Monday, December 9, 2013

Dark Matters: The Films of William Friedkin

The PFA had a William Friedkin series in September.  There were six films in the series.  I had seen three of the films within the past few years (To Live and Die in L.A., Cruising & Killer Joe).  The remaining three films interested me to varying.

I was most anxious to Sorcerer (1977) which was a remake of The Wages of Fear.  However, on the day of the screening, they changed locations.  It screened at the Landmark California Theater.  I wasn't sure if that was because it had sold out (Friedkin was in attendance) and I didn't want to waste a trip to Berkeley if the film was sold out so I skipped the screening.  I later learned the change of venue was due to plumbing problem or something and there were plenty of seats.  C'est la vie.

The Boys in the Band (1970) didn't really interest me and I was working that day.  I do regret missing the second film on the PFA schedule that day - The Big Knife which was part of the Wendell Corey series.

The only film swa one film in the Friedkin series.

The French Connection starring Gene Hackman, Roy Scheider & Fernando Rey; directed by William Friedkin; some French with subtitles; (1971)

I have seen The French Connection before but never in a movie theater and it has been several years.

The French Connection is set in 1970s New York.  The main character is NYPD narcotics detective Popeye Doyle.  Trivia:  Popeye's Fried Chicken is named after Popeye Doyle.

Doyle is a piece of work - casually racist, borderline alcoholic and anger management issues.  He is also a tenacious detective who isn't above breaking the rules which in contemporary terms would be called violating a suspect's civil rights.  The film follows a drug smuggling case from soups to nuts.  Doyle and his partner Cloudy Russo (Roy Scheider) chase down a suspect.  The scenes was noteworthy for me because it vividly made clear the urban decay in New York.  They chase him down to alley way with garbage strewn about and a fire in an open top metal barrel.  He gives up his connection.

Later Doyle & Russo observe Sal Boca (Tony Lo Bianco) at the Copa.  Interacting with known criminals and driving an expensive car, Doyle is convinced they are onto something big.  Meanwhile in Marseilles,  Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) is a major heroin smuggler.  He enlists a television personality to smuggle heroin into the US by hiding it in his car.

As Doyle works his way up the food chain from Boca, Charnier arrives in New York to sell the heroin.  He falls onto Doyle's radar screen and is put under surveillance in an entertaining sequence where Charnier knows he's being followed by Doyle and Doyle knows Charnier knows he's being followed.

The French Connection has aspects of a procedural as much of the film covers the mundane.  The film is punctuated by Doyle's outbursts.  The most famous scene is car chases which takes place after Charnier's henchman (Marcel Bozzuffi) attempts to assassinate him.  Pumped on adrenaline and enraged, Doyle chases an elevated train which the assassin has hijacked.  Foreshadowing the car chases from To Live and Die in LA, the sequence is still exciting 40 years later.

The ending has always intrigued me.  Doyle leads a police raid to arrest all the major players.  Charnier makes a run for it.  Doyle & Russo chase him into a abandoned building.  Unknown to them, an FBI agent enters the building a few minutes behind them.  Doyle breaks the number one rule of gun safety.  Only shoot at what you can see.  Doyle shoots at movement and kills the agent with whom he had a documented animus.  Doyle doesn't concerned about the incident; Doyle & Russo don't even bother to call for an ambulance.  Instead, Doyle hears movement, goes into another room and the audience hears a gunshot offscreen.  We are left to wonder who fired the shot and if the shot found its mark.  If Doyle survived, what were the consequences of him shooting the FBI agent.

Actually, these questions were resolved in the sequel directed by John Frankenheimer:  French Connection II (1975).  I've never seen that film but given that Hackman and Rey reprised their roles, we can assume that both Doyle & Charnier survived the final gunshot in The French Connection.  I tend to think of The French Connection as a stand alone film and like the ambiguous ending.

The French Connection was one of the most celebrated films of its era.  The film won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor.   Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The film captures that gritty 1970s feel which ultimately resulted in New York City's bankruptcy.  Devoid of the outlandish fashion of the later part of the decade, the film doesn't look quite as dated as some films from the 70s.  Doyle wears a pork pie hat which reminded me of Buster Keaton's hat.

The French Connection was as outstanding as I remember it.  That's actually quite a compliment because my experience has been that many films don't stand up to repeat viewings.

No comments: