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The French Connection
Five Star Collection

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Running Time: 104 minutes

Starring: Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider, Fernando Rey

Written by: Ernest Tidyman

Directed by: William Freidkin

 

Studio: Fox

Retail Price: $26.98

Features: Documentaries, Commentaries, Trailers, Photo Galleries, Deleted Scenes

Specs: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English Dolby Surround, French Dolby Mono, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Chapter Index (32 Chapters)

Released: September 25th, 2001

 

Over the course of the years, certain movies grow in stature; whether legendary or based in honesty, a status is acquired through numerous awards, infrequent television showings or rare public screenings. With Fox's Five Star Collection title, "The French Connection" certainly gets a fair public airing of its claim to greatness. In 1971, when "The French Connection" premiered, and unbelievably garnered a lion's share of Academy Awards, I was still in high school; but an avid film-goer. Personally, I ve held a grudge against "The French Connection" for far too long: since Oscar Night 1972, when what I felt the awards which should have gone to Peter Bogdonavich s magnificent, melancholic masterpiece, "The Last Picture Show," somehow went to William Friedkin's gritty crime story. Both films are highly regarded American neo-classics, both critically acclaimed at the time, but at the time, only one of them said something to me personally.

And now, the decades have flown by rather swiftly, and "The French Connection" makes its long-awaited debut on DVD; and a chance for me to reassess one of the most influential films of my lifetime comes with that debut ("The Last Picture Show," however, did make it to DVD quite sometime before). With the grudge now at rest, "The French Connection" proves, thirty years later, to be less stellar than it did in its original theatrical run. The onslaught of cops and buddies pictures of the recent past, do owe a debt of gratitude to Friedkin s vision; without this film, there would have been no Lethal Weapons to talk about. "The French Connection" created what has now become cliche - right down to its rightly-heralded, suspenseful car chase through New York City's lower depths.

The New York City setting is a morass of moral ambiguity: the characters are starkly eked out as neither hero nor villains, pitting the dynamic acting duo of Gene Hackman (1971 Best Actor Academy Award) and Roy Scheider as true-life crimebusters "Popeye" Doyle and Buddy Russo against a drug smuggling ring known as the French connection. Long before the term "good cop/bad cop" was a part of our vocabulary, Doyle and Russo lived it. Do you pick your feet in Poughkeepsie? the film s keynote phrase, which neither makes sense in or out of context, becomes a chilling question when it is phrased by Doyle in interrogation techniques. Doyle is a capable, though flawed human being: he is better at being a cop than at being a man, and will

use every resource available to nab his man. Alternating between the cops on the prowl and the criminals they pursue, "The French Connection" is an engrossing, compelling look at crime, and how it is busted. Fernando Rey, Marcel Bozzuffi are mammoth Marseille narcotics dealers, who use a youthful Tony Lo Bianco to bring their nearly 90% pure heroin onto the streets of New York. The chance factor, Doyle first spots Lo Bianco s Sal Boca at a supper club dropping money like rain, lends a verite-influenced reality to the film. It is a ruthless pursuit, culminating in one of the most oblique final shots (literally) in film history.

Freidken, as a director, rightfully uses the streets of New York City as a character in and of themselves. Of all the films in Friedken s oeuvre , from the very good - The Exorcist to the very bad - "The Guardian," "The French Connection" most assuredly shows his documentary roots. The portrait of New York City seen in The French Connection is a gritty, harsh, hard-boiled and realistic environment; these are not Toronto streets gussied up to portray NYC. This New York City environment is every bit as cold and cruel as those in 1969's "Midnight Cowboy"; and the fact that New York City itself is a featured player is one of the reasons that I've returned often to "The French Connection": like a time tunnel, "The French Connection" ultimately takes the viewer back to a pre-Disneyfied view of The Big Apple, worms and all.

Ernest Tidyman s screenplay takes its time in setting up its characters and their central conflicts, to a point which contemporary viewers (as opposed to 1971 viewers) might lose patience; but for me, the wait is well worthwhile. The characters created by Hackman, Scheider et al, are not ciphers, nor symbols; there s no short-cut to the core of these cops. That neither Hackman nor Scheider are blessed with matinee idol looks creates its own frisson, we can no longer root for the good guys if we can't tell who those good guys are by their personal appearances. There are very few films of this genre which feature such flawed characters, in Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood still had a fair amount of his matinee idol looks intact, but his character probably would not have existed without the prior film characterization of Gene Hackman as "Popeye" Doyle.

