William Friedkin’s The French Connection, about ruthless cops chasing ruthless drug smugglers, is a sensationally effective and vastly overrated movie, and I doubt I’ll ever want or need to see it again.
Even on first viewing—as a movie-crazed teenager in 1986, courtesy of VHS—its slot in the pantheon of great ’70s movies struck me as unearned. I dug its unglamorous violence, grubby locations, energetic camerawork and superb lead performances (by Gene Hackman as volatile NYPD detective Popeye Doyle, Roy Scheider as his level-headed partner, Frederic de Pasquale as the chief smuggler and Tony Lo Bianco as his Brooklyn contact). But the film—now playing in a new 35mm print August 31-Sept. 6 at Film Forum—struck me as very calculating, not in a Hitchcock/Spielberg way (i.e., perfectionist, hermetic, mechanical) but in the manner of a street hood who stages a distraction so his partner can snatch a purse. The average Adam Sandler comedy has more integrity than Friedkin’s Oscar winner, which lovingly protracted scenes of police brutality for left-wingers, pre-Miranda-ruling nostalgia and tangible law enforcement results for right-wingers, and an ending that makes hash of both positions—not to complicate viewers’ reactions, but to provide rhetorical cover to the filmmakers no matter who gripes. How could such a pandering film be described as uncompromising?
Adapted by Ernest Tidyman (Shaft) from Robin Moore’s book about New York cops seizing $32 million in heroin from a French smuggling ring, The French Connection was widely hailed as an aesthetically fresh, socially relevant new entry in the cops-and-robbers genre. It was lumped together with two other 1971 touchstones, Dirty Harry and Straw Dogs, as an example of the new fascist populism—a subgenre that combined studio production values and exploitation tactics. Friedkin’s film is the least of the three because it’s got almost nothing on its mind but rattling the audience. It’s a roller coaster ride posing as something more substantial—or, God forbid, Important—but doesn’t have the stones to be that thing. The Siegel and Peckinpah films remain morally, politically and aesthetically problematic, but they aim higher than The French Connection; they’re explorations of the attraction-repulsion principle, at once seductive and self-examining. There’s a context for the movies’ viciousness; they are fully thought-out and fully felt. To quote The Big Lebowski’s Walter Sobchak, “I mean, say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” That’s more than can be said for The French Connection, the movie equivalent of a bad cop who exits an interview room with blood on his shirt, crowing about his keen interrogation skills.
Straw Dogs—starring Dustin Hoffman as a mathematician named David who moves to his wife’s Cornish hometown only to be harassed by local goons, one of whom is his wife’s former lover—is about man’s quest to identify himself as masculine through the self-actualizing power of violence. It’s half full of shit; Peckinpah was incapable of mounting a sustained critique of machismo because he couldn’t resist kissing its feet. But its self-aware aspects complicate and justify the rest. Peckinpah reveals the primitive fantasies buried within supposedly civilized people—the intellectual man’s deep-down fear that he’s not really a man until he’s spilled blood to defend women and property (practically the same thing in Peckinpah’s universe). Peckinpah’s honesty comes through in the way he implicates himself in David’s bloodlust. The movie doesn’t say, “Here’s the dirty truth about you people,” but rather, “Look into my eyes, then tell me you don’t see yourself”—a distinction that separates hacks from artists. The movie’s ultimate endorsement of purification-through-savagery (boldfaced in a climactic close-up of a home invader’s leg getting chomped by one of David’s bear traps) is questionable to laughable; but it’s visualized without evasions or qualifiers, and the film’s characters are more psychologically complex than their thumbnail descriptions might suggest. (The still-notorious rape of David’s wife Amy, played by Susan George, does in fact depict a woman resisting a rapist and then succumbing to pleasure; but the rapist is her ex-lover, and when he’s done, and his friend assaults her, too, she is utterly horrified.) All these qualities make Straw Dogs disturbing and still worth arguing about.
