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Popeye and Cloudy
by Asa Butcher
2008-02-13 09:50:24
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The French Connection
Directed by William Freidkin
20th Century Fox, 1971

The sad passing of Roy Scheider, aged 75, this month has prompted me to rewind 37 years to 1971 and his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Four years before his acclaimed role in Jaws as police chief Martin Brody - "You're gonna need a bigger boat!" - Scheider starred in The French Connection and signalled his arrival among the Hollywood elite.

I have always grouped Scheider with the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Nick Nolte and Richard Gere, actors that have an irritating trait either through their acting style, appearance or personality. Scheider always left me with the feeling he was sleazy, although his beard eventually helped me overcome that, and he was never an actor I actively sought out at the cinema or DVD store. However, that's not to say that I didn't respect his abilities considering his appearance in the aforementioned films, plus another Academy Award nomination for All That Jazz in 1980.

His nomination for The French Connection left me slightly confused when you add up the amount of screen time he received and the number of lines he delivered, although I must say he made the most of both. It was a shame that Scheider's Det. Buddy 'Cloudy' Russo didn't have more to do in the film, especially alongside Gene Hackman's Det. Jimmy 'Popeye' Doyle. The award that year rightfully went to Ben Johnson for The Last Picture Show, a thoroughly depressing film you should watch, but if Scheider had a little more time on screen I know the award would have been his.

Based on the non-fiction book by Robin Moore and fictionalized by Ernest Tidyman, who won an Oscar for Best Writing - Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, The French Connection follows Popeye and Cloudy, two New York City cops, trying to intercept a huge heroin shipment coming from France. The film is often described as 'a masterpiece of NYC hard-edged realism' and I couldn't disagree with that, although I would also throw in words like 'gritty' and 'brutal'.

From the opening sequence culminating in a man being shot in the face to a mother pushing a pram being killed by a sniper, from the brutal treatment of suspects to the bleak streets of New York City, director William "The Exorcist" Friedkin doesn't allow one ray of sunshine to breakthrough his overcast cinematography. Friedkin received his first and only Academy Award Best Director Award for his work on The French Connection, incidentally beating Stanley Kubrick for A Clockwork Orange, and - between you and me - I think it was the right decision.

A Clockwork Orange may have had ultra-violence and the strangest appearance of "Singing in the Rain", but The French Connection had Gene Hackman and, arguably, the best car chase in cinematic history. I'll begin with Hackman, who wasn't the first, second or third choice for the role of 'Popeye' Doyle, yet he went on to win his first Best Actor Award following two previous nominations for Best Supporting Actor. Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, Steve McQueen and even Charles Bronson were considered for the role, but Hackman finally won the part, probably due to his superb performance in Bonnie and Clyde a few years earlier.

I believe that Hackman's Det. Doyle set the benchmark for all New York City police films that followed, especially if you compare The French Connection with Serpico and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three produced just a few years later. Det. Doyle is a good policeman, but his methods have a lot to be desired - "Did you ever pick your feet in Poughkeepsie?" I'd explain the famous line, but it would be easier if you just watched the film. One of my favourite scenes has Hackman dressed as Santa chasing a suspect down a NYC street before launching into a rather brutal beating… it's the film's "Singing in the Rain" moment!

I don't know how many reviews of The French Connection go this far before discussing the incredible car chase sequence, but it deserves a review all to itself. Whether you think Bullitt, Ronin, Blues Brothers, The Bourne Identity or even the original The Italian Job are worthier recipients of the Best Cinematic Car Chase award, you can't fail to acknowledge the brilliance and intensity of Popeye obsessively chasing an out-of-control elevated train, on which a hitman is trying to escape.

This sequence alone must have won Editor Gerald B. Greenberg the Best Film Editing award and it is said that Friedkin and Greenberg edited the sequence to the rhythm of Santana's song "Black Magic Woman". It is said that the production team received no permission from the city for such a dangerous stunt, Friedkin ran a camera from the backseat while wrapped in a carpet for protection, some crashes were caused by errors in timing and stunt driver Bill Hickman (he plays FBI agent Mulderig in the film) actually drove the car at high speeds through uncontrolled traffic and red lights. The result is awesome.

In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this as the 93rd Greatest Movie of All Time (Goodfellas is at #92 and Pulp Fiction is at #94) and I can't disagree. The French Connection may have been the first R-rated movie (15-certificate) to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, but it also launched the careers of Gene Hackman, William Friedkin and the late Roy Scheider, so that makes it one film not to be missed.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-02-13 13:41:40
The designation of best car chase in movie history for The French Connection remains open to challenge by some movie buffs. There was indeed another movie that appeared in 1968 and which has also been so designated, namely Bullit, starring Steve McQueen and directed by Peter Yates. The main stunt driver was Bud Elkins. It too made film history with its original car chase sequence. The two cars used in the movie were two muscle cars: the 1968 Dodge Charger and the Mustang GT.

Asa2008-02-13 14:20:53
Both the car chase in Bullitt and The French Connection also have something else in common: a VW Beetle appears prominently in both.

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