 

This is yet another fine transfer from the Fox team, perhaps too fine. There are very few shots containing grain; and when they appear, they re highly noticeable. Of course these random shots are intentional, but the remainder of the transfer seems to be too clean, as if in digitizing the source material, the grittiness has been removed. It is a pleasing picture, ananmorphically encoded, with very stable colors considering the fact that the film was processed using the problematic Color by DeLuxe, which normally has a tendency to venture into pink territory as far as fleshtones are concerned. New York City is admirably comtrasted to Marseilles through drab, brown hues for the former; bright sunlight scenes for the latter. Stylized lighting techniques come across vividly from broad strokes of reds and blues. Edge enhancement is kept to a minimum, but is still present. This very clean, blemish-free transfer is a fine example of the capabilities of the digital format.

 

Thirty years down the road, "The French Connection's" soundtrack still feels constricted in terms of music, dialogue and effects. A newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track still reveals the limitations of the original film: recorded live on the streets, dialogue has no real dynamic range. The soundstage has opened up quite a bit, giving a slight environmental quality, and surround use is weak. One moment which is certain to capture the viewer's attention comes rather early in the film when a radio broadcast, courtesy of a dive bar's radio, suddenly attacks the rear speakers. Considering the source material, this mix, relatively free of hiss and distortion, is as engaging as it can be. There is also a (what else?) French mono track, in addition to the two English tracks (a Dolby Digital 2.0 surround track in addition to the 5.1), with both English and Spanish subtitles. English Closed Captioning is also provided.

 

Fox's Five Star Collection titles can be relied upon for a wealth of Supplemental Features, and "The French Connection" contains many extras worth noting. Disc One, which contains the film, also contains two brand new Audio Commentaries. Since I had been disappointed with Friedkin's lackluster performance on The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen's commentary track, I listened to his commentary here after listening to Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider's involving track. This track is more like two commentaries, as Hackman speaks for roughly the first hour, with Scheider taking over for the rest of the track. Both actors are enthusiastic about the film and the process of putting it together, yet never come across as actorly. Friedkin redeems himself with a verbose track which covers everything one needs to know about the filmmaking process from pre-production (not wanting either Hackman or Scheider) to the reasons for the film's final enigmatic shot. Both Commentaries are outsanding; though the dead spaces in the Hackman/Scheider commentary call out for chapter encoding.

Disc Two offers up a Menu Screen which contains the sub-menus of Deleted Scenes, Documentaries, Theatrical Trailers and Still Gallery. Ooh-la-la! C'est fantasique! The Deleted Scenes run for about twenty minutes, but are available elsewhere on the disc with an onscreen introduction from William Friedkin. If it s your first time viewing these supplements, by all means, access the Deleted Scenes through the sub-menu of Documentaries; this is the feature which gives Friedkin's point-of-view on these scenes. Seven scenes in rough shape with work print sound are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen constitute this feature. Two cut scenes of Popeye trying to pick up women reminded me more of "Bad Lieutenant" than of "TheFrench Connection."

Then there are the Documentaries. Two full-length documentaries to be precise. Both worthy of inclusion on the disc. "Making the Connection: The Untold Stories" is a full-screen, made for Fox, fifty-four minute look at what it took to make the film. By no means is it fluff; all the interviews are new, and some tales are told here which are not touched upon in any of the other of the disc s features, making it a must-see. From the same documentarian who gave us the incredible "Exorcist" documentary, comes "Poughkeepsie Shuffle," a very detailed, in-depth film hosted by Mark Kermode, who also did the honors on "The Exorcist's" documentary. "Poughkeepsie Shuffle" is presented in anamorphic widescreen and runs nearly an hour. Nearly everyone associated with The French Connection from Fox Richard Zanuck to NYPD consultant Sonny Grosso is given ample screen time, and fascinating insights into filmmaking, thus making Poughkeepsie Shuffle a major asset in the bonus department.

The Still Gallery is divided up into three categories: Behind the Scenes, Unit Photography and Poster. These are self-navigating galleries, with the exception of Poster; which of course is just that - the film's initial one-sheet. There are many diverse photographs included in these galleries, with mostly black and white shots in the Behind the Scenes and color photography in the Unit Photography sections. Having gone through these manually, I must ask in all honesty: How many viewers actually do take the time to navigate through this type of feature? Speaking for myself, I would have preferred a five to ten minute self-playing gallery using the film's music as underscoring.

Trailers for both "The French Connection" and its subsequent, inconsequential sequel are presented in anamorphic widescreen, and to these eyes, it appears that Fox cleaned up both of the trailers for the DVD release.

 

Winning five Academy Awards, and registering in the collective consciousness of American film-goers, The French Connection on DVD takes a valid claim at being one of the most influential films of its generation. Fox s outstanding presentation, combined with its wealth of supplements makes this title a must-own. My appreciation for the film has grown thanks to this presentation; I can only hope that other viewers give it a chance. As stated, "The French Connection" moves at a definite pace, a pace which contemporary viewers may lose interest; this should not however deter anyone. Instead, concentrate on the values that "The French Connection" offers in comparison to other genre titles: any film which places characterization above action; has a high regard for its setting, and finally offers up a thinking man's perspective on an old formula is bound to be appreciated.