Dirty Harry is slicker and and more simplistic, but it has a crude honesty that Friedkin’s film rarely musters. The movie’s straightforward, pre-Miranda definition of good police work is laid out in the scene where its snarling martyr hero explains the origin of his nickname: “Any dirty job that comes along.” He’s the police department’s pit bull; one Harry poster’s tag line promised, “You don’t assign him to murder cases…You just turn him loose!” The iconic image of Harry tossing his police ID in the mud after killing Scorpio was interpreted by many critics (and later, film historians) as a kind of mea culpa—an admission that Harry has besmirched his sworn duty to uphold the law but has enough self-awareness to realize it and enough decency to admit it in a gesture. I used to buy that reading, but I don’t anymore; it’s fundamentally at odds not just with Harry’s character, but with the movie, which ennobles and validates Harry at every turn. The film’s script stacks the deck in Harry’s favor whenever his tactics are called into question. When a superior reminds him that he was disciplined for shooting a rape suspect without first proving his intent, Harry says, “When a naked man is chasing a woman through an alley with a butcher knife and a hard-on, I figure he isn’t out collecting for the Red Cross.” There is not now, and never has been, a city or town anywhere in America where a cop would be disciplined for shooting someone fitting that description. That scene’s straw-man approach to vindicating Harry’s moral certitude is replicated on a grander scale in any scene that involves Scorpio, a cackling, effete, ransom-seeking beast who shoots citizens at random (but especially hates cops, blacks and priests—a trifecta of targets designed to make him loathsome to pretty much everyone).
Scorpio has a knack for political jiu-jitsu, a trait that raises him above a standard-issue psycho and makes him a law-and-order bogeyman. He turns society’s relatively recent commitment to protecting suspects’ constitutional rights (U.S. vs. Miranda was handed down in 1966) against it; and he carries out his campaign of terror in a left-leaning U.S. city that Nixon-era heartland conservatives considered even more deviant and debauched than New York. (Just desserts.) In the script’s lefty-baiting show-stopper, Scorpio hires a black thug to beat him up, then goes on the local news claiming Harry did it. Message: criminals don’t just deserve to be beaten by cops, they expect it, and since they’re going to falsely claim police brutality anyway, they can be roughed up with a clear conscience. (“I didn’t beat him up,” Harry snarls. “He looks too good.”) Harry’s lonely quest for true justice (pursued even after his superiors take him off the case) defines social liberals as enablers of bug-eyed mass murderers. The movie is asking, “Do you really want to protect this scumbag’s rights?”—a question that has to be answered “No” because we’ve seen objective proof that Scorpio is a sniveling, hateful freak, a bug fit for squashing. There’s no way that Harry wouldn’t believe he did the right and necessary thing. When he chucks his police ID, he’s not censuring himself, he’s divorcing himself from the compromised institutions he once was proud to represent. His sullen walk-out (magically erased in the sequels) expressed Vietnam-era conservatives’ overpowering feelings of alienation and despair—their pervasive fear that the country they called the United States been taken over by bureaucrats and sissies who prized hippie idealism over common sense. Its cartoon fervor is rooted in political reality. By the film’s logic, Harry hasn’t failed society; society has failed him.
Straw Dogs is morally and philosophically suspect from frame one, Dirty Harry even more so—Pauline Kael’s infamous one-line summary of Straw Dogs, “the first fascist masterpiece” actually fits Siegel’s film better—but like John Milius’ right-wing militia fantasy Red Dawn, both movies are brilliant works of provocation. They have incendiary viewpoints and articulate them with panache. The French Connection says close to nothing while pretending to tell us every manner of harsh truth—which probably explains why it’s the most influential panel in 1971’s caveman triptych.
On on this point, it’s impossible to ignore Kael’s review of the movie, titled “Urban Gothic.” After an introductory section describing how New York lured Hollywood filmmakers with tax breaks, and how Vietnam-and-riot-era filmmakers responded by cranking out exploitation-influenced movies that fed off of the city’s then-ominous seediness, Kael writes that audience were no longer 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 theater and kicking at the seats. And now an extraordinarily well-made thriller gets the audience sky-high and keeps it 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.’”
Kael was right to call out Friedkin for having no purpose beyond goosing the audience; her coup de grace is her citation of the scene where Popeye and his partner talk to colleagues at an accident scene that’s in the movie mainly so that the director can show us a close-up of the accident victims’ blood-smeared faces. Although she didn’t give Friedkin enough credit for craftsmanship—besides the car chase and the scene where Devereaux evades Popeye on the subway platform, the film is filled with absorbing lesser setpieces, including the cops’ early information-gathering visit to a nightclub, the first part of which plays out in documentary-style observational shots, without audible dialogue—she identified the essence of his filmmaking, which was to shock the eyes and ears rather than engage the imagination. “You don’t have to be original or ingenious to work on the audience in this way,” Kael wrote, “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.”
