Thing I Read Off The Screen in The French Connection

SHOE SERVICE for flatfeet.

In a creative solution to a scheduling issue, William Friedkin appeared at Filmhouse to talk about his career the day BEFORE Edinburgh International Film Festival launched with his new movie KILLER JOE. This year the Festival has soft edges — it starts before it starts, and it goes on after it finishes, via the La Cava retrospective which runs on into July. Six films in the fest, and six after.

Plot: Fernando Rey basically smuggles into the states a Lincoln Continental made of heroin. When I’m as rich as Fernando Rey I will drive a Sherman Tank made of marzipan.

Counter-plot: a friend says she first saw the film while slightly stoned (ironically, perhaps) and it seemed to consist purely of random men following each other about. Which is what it seemed like to me when I saw it as a kid. Theory: being a kid = being stoned all the time.

Sub-plot: today the film seems incredibly tight, linear and pretty logical, apart from the car chase. This has been cleverly stapled into the surrounding narrative (which is fact-based, unlike the El-train pursuit) but you can still see the staples.

THE FRENCH CONNECTION is a shot-on-the-streets kind of thing, which means that reality is constantly commenting on the action. My eye goes to signs and seeks meaning. Rather than a director’s commentary, the film features a running commentary by Brooklyn itself.

IMAGINATIVE FRAMING reads one sign, moments before Friedkin shoots Fernando Ray reflected in two mirrors. Also, DO NOT PARK, one of countless state injunctions, the ten thousand commandments of urban living, which poke their heads into the film like pop-up ads.

The Siamese Connection! (can you read the sign, lower right?) I dunno what DORAL, or is it BORAL PARKING is all about.

Friedkin talked about how all actors are different and require different approaches — some may need “the utmost gentleness,” some require ferocity. Somehow, all of his stories seem to involve the ferocious approach. Gene Hackman had trouble finding his character’s aggression, so Friedkin provoked him into a state of fury for the entire shoot. I felt sorry for the actor playing the hood that Popeye Doyle slaps around — fifty takes, because Friedkin wasn’t satisfied by his star’s level of viciousness.

Given that Friedkin slapped a Catholic priest when making THE EXORCIST, and a death row inmate while making THE PEOPLE VS PAUL CRUMP, I have to fight the suspicion that Friedkin became a filmmaker in order to slap people.


Fiona asked if W.F. was influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s techniques of working with actors. He said he wasn’t, but he immediately knew what she meant. “I’ve heard he was tough on actors, but I don’t have any evidence of that.” We do!


Friedkin is a practiced, glib and funny talker, so the session flew past. At 76 he’s still full of beans, and probably piss and vinegar too, but he was charm itself in Edinburgh. He talked about the recalled Blu-ray of FRENCH CONNECTION and how something went wrong in the one part of the process he didn’t check… hard to believe that a control freak like Friedkin could make such a slip. Some suspect that he radically revised the look of the film, then changed his mind when the response was bad. Certainly he should have involved cinematographer Owen Roizman in the process. But the movie looked great on the big screen, now that the extreme revision of the original look has been adjusted to give a more authentic 1970s appearance.


The climax of the film takes place in a blasted landscape where no text survives… Friedkin was vociferous in his denunciation of modern comic book and video game inspired movies, but the pealing paint and crumbling masonry of THE FRENCH CONNECTION’s last sequence feel like something video games are now trying to achieve — that pervasive sense of decay. They haven’t quite gotten there yet.

The final onscreen writing in the film is the summary of what happened to the characters afterwards. The cops are punished and the guilty get off. The film may be inspired by a true story, but it hasn’t explicitly said so yet, so this is a left-field move in a film full of narrative surprises. Friedkin’s best dramas move like documentaries and his documentaries move like dramas (although there’s another strand to his work which is unashamedly theatrical, from THE BIRTHDAY PARTY to KILLER JOE). This end note, which affects a purely factual, neutral tone, actually tips the film’s hand somewhat. While casually showing the cops’ racism and obnoxious qualities, the movie has successfully balanced between a cool, telling-it-like-it-is distance and a more involved, propulsive story where we root for the goodies against the baddies. No political view on the “war on drugs” is offered. But the ending takes us into conservative values, and the DIRTY HARRY sense of alarm that criminals sometimes have lawyers who sometimes get them off. But, since this is a Hollywood movie, we’re still free to look at it another way — all this effort to arrest traffickers and seize drug hauls is a futile waste. Friedkin’s misanthropic nihilism is happy to be taken either way.


20 Responses to “Thing I Read Off The Screen in The French Connection”

  1. It also fits with the general gloominess of 70s Hollywood, unhappy endings were as popular then as they were in Czarist Russia(where films from America would be re-edited with grittier endings for the home audience). It was the only time where something like CHINATOWN could be achieved and still be a success and critically acclaimed and respected. Though the futility there is more pronounced then here, since that’s a defeat on every conceivable scale.

  2. Frankly, I’ve never seen the point of THE FRENCH CONNECTION. It’s an OK cops-and-robbers movie with a loud and exciting chase scene…but Best Picture of the year? Please!

    It also stars Gene Hackman, who’s probably my least favourite actor ever. Guess I’m just not the film’s target audience.

