer-songwriter, and a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan.

  • Matt Edwards

    Ouch. This is one of my top 10 favorite films. As a filmmaker, I appreciate so much about this film. The minimal dialogue that accentuates the tension and allows the viewer to get as equally frustrated with Popeye all along the way. I can’t express how satisfying it feels when after tearing apart the drop car for hours, they finally find the goods. Director Friedkin wanted the film to be shot like a documentary, so he told his DP to find the action during certain scenes. What a task, but one that worked so perfectly. Gene Hackman is outstanding and the rest of cast really breathes life into this uncompromising film. I admit the plot requires a lot of attention, but it is really solid. Boy, you better be ready for Chinatown.

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