Nat Segaloff’s Friedkin biography, Hurricane Billy—excerpted in Film Forum’s press notes—quotes the director recounting his original meeting with Popeye’s real-life inspiration, NYPD detective Eddie Egan, who went on to become a technical adviser for movies and TV shows. “The first week I met Egan, he said to me, ’No matter how long you stay with me or how well you get to know me, you’ll find there’s only three things about me that you need to know: I drink beer, I fuck broads, and I break heads,’” Friedkin said. “He was right. There’s very little else to the guy.’” That Friedkin’s movie adopts the thickheaded mentality of its lead character ultimately seems less clever than underachieving. The movie doesn’t connect Popeye’s viciousness to the culture or the time, or even to the immediate setting, nor does it look beneath Popeye’s hard shell in order to figure out what drove him and tease it out on screen. Siegel and Clint Eastwood did all of these things with Harry Callahan, whose wry sense of humor and widower’s isolation humanize him even as his lethal temperament connects him to a long line of mythic movie gunfighters, detectives and psychopaths. (Like Popeye, Harry is a casual racist, but the emphasis is on “casual”—it’s just a part of his character, and the movie doesn’t use Harry’s bigotry to shock and titillate the audience, as Friedkin does throughout The French Connection.) Siegel’s movie has a person at its center rather than a furious abstraction; that’s part of the reason it can withstand repeat viewings.
“I remember going to Italy when [The French Connection] opened and being told by a group of journalists that it was the most pro-fascist film they’d ever seen,” Friedkin told Nat Segaloff. “That certainly wasn’t my intention. Then I’d come back to America and hear from people like the American Civil Liberties Union that it was really showing the cops for what they were: a bunch of thugs who shouldn’t be let loose with guns, breaking heads. And I thought the film was even-handed.” Being even-handed isn’t the same thing as having no discernible opinion on anything, but the movie doesn’t make that distinction.
Popeye is only worth watching to see what crazy, hateful thing he’ll do next. The movie invites us along on his petty power trips, and it frames his antisocial tendencies—signified by his cruddy little bachelor pad in a housing project, his set-’em-up-and-lay-’em-down attitude towards his casually objectified one-night stand, and his apparent lack of any human warmth—as signs of a Spartan mindset and fodder for male viewers’ fantasy identification. (How much do you want to bet that the women that the real Eddie Egan nailed weren’t one-tenth as young and gorgeous as the one Popeye brings home in the movie?) Popeye is a potentially tragic, fascinating character, but the movie just follows him around as if he were a carnivore in a wildlife documentary. Hackman is a magnetic goon, to be sure, but his Best Actor Oscar seems in retrospect like a poor choice, because the movie gives us no insight into Doyle and Hackman doesn’t really do anything to mitigate that. Michael Mann’s closed-off macho men are much more expressive; so are Peckinpah’s heroes. Another famous Kael putdown, her description of Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Rainman as the equivalent of a musician humping one note on a piano for two hours, could easily apply to Hackman here. He’s one of American movies’ most durable character leads, but I can think of few Hackman performances that are less interesting than his work as Popeye, which consists mainly of scowling, yelling, smirking and chewing gum. (Scheider, playing nursemaid to Hackman’s drama queen manliness, is subtler and more recognizably human; he plays Buddy like a prisoner who got stuck with a crazy cell mate and resolved to make the best of it.)
In the end, what does the movie stand for, and what, if anything, is it saying about cops, drugs, New York, masculinity, movies or anything else? Not much. It’s a hustle. The off-screen gunshot that ends the movie—literally capping the moment where Popeye accidentally and needlessly shoots one of his own colleagues and then keeps going as if he had merely stubbed his toe—epitomizes the film’s smash-and-grab attitude toward film technique.
“If they’re talking about what something means in a movie, usually you’ve got a movie that people will want to see,” Segaloff quotes Friedkin telling the American Film Institute in 1974. “Example: the obelisk in 2001. People went around for years sitting around McDonald’s, cocktail parties in Bel Air, saying, ’What the hell is the obelisk?’ And that’s why I put the gunshot at the end of The French Connection. It simply means that the movie ends with a bang. That’s all. It wasn’t in any script and I did it in the dubbing room on the day before I left as a kind of a joke. I said, ’Let’s put a gunshot in the exchange.’ So we stuck it in there and just let it go.”
This is an astonishing quote. Friedkin comes right out and admits that he aped the conventions of ambiguous ’60s and ’70s movies (including intentionally muddled plotting, a tactic that led Mad magazine to title its parody of the movie, What’s the Connection??!?) not because they necessarily suited the material, but because that’s what was fashionable at the time. It’s the sort of film that doesn’t say to the audience, “Draw your own conclusions,” but rather, “What would you like me to be saying?” The French Connection’s transparent wish to be all things to all people, at such pace and volume that you don’t notice that the director is a one-man focus group, makes it one of the most influential movies of the ’70s—and not in a good way.