The French Connection (1971) | Review by Pauline Kael

An ex­traordinarily well-made new thriller gets the audience sky-high and keeps it up there—The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, which is one of the most “New York” of all the recent New York movies.

Urban Gothic

by Pauline Kael

When New York’s Mayor Lindsay began his efforts to attract the movie-production business, it probably didn’t occur to him or his associates that they were ushering in a new movie age of nightmare realism. The Los Angeles area was selected originally for the sunshine and so that the movie-business hustlers—patent-violators who were pirating inventions as well as anything else they could get hold of—could slip over the border fast. As it turned out, however, California had such varied vegetation that it could be used to stand in for most of the world, and there was space to build whatever couldn’t be found. But New York City is always New York City; it can’t be anything else, and, with practically no studios for fakery, the movie companies use what’s really here, so the New York-made movies have been set in Horror City. Although recent conflicts between the producers and the New York unions seem to have ended this Urban Gothic period,* the New York-made movies have provided a permanent record of the city in breakdown. I doubt if at any other time in American movie history there has been such a close relationship between the life on the screen and the life of a portion of the audience. Los Angeles-made movies were not about Los Angeles; often they were not about any recognizable world. But these recent movies are about New York, and the old sentimentalities are almost impossible here—physically impossible, because the city gives them the lie. (I’m thinking of such movies as Klute, Little Murders, The Anderson Tapes, Greetings, The Landlord, Where’s Poppa?, Midnight Cowboy, Harry Kellerman, Diary of a Mad Housewife, No Way to Treat a Lady, Shaft, Cotton Comes to Harlem, The Steagle, Cry Uncle, The Owl and the Pussycat, The Panic in Needle Park, Bananas, and the forthcoming Born to Win.) The city of New York has helped American movies grow up; it has also given movies a new spirit of nervous, anxious hopelessness, which is the true spirit of New York. It is literally true that when you live in New York you no longer believe that the garbage will ever be gone from the streets or that life will ever be sane and orderly.

The movies have captured the soul of this city in a way that goes beyond simple notions of realism. The panhandler in the movie who jostles the hero looks just like the one who jostles you as you leave the movie theatre; the police sirens in the movie are screaming outside; the hookers and junkies in the freak show on the screen are indistinguishable from the ones in the freak show on the streets. Famous New York put-on artists and well-known street people are incorporated in the movies; sometimes they are in the movie the­atre, dressed as they are in the movie, and sometimes you leave the theatre and see them a few blocks away, just where they were photographed. There’s a sense of carnival about this urban-crisis city; everyone seems to be dressed for a mad ball. Screams in the theatre at Halloween movies used to be a joke, signals for laughter and applause, because nobody believed in the terror on the screen. The midnight showings of horror films now go on all year round, and the screams are no longer pranks. Horror stories and brutal melodramas concocted for profit are apparently felt on a deeper level than might have been supposed. People don’t laugh or applaud when there’s a scream; they try to ignore the sound. It is assumed that the person yelling is stoned and out of control, or crazy and not to be trifled with—he may want an excuse to blow off steam, he may have a knife or a gun. It is not uncommon now for fights and semi-psychotic episodes to take place in the theatres, especially when the movies being played are shockers. Audiences for these movies in the Times Square area and in the Village are highly volatile. Probably the unstable, often dazed members of the audience are particularly susceptible to the violence and tension on the screen; maybe crowds now include a certain number of people who simply can’t stay calm for two hours. But whether the movies bring it out in the audience or whether the particular audiences that are attracted bring it into the theatre, it’s there in the theatre, particularly at late shows, and you feel that the violence on the screen may at any moment touch off violence in the theatre. The audience is explosively live. It’s like being at a prizefight or a miniature Altamont.

Horror is very popular in Horror City—old horror films and new ones. The critics were turned off by the madness of The Devils; the audiences were turned on by it. They wanted the benefits of the sexual pathology of religious hysteria: bloody tortures, burning flesh, nuns violated on altars, lewd nuns stripping and orgying, and so on. Almost all the major movie companies are now, like the smaller ones, marginal businesses. The losses of the American film industry since 1968 are calculated at about five hundred and twenty-five million dollars. Besides Disney, the only company that shows profits is A.I.P.—the producers of ghouls-on-wheels schlock pictures, who are now also turning out movies based on Gothic “classics.” I don’t believe that people are going to shock and horror films because of a need to exorcise their fears; that’s probably a fable. I think they’re going for entertainment, and I don’t see how one can ignore the fact that the kind of entertainment that attracts them now is often irrational and horrifyingly brutal. A few years ago, The Dirty Dozen turned the audience on so high that there was yelling in the theatre and kicking at the seats. And now an extraordinarily well-made new thriller gets the audience sky-high and keeps it up there—The French Connection, directed by William Friedkin, which is one of the most “New York” of all the recent New York movies. It’s also probably the best-made example of what trade reporters sometimes refer to as “the cinema du zap.”

