Just watched The French Connection. Admittedly, I rented it for the chase scene, and otherwise expected a dated, unremarkable cop drama, but this film delivers far more than I thought it would. It’s high-budget film noir, gritty and street-smart. The main character, played by Gene Hackman, was a shockingly violent, racist, misogynistic narc detective, whom I hated immediately, yet clever pacing and artful cinematography involved me in his life and work as closely as if I were sitting in the back seat of the police car.
And the soundtrack! I’m supposed to be a stodgy traditionalist; I normally hate abrupt, brassy dissonance; yet somehow, the atonal clangs, bangs, and growls of this film drew me into the gritty context. Even in its absence, the soundtrack is engaging: where Doyle chases the sniper towards the elevated trains, there is no music; just the sounds of running and breathing, which bring you right to the street — the work of director Bill Friedkin’s “documentary” effect.
New Yorkers will enjoy this one, especially: the whole film was shot in actual locations in the city, no sets or studios. As an added bonus for me, a Washingtonian, a single scene is set in DC, on the National Mall in front of the Capitol. With the exception of the missing American Indian Museum, DC in 1971 looks exactly the same as it always has. And you know how much Salvatore Capo paid for a ticket from La Guardia to Washington? $54. Yeah.
Co-star Roy Scheider calls this the standard to which the genre is held, and I think I agree with him. Three decades later, The French Connection still works. (Note: It’s not for everyone, though: Doyle uses just about every possible racial epithet I know, there’s a brief flash of female nudity — not counting the deleted bondage-whipping scene — and the whole thing is rather violent and bloody in places.)