  3. Chinatown has that personal angle that makes the tragedy powerful. I don’t think I could be that horrified by anything happening to anybody in The French Connection. The characters I had most sympathy for were the neighbourhood shopkeeping couple trying to make a score.

    American Graffiti annoyed me with the titles at the end, which seemed to be pushing for an emotional depth and a darkness that the film didn’t merit. Lucas wanted to be part of his peer group.

  4. There’s a rumour that Lucas told Scorsese that ‘New York New York’ ought to have a happy ending where the two of them get together at the end. That film opened in the same week as Star Wars and it sank at the box-office.

    Altman’s films in the same period were also very pessimistic, the closest to a happy ending is The Long Goodbye, which is otherwise fairly bleak in how it regards friendship, love and community. Compared to the total emptiness with which McCabe & Mrs. Miller ends and the grim inertia at the end of Nashville or even California Split.

  5. Happy Endings are overrated. Bogart doesn’t get Bergman in Casablanca, Clark Gable dumps Vivian Leigh in Gone with the Wind, Leo drowns in Titanic.

  6. If you want to challenge the audience, as in the best New Hollywood stuff of the 70s, a happy ending would be a very awkward tool for the job.

  7. I thought Leo drowning WAS a happy ending! If only the dreaded Kate had gone down with him!!

  8. I’m pretty sure The French Connection would have seemed like the last word in realism for a cop movie back when it came out. And it still does, APART from the car chase.

    I can understand anybody not warming to Hackman as a physical presence, or to some of his characters (maybe most of them), but I can’t understand anybody not liking his acting. Apart from anything else, there’s Young Frankenstein!

  9. For me Hackman is Harry Caul and Royal Tenenbaum. He’s amazing.

  10. Plus Lilith plus Bonnie and Clyde plus Night Moves… I know he made other stuff after The Royal Tennenbaums but I insist on regarding that as his swan song.

  11. I remember reading an MTV interivew with Jack Nicholson, where he said that whilst making Chinatown, he sided with Towne over Polanski. He wanted the film have a neat happy ending. His argument was that the 70s were the “No happy endings” period, so it would be more daring and unusual to have the villain punished and the heroes triumphant. He’s changed his mind since.

    My favourite William Friedkin story- is the one Harlan Ellison tells on about his 70s attempt to make a movie of The Spirit. This was just after Sorcerer came out and Ellison loved it

    “…. Billy and I got into this furious argument where he said it was a piece of shit and it didn’t make any money. And I said, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? It’s a great film. It’s the best film you ever made.’ And we go so loud we emptied the restaurant – emptied the fucking restaurant – and I left Paris the next day and never went back. Billy lost interest in doing the Spirit, and it languished forever.”

    I love the idea of Ellison and Friedkin working together-even thought it could never happen. Also one could easily play the other in a movie of their lives

  12. They would have given each other SO many heart attacks.

    Polanski said that if you want to send the audience out feeling that they need to change the world, you need an unhappy ending, because a happy ending reassures us that everything’s OK. I think Towne would say that choice should be determined by the story you’re telling, which I’d agree with, but in this specific case Polanski’s right.

  13. Polanski had Faye Dunaway made up to look like his mother — who was snatched from the Kracow ghetto by the Nazis and taken to the extermination camp and killed on arrival, when he was 6 years old.

  14. Chinatown always struck me as a correction of some of the film noir misogyny, here the outstanding heroic figure is Evelyn Mulwray even if she’s defeated, she’s no femme fatale at all, whereas its the detective character who ends up, unwillingly, betraying her. In fact, men in Polanski’s films, tend to betray women, whether Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby, pimping his wife to the devil and his beautiful Tess, where Angel Clare does the same. Actually its more true of these three films than others. A film like Death and the Maiden is interesting for blurring the lines between victim and victimizer that comes out even more in The Ghost Writer.

  15. kevin mummery Says:

    I would love to have seen Hackman reprise his Popeye Doyle character in The Royal Tenenbaums…the Tenenbaum kids would surely have turned out in surprising ways, and Pagoda would probably have suffered major bodily harm when he tried to stab Royal.

  16. There are very few Gwyneth Paltrow films that Popeye Doyle couldn’t enhance. I think Sylvia would have been improved beyond recognition.

    Ironic that Polanski had such a lousy working relationship with Dunaway (neither one of them being exactly easy-going).

    Robert McKee doesn’t consider Chinatown to be noir at all because it doesn’t have a femme fatale, which strikes me as silly and reductive. But we could say that the story is actually classic tragedy while the story world is noir.

  17. I can think of quite a few noir films without femme fatales. I read an old interview yesterday where Polanski noted that he regretted not angling the film closer to Faye Dunaway’s character, the story of incest was more interesting to him than the corruption of the land acquisition. So classical tragedy is definitely what he was aiming for. And the ending was entirely his by the way, Towne walked out before production started and Polanski(with help from Nicholson) finished writing the scene just before shooting it.

  18. I *love* the shakiness of those last shots, it’s as if the film itself is in shock. In away, the sparseness of the final scene, which must stem from not having the writer on board, adds to its power.

    Towne said one of the hardest things to figure out was the balance between the personal and the political crimes, and which should be revealed first — there was no obvious way it needed to be. And in fact they’re so well interwoven in the end it can be hard to remember which comes first.

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