How’s this for openers? A peaceful day in Marseille. A flic strolls into a boulangerie, comes out carrying a long French bread, and strolls home. As he walks into his own entranceway, a waiting figure in a leather coat sticks out an arm with a .45 and shoots him in the face and then in the torso. The assassin picks up the bread, breaks off a piece to munch, and tosses the remainder back onto the corpse. That’s the first minute of The French Connection. The film then jumps to New York and proceeds through chases, pistol-whippings, slashings, beatings, murders, snipings, and more chases for close to two hours. The script, by Ernest Tidyman (who wrote Shaft), is based on the factual account by Robin Moore (of The Green Berets) of the largest narcotics haul in New York police history until the recent Jaguar case. The producer, Philip D’Antoni, also produced Bullitt, and the executive producer was G. David Schine, of Cohn and Schine. That’s not a creative team, it’s a consortium. The movie itself is pretty businesslike. There are no good guys in this harsh new variant of cops-and-robbers; The French Connection features the latest-model sadistic cop, Popeye (Gene Hackman). It’s undeniably gripping, slam-bang, fast, charged with suspense, and so on—a mixture of Razzia and Z, and hyped up additionally with a television-thriller-style score that practically lays you out all by itself. At one point, just in case we might lose interest if we didn’t have our minute-to-minute injections of excitement, the camera cuts from the street conversation of a few cops to show us the automobile smashup that brought them to the scene, and we are treated to two views of the bloody faces of fresh corpses. At first, we’re confused as to who the victims are, and we stare at them thinking they must be characters in the movie. It takes a few seconds to realize that they bear no relation whatsoever to the plot.

It’s no wonder that The French Connection is a hit, but what in hell is it? It uses eighty-six separate locations in New York City—so many that it has no time for carnival atmosphere: it crashes light through. I suppose the answer we’re meant to give is that it’s an image of the modern big city as Inferno, and that Popeye is an Existential hero, but the movie keeps zapping us. Though The French Connection achieves one effect through timing and humor (when the French Mr. Big, played by Fernando Rey, outwits Popeye in the subway station by using his silver-handled umbrella to open the train doors) most of its effects are of the Psycho-derived blast-in-the-face variety. Even the expert pacing is achieved by somewhat questionable means; the ominous music keeps tightening the screws and heating things up. The noise of New York already has us tense. The movie is like an aggravated case of New York: it raises this noise level to produce the kind of painful tension that is usually described as almost unbearable suspense. But it s the same kind of suspense you feel when someone outside your window keeps pushing down on the car horn and you think the blaring sound is going to drive you out of your skull. This horn routine is, in fact, what the cop does throughout the longest chase sequence. The movie’s suspense is magnified by the sheer pounding abrasiveness of its means; you don’t have to be an artist or be original or ingenious to work on the raw nerves of an audience this way—you just have to be smart and brutal. The high-pressure methods that one could possibly accept in Z because they were tools used to try to show the audience how a Fascist conspiracy works are used as ends in themselves. Despite the dubious methods, the purpose of the brutality in Z was moral—it was to make you hate brutality. Here you love it, you wait for it—that’s all there is. I know that there are many people—and very intelligent people, too—who love this kind of fast-action movie, who say that this is what movies do best and that this is what they really want when they go to a movie. Probably many of them would agree with everything I’ve said but will still love the movie. Well, it’s not what I want, and the fact that Friedkin has done a sensational job of direction just makes that clearer. It’s not what I want not because it fails (it doesn’t fail) but because of what it is. It is, I think, what we once feared mass entertainment might become: jolts for jocks. There’s nothing in the movie that you enjoy thinking over afterward—nothing especially clever except the timing of the subway-door-and-umbrella sequence. Every other effect in the movie—even the climactic car-versus-runaway-elevated-train chase—is achieved by noise, speed, and brutality.

On its own terms, the picture makes few mistakes, though there is one small but conspicuous one. A good comic contrast of drug dealers dining at their ease in a splendid restaurant while the freezing, hungry cops who are tailing them curse in a cold doorway and finally eat a hunk of pizza is spoiled because, for the sake of a composition with the two groups in the same shot, the police have been put where the diners could obviously see them. It is also a mistake, I think, that at the end the picture just stops instead of coming to a full period. The sloppy plotting, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to matter; it’s amazing how much implausibility speed and brutality can conceal. Hitch­cock’s thrillers were full of holes, but you were having too good a time to worry about them; The French Connection is full of holes, but mostly you’re too stunned to notice them. There’s no logic in having the Lincoln Continental that has been shipped from France with the heroin inside abandoned on a back street at night rather than parked snugly in the garage of its owner’s hotel; it appears to be on the street just so the narcotics agents can spot it and grab it. There’s an elaborate sequence of an auction at an automobile graveyard which serves no clear purpose. And if you ever think about it you’ll realize that you have no idea who that poor devil was who got shot in the overture, or why. For all the movie tells you, it may have been for his French bread. But you really know what it’s all in there for. It’s the same reason you get those juicy pictures of the corpses: zaps.

Listen to Popeye’s lines and you can learn the secrets of zap realism. A crude writer can give his crummy, cheap jokes to a crude character, and the jokes really pay off. The rotten jokes get laughs and also show how ugly the character’s idea of humor is. Popeye risks his life repeatedly and performs fabulously dangerous actions, yet the movie debases him in every possible way. Hackman has turned himself into a modern Ted Healy type—porkpie hat, sneaky-piggy eyes, and a gut-first walk, like Robert Morley preceded by his belly coming toward us in those BOAC “Visit Britain” commercials. Popeye (the name is out of Faulkner, I assume) has a filthy mouth and a complete catalogue of race prejudices, plus some “cute” fetishes; e.g., he cases girls who wear boots. He is the anti-hero carried to a new lumpenprole low—the mean cop who used to figure on the fringes of melodrama (as in Sweet Swell of Success) moved to the center. Sam Spade might play dirty, but he had a code and he had personal style; even Bullitt, a character contrived to hold the chases and bloodshed together, was a super-cop with style and feelings. This movie turns old clichés into new clichés by depriving the central figure of any attractive qualities. Popeye is insanely callous, a shrewd bully who enjoys terrorizing black junkies, and the film includes raids on bars that are gratuitous to the story line just to show what a subhuman son of a bitch he is. The information is planted early that his methods have already cost the life of a police officer, and at the end this plant has its pat payoff when he accidentally shoots an F.B.I. agent, and the movie makes the point that he doesn’t show the slightest remorse. The movie presents him as the most ruthlessly lawless of characters and yet—here is where the basic amorality comes through—shows that this is the kind of man it takes to get the job done. It’s the vicious bastard who gets the results. Popeye, the lowlifer who makes Joe or Archie sound like Daniel Ellsberg, is a cop the way the movie Patton was a general. When Popeye walks into a bar and harasses blacks, part of the audience can say, “That’s a real pig,” and another part of the audience can say, “That’s the only way to deal with those people. Waltz around with them and you get nowhere.”

I imagine that the people who put this movie together just naturally think in this commercially convenient double way. This right-wing, left-wing, take-your-choice cynicism is total commercial opportunism passing itself off as an Existential view. And maybe that’s why Popeye’s determination to find the heroin is not treated unequivocally as socially useful but is made obsessive. Popeye’s low character is used to make the cops-and-robbers melodrama superficially modern by making it meaningless; his brutality serves to demonstrate that the cops are no better than the crooks. In personal style and behavior, he is, in fact, deliberately shown as worse than the crooks, yet since he’s the cop with the hunches that pay off, the only cop who gets results, the movie can be seen as a way of justifying police brutality. At the end, a Z-style series of titles comes on to inform us that the dealers who were caught got light sentences or none at all. The purpose of giving us this information is also probably double: to tell us to get tougher judges and to make tougher laws, and to provide an ironic coda showing that Popeye’s efforts were really futile. A huge haul of heroin was destroyed, but the movie doesn’t bother to show us that—to give a man points for anything is unfashionable. The series of titles is window-dressing anyway. The only thing that this movie believes in is giving the audience jolts, and you can feel the raw, primitive response in the theatre. This picture says Popeye is a brutal son of a bitch who gets the dirty job done. So is the picture.

The New Yorker, October 30, 1971

*After two and a half months, the live major companies signed an agreement with the unions and production in New York was resumed.


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