Fifty Great Films: The French Connection (1971)

french1Staying in the 1970s for the second of my Fifty Great Films, I re-watched The French Connection last night, this time on Blu-ray. Actually, I should point out the disc is the second of the film’s Blu-ray releases, an American multi-region disc that restores the original ‘look’ of the film (the first Blu-ray release, which is the only one available here in the UK far as I know, had extensive ‘director-approved’ colour-timing changes that enraged purists).

Time has been very kind to The French Connection. It’s gritty docu-drama style must have been eye-opening back in 1971 and proved to be a game-changer for cop thrillers, and today over forty years later it stands, like Taxi Driver does, as an historical record of a time and place long gone. Those cars, the music, those almost apocalyptic streets! Its a sure sign that with the new decade films were changing, and that a New Wave was about to hit Hollywood-  the film has a sense of reality far removed from that of a Hollywood thriller of the time. This would follow through to a downbeat ending that must have seemed shockingly abrupt back at a time when the good guys always ‘won’ and the bad guys always got caught.

New York was such a seedy, broken city back then, particularly in the locations chosen for this film, and there is an air of authenticity to the whole thing that is endlessly fascinating. Of course, that isn’t hurt by the fact that the film is based on true events, in which two cops stumbled upon ties between New York mobsters and French heroin traffickers, their subsequent investigation leading to one of the biggest illegal narcotics seizures ever.

You simply cannot take your eyes off Gene Hackman in this film- his presence dominates everything, and his performance rightfully won him the Oscar for Best Actor. Really, you cannot take your eyes off him. There is an extraordinary truth to him in every scene; he looks so beat-up and life-worn, a flawed,  middle-aged cop working on rough streets- I cannot imagine any Hollywood ‘star’ in such a role these days. Well, to be fair, there’s not many so-called stars in Hollywood these days with the lived-in looks of Hackman, most of them are far too pretty-looking and ‘perfect’. Hollywood these days seems more pre-occupied with fantasy and the ‘ideal’ than the gritty realities of films like this.  Co-star Roy Scheider is as capable and wonderful as he ever was, but this is Hackman’s film, no question.

Scheider of course had the success of Jaws still ahead of him- what a thought that is, what a decade the 1970s was! Indeed, when one considers that Hackman’s subsequent films that decade would include The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation and Superman: The Movie.. wow, you gotta love those 1970s. It all started with The French Connection though, and its a riveting performance that shines brightly still. Hell of a film.

5 thoughts on “Fifty Great Films: The French Connection (1971)

  1. What do you think of the ‘look’ of the first Blu-ray release?

    I have to admit, now you can get the original version as well, that I quite liked it. Not something that should ever replace the original, but a very interesting experiment.

    1. Haven’t seen it, I was frightened off by some of the reviews. But yeah, I’m curious how it looked. I quite like the colour retiming of The Good the Bad and the Ugly recent remaster.Funny thing, some of these remasters. The Final Cut of Blade Runner still looks a little odd compared to how the theatrical cut looked back in 1982. I can understand how fans can get enraged.

  2. I really must get round to The French Connection (if only there was enough time for everything I “really must get round to”!)

    On the subject of Hollywood sticking to idealised fantasies these days, I think that’s very true… when they even bother to make a movie that isn’t a special effects extravaganza. There’s a certain amount of realism to be found from the indie market, but they have a tendency to go overboard into ultra-real dullness and/or navel-gazing. I wonder if TV might be the brightest hope for true-to-life tales that retain enough genre to make them palatable, though again you’re left to hunt through the detritus of paint-by-numbers procedurals.

    1. Its the casting that annoys me most in movies. Everyone is so idealised/pretty, even in what for Hollywood counts as gritty/realistic subjects. You rarely see male characters who are overweight/balding etc. and few women who are anything other than drop-dead gorgeous with perfect skin and $500 haircuts. It annoys me because it sets up unrealistic objects to aspire to and shoves the films into dreamland territory, losing my interest. Of the two films I have seen so far in my Fifty Great Movies list, the main stars are all middle-aged and the supporting cast likewise (and balding/overweight/showing signs of age etc) too. It adds a realism to the whole thing.

      1. I read a whole article the other day on how even in series/movies where they “dirty up” the actresses (because of a post-apocalyptic setting or whatever), however far they go down the no make-up / covered in crap / etc route, they will never, ever, give them anything less than perfect hair. Which I hadn’t noticed before but is surprisingly true.

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