Gene Hackman solves The French Connection
The French Connection is rightfully known as an Oscar-winning thriller, a movie where Gene Hackman stomps a new mudhole in some prissy French guys who try to sell drugs in his city. This movie begins with a slow progression toward thriller gold, but at one point, I was wondering if it was ever going to get there. At the 1972 Oscars, this movie won truckloads of awards, including Best Picture, beating out Fiddler on the Roof and Clockwork Orange. I watched it to see if it is as good as everyone says it is, and I can say positively that it is.
If nothing else, The French Connection knows how to build to a climax. It knows how to put the thrills in the thriller. Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider are detectives staking out some suspicious guys in New York City. Then they get permission from their boss to trail them. Pretty soon, they’re both running around, getting into a high-speed car chase, and shooting it out with thugs. The build is right out of a textbook. I think the music composed by Don Ellis is key in driving the action, which is a combination of screeching, thumping instruments in an orchestral score.
The cinematography in this movie is amazing. It is primarily set in New York City, but there’s so much color and life to the visuals that it was stunning to watch and follow, even though it didn’t travel anywhere. The camera captures emphasizes local signs and buildings, each of which are littered with unique markings. The camera never zooms too far out, and it stays close with the characters as they walk around the city. The whole thing felt grounded, as if we were on street level with the cops, surveying the city, just watching and waiting for those bad guys.
Gene Hackman does a great job, although is close to being a stereotype. He is hot-headed, cold-blooded, and strung out from overwork. There is no monologuing in this movie, so we don’t get to know each character intimately, but what you learn, you can pick up from their actions. That’s why the dialogue in this movie doesn’t mean much, although sounds dynamic. It’s more about what Gene Hackman is doing, or how he is doing it. The scene that illustrates this the best is when he is trailing the Frenchman, Charnier, down into the subway. He gets on the subway, but the Frenchman gets off. He gets off to follow, but the Frenchman gets back on. They play cat and mouse for a while until the Frenchman outwits him, and gets away. It is well-done.
Although the subway chase is probably the most clever scene, the most famous scene is the car chase. An assassin tries to shoot Gene Hackman, but misses and runs onto an elevated train to get away. Hackman forcibly commandeers a Lincoln off some poor schmoe and gives chase like a badass, unable or unwilling to let this creep get away. Hackman’s character Doyle must really have an ego the size of the planet Jupiter because he can’t let anything go. He swerves around traffic and chases the train to the ends of the Earth, until it crashes. He ends up shooting the assassin dead.
Dirty Harry (1971) was released the same year as The French Connection, and was perceived as much more brutal, although it has about the same amount of violence. To me, this is strange. I think the difference between the two police movies is the pace. The French Connection starts as slow as Dirty Harry, but takes off and never stops, never lingering too long on violence or on Gene Hackman’s scowl. On the other hand, there is arguably more development and thematic emphasis in Dirty Harry, as it confronts rights and justice. The French Connection also has that amazing cinematography going for it. I wouldn’t say I like one over the other, although Dirty Harry is probably more iconic.
A trailer can each break down a movie very differently, although The French Connection trailer emphasizes action. Gene Hackman points a gun, shoots a gun, and runs after a crook all in the course of two minutes. While all that is happening, the narrator practically gives away more exposition than in the movie itself.
I can see why people were upset with Dirty Harry. The trailer emphasizes everything controversial about the movie and the character, as he shoots criminals dead. It also reveals his backstory, and his contempt for criminals thanks to the death of his wife. It has less action and a strange pace.
All in all, The French Connection is a great movie. It has the pace to keep you riveted and lets you follow the police detectives so closely, you almost feel like you’re right there with them on stake out, as they watch closely for any sign, any clue, of those evil French guys. I guess that’s why it’s a thriller.